Faith and Morality

March 7, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Right and WrongOn this blog, I have written at length on moral issues.  I believe, quite firmly, that morality has a helpful role to play in the public square and, therefore, moral questions should be discussed and debated and moral standards should be regarded as useful and necessary for and in society.  For all my support public morality, however, there is a part of public morality that I find terrifying.  Here’s what I mean.

There can be little doubt that the experiment of societal moral relativism has failed. Throwing off the shackles of a transcendent and traditional morality for a culturally conditioned and convenient one that ultimately assumes that there is only amorality never got us Thomas Hobbes’ Epicurean dream.  It just left us Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich nightmare.  Leviathan, it turns out, wasn’t nearly as competent to do its job as Hobbes thought.

Moral relativism, then, can be quite deadly.  It does no society any good because, by definition, it is utterly individualistic.  And individuals, left to their own devices, seem to come up with awfully immoral relative moralities.  A traditional and transcendent morality is needed to order society in such a way that we do not (A) wind up killing each other, and (B) actually do some things that are helpful for each other. For these reasons, as well as for many others, public morality is needed.

But at the same time a traditional and transcendent public morality is needed, it is also terrifying.

Once a month, I teach a Bible study at a local business.  This year, I am working through the book of James when, a while back, I came to these famous words:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

As a Lutheran, James’ trumpeting of moral works as important to faith can sometimes arouse in me an almost allergic reaction!  As an avid reader of all things Pauline, I know that works do not help faith.  Indeed, I know that works can actually be in opposition to faith:

[We] know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)

“Faith” and “works,” Paul says, do not mix when it comes to salvation.

Of course, James’ point is not that works somehow help faith when it comes to salvation, but that faith results in works that flow from salvation.  A saving faith, James argues, is inevitably an active faith.  Indeed, James would go so far to argue that a saving faith that is not an active faith is not even faith.  To quote his brother’s words: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16).  A faith that does not result in moral works does not exist.  Such a faith is a myth that belongs on the shelf with unicorns, leprechauns, and that time your mom told you that if you swallow your gum, it will stay in your stomach for seven years.

This is why, at the same time I believe public morality is needed, I am also terrified by it.  A faith without moral works is impossible.  James says so.  Christians should not be frightened, therefore, to declare moral works as “necessary” to faith.  What is frightening, however, is that the inverse does not hold true.  Moral works may be necessary to faith, but faith is not necessary for moral works.  One can be very moral and still be very damned.  And herein lies the good and the bad of public morality.  Public morality helps others.  It may even help you.  But it doesn’t help you before God.  Only faith can help you before the Almighty.

Even as I continue to argue for the merits of public morality if for no other reason than that I’m not a big fan of the Third Reich, I will continue to serve proudly as a pastor to point people toward faith in Jesus Christ.  I like morality that comes from faith a lot better than morality that is divorced from faith.  The second morality may be nice for society, but the first receives a “well done” in eternity.

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Wrong and Wrong-er Pain, Suffering, and Morality

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