Last week was Reformation Day (October 31st) and All Saints Day (November 1st). That the two fall next to each other is a fact of history– Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg, Germany on October 31st. But this year I have pondered the theological connection between the two days.
The doctrine central to the Protestant Reformation is justification by faith. There is nothing we do to earn God’s favor. We have already received the favor of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Salvation is offered to us as a gift. All we have to do is accept it. Our faith in Jesus Christ is what puts us in right relationship with God– nothing more, nothing less.
As a Protestant, I affirm the words of Martin Luther, “We are saved by faith alone.” As a Wesleyan, I struggle with how Protestants have often preached that faith in a way that what we believe in our heads is somehow completely divorced from our works, from how we live the life of faith. John Wesley writes,
We are doubtless justified by faith. This is the cornerstone of the whole Christian building. We are justified without the works of the law as any previous condition of justification. But they are an immediate fruit of that faith by which we are justified. So that if good works do not follow our faith, even all inward and outward holiness, it is plain our faith is worth nothing; we are yet in our sins. That we are justified by faith, even by our faith without works, is therefore no ground for making void the law through faith, or for imagining that faith is a dispensation from any kind or degree of holiness (“The Law Established Through Faith,” Discourse 1,” II.6).
In a Hebraic context faith and faithfulness are interwoven together and cannot be separated without one doing damage to the other. Yes, what we believe matters. I reject the doctrinal knownothingism of much current Mainline Protestantism. History is replete with examples of how wrong beliefs acted on in sincerity have caused much pain and misery. But faithfulness is what reveals our faith in the first place. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer forcefully said many decades ago, “The one who believes obeys. The one who does not obey cannot believe.”
It is All Saints Day that brings the cry of the Reformation into focus. We often read Hebrews 11 on that day, a chapter that has been referred to as the Great Hall of Faith. These great figures from the Old Testament lived by faith. How do we know they lived by faith? We know because of what they did.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance…. By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac…. By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict…. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
Their faithfulness demonstrated their faith. In the great canonical epistle of the Reformation, the Book of Romans, Paul states, “For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (4:3). Yes, Paul makes it clear that Abraham was not justified by works, but contrary to what many have suggested, Paul is not referring to good works, but to the practices that marked Israel off as God’s people– circumcision, food laws, Sabbath observance. How did Paul know that Abraham believed God? He acted and went west to the place God had prepared for him. Had Abraham not acted, he would not have believed God.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God (12:1-2).
The life of faith continues with the faithful in the twenty-first century. The great cloud of witnesses cheer us on as we now write the addendum to Hebrews 11– “By faith Mary… By faith Charlie… By faith Megan… By faith Gary…” We believe and therefore obey. Martin Luther reminds us in his Introduction to his commentary on Romans, “Faith is an active and vital thing.”
That was true five hundred years ago. It is still true today. Faith and faithfulness must not be separated.