By Jim Barringer
I never believed in the concept of a “life verse” before I became a high school teacher, and I thought it was borderline blasphemy to say that any one verse of the Bible was more important than any other. However, I have since altered my stance on this important doctrinal issue, and find myself quoting Proverbs 22:15 to myself with great frequency: “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.” In other words, you can’t get too mad at a child for doing something stupid, because he can’t help it; he was born with foolishness in his heart, and until the rod of discipline drives it out of him, he’s kind of stuck.
I say all this so you’ll understand why I could take it in stride when one of my students broke the door into my classroom. I was at the tail of the line while the class was coming back from chapel, and this fellow, at the front of the line, thought it would be hilarious to block the door so no one could go inside. He was wrong, oh so very wrong, and his parents had to pay the four hundred dollars to have the door fixed. Thankfully, the classroom has two doors, so I put a sign on the broken one directing students to the other door, with the following philosophical question: “Is a door which will not open, and through which no one can pass, still a door?” After all, it still has a knob and hinges, and is still a separate piece of wood, right? On the other hand, if it cannot function as a door, then practically speaking, it is part of the wall, isn’t it? And what does all this have to do with Christianity?
Your answer to the door question hinges (har har) on whether you believe that identity is a function of being or a function of doing. The “being” school would say, “Of course it’s still a door.” Nothing fundamentally changed with regard to the door’s composition – it is still a piece of wood with hinges and a knob, and that is what a door is, regardless of whether it’s open or closed, or whether it can possibly open or close. If you saw a rusted-out car sitting on someone’s lawn, with four wheels and an engine, you would obviously still consider it a car, even if it wasn’t capable of running. It doesn’t magically stop being a car simply if it won’t go. So we can see that identity clearly stems from what an object is, from the area of being.
Or does it? The “doing” school would observe that I consider myself a teacher. But what if I was laid off from my job as a teacher? Would I still be a teacher if I was unemployed? Not in any meaningful sense of the term. What about if I was later hired to do a different job, such as cook? Would I still be a teacher if I was not merely not teaching, but actively doing a different function instead? In other words, fulfilling the function of a teacher is required for an person to be considered a teacher. Fulfilling the function of a door is the only thing that makes an object into a door, rather than a piece of scrap wood or a wall. So we can see that identity clearly stems from what an object does, from the area of doing.
This tension plays itself out most obviously in the Christian life when we begin to examine the relationship between faith and works. Scripture teaches, as plainly as it teaches anything at all, that our salvation is the result of faith – that is, of “being” – not of works, or “doing.” Ephesians 2:8-9 could not possibly make this contrast any clearer: “It is by grace that you have been saved, and that not of yourselves; it is a gift of God, not of works, so that no one can boast.” Elsewhere Paul explains that when we are saved, the transaction that takes place involves God removing our sins from us (Romans 3:25, echoed in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10) and, in trade, giving us the perfect righteousness of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). My friend Joel Engle calls this “the great exchange” – you give up your sinfulness and get Christ’s holiness. What I’d like to point out is that the fundamental change done in you at the time of salvation is in the area of “being.” You have stopped “being” a sinner and begun “being” a person who is forgiven by God. Your salvation is complete before you ever do your first good deed. So it would appear that God comes down on the “being” side of the debate.
But it says something about our own cultural bias toward oversimplification that we frequently think the answer has to be one and not the other. With God, the answer – whatever the question – is often both. Although your identity stems from who you are, it is also intimately tied to what you do. This is why John, with no logical or theological contradiction, can say, “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar and the Truth [Jesus] is not in him,” just five verses before explaining that Christ was the propitiation (total payment) for our sins. This is also why James, in his famous discourse on faith and works, argues, “Faith without works is dead.” At the end of the day, you really can’t separate them. They’re not actually two different things, the way we try to make them when we explain the tension as “faith” and “works,” but rather they’re two strands in the same rope, and if you lack one, then you lack rope, and all you have is string.
See, the question about the door’s identity did not exist before the door broke. As long as there was no disconnect between the door’s identity (a piece of wood with hinges and a knob) and its function (opening and closing to allow or disallow entry into a room), we all knew it was a door and there was no problem. The problem only arose when the door stopped doing what it was supposed to be doing, and we were left with, at best, half a door, which looks the part but cannot act the part.
Likewise, the tension between faith and works only exists in a Christian’s life when he is broken, when there is some disconnect between his identity and his function. Although your salvation is independent from your good works, it is not unrelated. A Christian who claims salvation, claims the identity, while not upholding the function is a broken Christian, half a Christian in the same way that I now have half a door. It doesn’t mean he isn’t saved, but it does mean he isn’t good for very much and might as well not be a Christian at all, in the same way that my broken door might as well be part of the wall. On a fundamental level, you cannot separate your being from your doing. You are both, and if there is ever a disconnect between them, that is a symptom of a very serious spiritual fracture that only the intervention of God can heal.
As I close, let me put two thoughts into your head. The first is a plea not to confuse “good works” with “avoiding sin.” Many Christians, myself included, find ourselves crushed by the inability to overcome a certain sin, and we feel as if this makes us a bad Christian. You must understand: Christ has paid for all your sins, past, present, and future. “There is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Your sins have nothing to do with this discussion. God will purify you from the inside in his good time; you cannot simply choose to stop sinning, because the whole reason you need salvation is that your spirit is not strong enough to stop sinning when it pleases. His Spirit is, and you will be cleansed whenever his Spirit decides to show up. “Doing good deeds” is totally different from “avoiding sins.” God is talking about going out of your way to show his love in very deliberate ways, to trust him in new ways, to take risks for him, to serve in his body. That is a “good work” of the kind of speaks about.
The second thought is that you may be wanting to know what kind of good works you should do. The answer is that I can’t tell you because I didn’t plan them out for you. Ephesians 2:10 – literally the next verse after Paul explains that salvation is by grace through faith alone – he adds, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which he has prepared in advance for us to do.” Did you catch that? God has already planned good works for you. He’s already created the people who you’re going to minister to, already overseen the needs you’re going to meet, even kept other people from meeting those needs because he’s saving that spot for you. If you’re serious about doing good deeds, pray hard that God will show you the good works he created in advance for you to do. Then, keep praying as you go through the day, and when you see any good deed you can possibly do, pounce on that like a lion on a three-legged antelope. Make sure there is no disconnect between who you are and what you do.
Also, as a final aside, be on the lookout for the spiritual significance in the small things throughout your day. Who knew that a broken door could prompt a lengthy essay on faith and works? “In all things” – no matter how tiny – “God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:29).
Jim Barringer is a writer, musician, and teacher serving at The Church of Life (.com) in Orlando, FL. More of his work can be found at facebook.com/jmbarringer.
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