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All God’s prophets have brought the message of love. None has ever thought that war and hate are good. Everyone agrees in saying that love and kindness are best. Love manifests its reality in deeds, not only in words — these alone are without effect. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 35.
Readers might have often heard the statement that “faith without works is dead.” I heard it often from the pulpit as a child, and just as often wondered what it meant – especially in context with the common assertion that no action (work) we as Christians might take would contribute to our spiritual salvation. As a Christian friend put it: “All we have to do is listen and be attuned to Him through His Word.”
Listening is obviously a good start. A Jewish wise man once noted that when we pray we are talking to God and when we read His Word we are listening to His answer. The Word of God (both the spoken Word and the Word made flesh) are critical to our spiritual education and to our transformation from creatures of clay into beings of light.
Mr. Spock has noted that logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end. I think the same thing is true of faith; faith is the beginning of salvation, not the end. According to scripture (and I include the teachings of all the Prophetic Voices in that category), we must do more than listen; what we hear must impel us to act. The Apostle James writes that “faith without works is dead”, not that faith without works is mostly dead or that it’s slightly ailing but still acceptable to God. He says it is dead — deceased, departed and no longer alive.
Christ tells His disciples the same thing in the Garden of Gethsemane when, in the 15th chapter of John, He says that they must remain in His love, and that to do that, they must obey His commandment to “Love one another.”
He also tells them what will happen if they do not obey that commandment:
If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. – John 15:6.
That seems a rather clear spiritual If/Then statement: If you do not do what it takes to abide in Christ, Then you no longer abide in Christ. You become a withered, dead branch, no longer spiritually alive.
My friend argued that “God’s blessings are not dependent upon our works, but upon His love. We didn’t do anything to deserve them, so we can’t do anything to un-deserve them.”
I was raised believing this as well, but the words of Jesus simply don’t support this belief.
In John 15:10, Jesus states: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” The metaphor He uses to illustrate what will happen to those who do not obey — who do not act on their professed faith — is strikingly clear: a branch cut off from the vine dies and is cast into the fire.
Many of His metaphors illustrate how our belief and behavior affect our connection to God (read the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens for a chilling prospect). In no context does Christ connect our salvation to believing in a particular doctrine or miracle. He connects salvation to how well we obey and love — by how well we “keep” His word.
This reading of Christ’s words answered a question I’d been asking myself for years which is: What does Christ mean when He says in John 12:48: “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day”? How can Christ’s word judge us?
In context, it seems to me that we are judged by how well we listen and act upon what we hear. As Christ says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.” (John 8:51)
So we can’t “keep” Christ’s word by just having faith in Him, we must bear fruit — we must act. Abdu’l-Baha, speaking during His time in the West, said “The attainment of any object is conditioned upon knowledge, volition and action. Unless these three conditions are forthcoming there is no execution or accomplishment.” In other words, faith without works is dead.
So, how did Christians come to believe that our attitudes and actions could never cause us to “un-deserve” salvation—that we could never fail in maintaining our connection to the Creator by putting other things ahead of obedience to His word? Was it wishful thinking on our part that salvation be so effortless, we could do nothing to affect it?
Ironically, even in that doctrine, a human being must do something to “deserve” abiding in Christ’s love and receiving the grace of God—he must believe that grace is possible.
Read the previous article in the Jesus Christ series – Jesus Christ: The Meaning of Sacrifice