Reconceiving Faith & Works in Paul

At several points in the conference on Galatians last week, discussions touched on the relationship between faith and works.

It’s fairly typical to imagine that the opposing pair of “faith” and “works” has everything to do with the supposed absolute dichotomy between inward faith and outward action.  Many assume that when Paul commends faith, he is endorsing human passive reception or human inaction.

And when he disapproves of works or “works of law,” he is condemning human action or human intentionality.

There’s an assumed ideological conception at work here, however, and it’s not a good one.  That assumption is that the soteriological stage is something like a zero-sum game, with the sum total of all acting—divine and human—adding up to one hundred.

To allow for human action at all involves the marginalizing of divine action to some extent, however small.  So, if we allow for even one or two percent of the sum total to be credited to humans, we have capitulated to “legalism,” “synergism,” and are diminishing God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation.

The assumption is that any and all human acting gets in the way of God’s saving action in human affairs, minimizing God’s stage presence to whatever extent.

This conception dominates Western theological visions of the relation of divine and human acting in general, and especially when it comes to salvation.

In my opinion, this conception is mistaken.  It leads to a misreading of Paul, especially in Galatians and Romans, and it makes a mess of Paul’s discussions of the Mosaic Law and obedience.

Divine action and human action are not set over-against each other in Scripture nor in Paul’s thought-world.  Paul imagines the contrast differently.

On one hand, he conceives of holistic human action that makes room for God to act, and, on the other, holistic human action that marginalizes divine action, or seeks to manipulate God in some way.

Or, we could say it this way; there are actions, behaviors, and patterns of conduct that draw upon and radiate God’s presence and power, and there are kinds of actions and patterns of conduct that marginalize and diminish God’s presence and power.

There is human action that invites and allows God to act and that puts God on display.  And there is human action that manipulates results, seeks to force God’s hand, and ends up eclipsing God’s presence and action.

Paul is not nearly as allergic to human action as are many evangelicals, shaped as we are by a mixture of our Reformation heritage and divided-up conceptions of the individual.

Evangelicals—people who ought to be shaped more by Scripture than any human tradition—ought to develop a new vocabulary and a new grammar to speak of faith, works, and obedience  so that we do not downgrade that which Paul lauds, or oppose two things Paul regards as near synonyms.

15 thoughts on “Reconceiving Faith & Works in Paul

  1. Chris

    The Catholic Church describes the relationship between works and grace in this way… “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator. The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 2007)
    What are your thoughts on the role works play in sanctification?

    1. timgombis


      I’m not a systematician, so the significance of some of these formulations may pass me by. I’m very happy with the divine initiative and God’s fatherly relation, but I do not like the setting of human action as ‘subsequent’ to God’s initiative. It seems that in Scripture, and in Paul, human action is carried out in obedience to divine (life-giving) commands, and humans respond to those. We find out subsequently that all our acting is done by God’s grace, driven and upheld by his power. So, it’s not first God and then humans, but humans act and it is God empowering from first to last.

      Like Calvin, actually, and probably many others in various Christian traditions, I would see this same arrangement at work in the initial response to God at salvation and following all through Christian existence. So, it isn’t that justification is by one sort of faith/works arrangement with sanctification having another one.

      Your thoughts?

      1. Chris Zajdzinski


        We agree God empowers man’s action from first to last and that all of our acting is driven and upheld by grace. When you say all of man’s subsequent acting is done by grace, do you mean it is independent of the will?
        The Catholic tradition teaches Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man. To this end, man’s free actions, made possible by grace, will categorize him as a “sheep or a goat”.

      2. timgombis

        No, just because our response to God and our obedience is empowered by God’s grace does not mean it is independent of the will. The will is fully engaged and God’s power is fully at work. On an ANE conception of things, there’s no need to imagine that just because this aspect is at work (e.g., human will), that God’s grace isn’t at work. That’s what I’m trying to get at–the notion that if it’s this, it can’t be that. Scripture doesn’t see various dynamics in competition.

      3. timgombis

        I’m just not sure what is gained with that formulation. I think I can understand its theological angle, but what gives me pause is taking the relationship out of Paul’s ancient near eastern matrix of thought and inserting it into a much later one. I’d have to know what’s lost and what’s gained, and I’m not sure it’s worth making that theological move.

      4. Chris Zajdzinski

        Since my Christian formation occurred outside of the western rite of Catholicism, I understand your hesitation with the Latin understanding of justification and inherent righteousness. I have a difficulty reconciling the eastern thought of being declared righteous with the reality of future judgment and the separation of the sheep and goats. Would you consider this topic for a future post?

      5. timgombis

        Perhaps, Chris, we’ll see. One of the challenges is that there are a number of metaphors in the Gospels (i.e., sheep & goats), and others in which Paul trades. So, since each author is holding the tension between “already” aspects of salvation and “not yet” aspects in different ways, there’s lots of trouble when anyone flattens all the metaphors out into a systematic treatment. And then to do so in a very different ideological climate (21st cent. Western viz. 1st cent. Oriental) creates even more problems. It’s a big topic, but I just may get into it shortly. Studying and writing on Galatians, and teaching it for the next six months may afford that opportunity.

  2. bobmacdonald

    Did the conference explore this tension using examples from TNK to illustrate Paul’s insistence that Spirit is more important than sacrifice (e.g. Psalms 49-51)?

    1. timgombis

      No, Bob, which is unfortunate. It seems to me that’s the starting point–how human action and divine action are related in the Scriptures.

      Sadly, it seems that we start with late Western conceptions of the divided-up individual and metaphors for the relation of divine and human action that rule out approximating how Scripture relates them. The result–i.e., the history of the Western church–is lots and lots of trouble.

    1. timgombis

      Believe me, I do understand the risks, pressures, and challenges! Of course, I’m not at a school (and in a denomination) stocked with people who just can’t wait to get to the next heresy trial, like Shephard, poor fellow.

  3. Patrick

    It is unclear to me what I need to do to be with God forever then.

    I’ve believed. I’ve been good, I’ve been terrible and all in between.

    I am as confident as Paul was of my relationship with Christ though.

    1. timgombis

      Followers of Jesus are those who will participate in the life to come–those who receive God’s forgiveness and love through following Jesus and loving others.

  4. Pingback: Deep Creek Anglican Church Blog » Divine action and human action

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