Try an experiment that I lived for a decade: Get out a legal pad. Write out all of the scripture references from the concordance that refer to salvation by grace. Then write out all the commands to do good works. Try to sort out the difference between ceremonial law and and moral law.
Work on drafts of precise ways to articulate the fact that somehow God saves and loves people no matter what we do, and the fact that the same God tells us to serve others and love others in order to be healed.
Don’t go out and serve anyone until you figure out your exact “position” on this. And then condemn everyone who formulates a slightly different “position.” Not too fun really.
Paul seems to say that good works have no relationship to faith. James seems concerned that we will disconnect faith from works. Both are fathers of our faith, writing letters that are the inspired, canonical Scriptures of our Faith. Come on, guys!! Can we get some more clarity here?
Editing St. Paul
In Christian School, we had to memorize Ephesians 2:8-9. But we never had to memorize verse 10 even though it is obviously a part of Paul’s original intent! Why? Well, decide for yourself:
(8)For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,  not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (ESV)
Our teachers were understandably afraid that we would think that we have to do good works to earn salvation or please God. Yet instead of exposing us to the whole passage, they took the Thomas Jefferson approach and snipped it down to avoid the tension.
Yet it is there.
Formulations of Grace and Works
Eventually I came to realize that this puzzle has been argued about, dissected, fought over, and divided over for thousands of year. It is extremely important that we keep puzzling over it, talking about it, and seeking a deeper understanding. I’m the last person who would advocate for a cease fire in respectful dialogue.
I’m glad for the reformational re-discovery of the doctrines of grace. I’m also thankful for the good works that Christians of every tradition are doing today in the name of Christ. And I can understand why other churches formulate their understanding of this relationship differently than mine does.
We are saved by grace though faith, and we are also created for good works. We can ponder this forever! And meanwhile, we can both thank God for his free, unmerited favor and salvation while also serving, loving, and helping our neighbors as we would help ourselves.
Another Way of Knowing
This is because there is another way of knowing, besides study and logical argument. There is the way of knowing that Jesus speaks of when he says, “If you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it to me.” We can know Jesus more deeply by spending time with the least – the least powerful, the least wealthy, the least esteemed. We learn in the school of doing.
There is always the danger of spiritual busyness. Trying to do, do, do and stay busy. So busy serving that we lose ourselves and we hide from the quiet places where the Holy Spirit reveals our hearts. Yes, we can use service to avoid God.
And we can become filled with Spiritual Pride. Let me re-phrase that. We are filled with spiritual pride. Yet the way to address this pride is to keep going lower in our service, not to abandon it.
We can slow down, ask the Holy Spirit to examine our hearts, seek the support and help of a spiritual director or wise mentor, and continue on serving others in the name of Christ.
We don’t have to have all our motives, theology, and strategies figured out before we take a grieving neighbor a meal, or serve at the local homeless shelter, or receive training to be an advocate or a tutor or a translator. We can learn about Christ, and ourselves, in the doing. And in some mysterious way, this is a part of our own healing and transformation.
Doing While Wondering
I’m still on this journey of learning. I certainly haven’t given up pondering the mysteries of grace and works. Our minds were made by God to wonder and seek truth. But I’ve become more free from the notion that I have to stake out a position before I can serve. I’m starting to try to learn about grace by doing works, and learn about works by receiving grace.
So join me in seeking to ponder and serve at the same time. Grace, works, faith, service, love, God, you, me, the poor, the needy, our neighbors and our communities. Put it all in blender and then you will taste and see that the Lord is good!