Salvation by works. That’s a phrase that is anathema to baptists the world round. Instead, the rallying cry is sola fide, by faith alone. But what if that wasn’t the message of Jesus? We are, I presume, all familiar with what James has to say about the relationship between works and salvation.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says the them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2.14-17)
James doesn’t mince his words. Yet, he does not discount faith entirely, but instead advocates the coupling of faith and works. Of course, even so, it is easy for many to ignore James because it isn’t the words of Jesus and still proclaim sola fide. But as I recently reread Luke I was struck by the exchange between Jesus and a lawyer that prompts the story of the Good Samaritan.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” (Luke 10.25-28)
So the question is how does one inherit eternal life and when the lawyer repeats the “Greatest Commandment” Jesus’ response is “do this, and you will live.” Is this not “salvation by works?”
To be sure, we can attempt to parse out the difference between doing and loving, as the crux of this “Greatest Commandment” is to love God and to love one’s neighbor. Nevertheless, we must recognize that the parable of the Good Samaritan comes on the heels of the lawyer asking how to inherit eternal life and then who counts as his “neighbor.” What is more, the parable of the Good Samaritan is, at base, about what this Samaritan does. And Jesus’ parting command to the lawyer is “Go and do likewise.”
How then are we, as Christians generally and as baptists specifically, to understand the disparate views presented here in Luke and those presented in the much more well-known John 3.16 (“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”)? Is one passage inherently more worthy of serving as a basis for our soteriology? If so, which one? And why?