There is a strand of thought in Christianity which supposes that each person, to be saved, is obliged to believe in Jesus as the Christ, wherein they will be judged righteous by God, with no reference to the lives they have led (i.e. their works). I think this is an oversimplification, failing to grasp either the defining significance of our lived lives, or the complex character of a believing faith. I also think the second reading in today’s liturgy, 1Pet 1.17-21, is awfully difficult to reconcile with such a soteriology.
3rd Sunday of Easter, Year A
Now if you invoke as Father him who judges impartially according to each one’s works, conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning, realizing that you were ransomed from your futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb.
He was known before the foundation of the world but revealed in the final time for you, who through him believe in God who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
1 Pet 1.17-21 (NAB)
Peter doesn’t seem to have any question in his mind that God has called us, in Christ, to live holy lives – in the verse (1Pet 1.16) just preceding this reading, he quotes Lev 19.2 saying “Be holy because I am holy” – and he treats as common knowledge in v.17 the assumption that God indeed judges, impartially, according to one’s works.
What he goes on to say next is as boldly empowering as anything a health & wealth gospel preacher on TV will come up with:
For you know that you were redeemed from your empty way of life inherited from the fathers
1 Pet 1.18 (HCSB)
The “empty way of life” (the Holman translation here echoing the anguished words of Jeremiah: “thus says the LORD: What fault did your fathers find in me that they withdrew from me, Went after empty idols, and became empty themselves?“ Jer 2:5 (NAB)) is the heritage of godless paganism, the “desires of your former ignorance (v.14)” that was the natural patrimony of these new gentile Christians. When Peter called them to be “holy in every aspect of your conduct (v.15), he did so with the knowledge that their supernatural Father had ransomed them from their empty, unholy desires – by the blood of Christ.
Peter does not merely tell us that we are ransomed from the consequences of our natural patrimony of sin, but that we are ransomed from the futile conduct itself, that is sin and idolatry – ransomed for the sake of holiness, that we might become living stones in God’s spiritual house, a holy priesthood (1Pet 2.5). This is an extraordinarily powerful statement that Peter makes about the meaning of a faith in Christ, intended to open the eyes of our minds to the depth of the wonder that God desires to see come to a full flowering in our lives – right now.
Why does God ransom us from sin and idolatry to live in the holiness of Christ, if in the blink of an eye, we will be rescued from the world to possess our eternal inheritance?
Because our part in the drama is to live those holy lives, through our “works” of every kind, so that the light of Christ might be made manifest in the world. Peter tell us (v.21) that Christ was revealed to us “who through him believe in God… so that [our] faith and hope are in God.” In other words, our faith itself comes from the revelation of God in Christ, and the faith of others can only come about through the continuation of that revelation, the proclamation of which is entrusted to the believing community (the Church) through the sharing of Word and Sacrament, but also through witness – through works. In short, it’s not about me; it’s about others – it’s about you.
Belief itself comes through Christ, as Peter says in v.21. It is a gift of his own perfected humanity. The faith that saves is the faith that reveals God – the faith of Christ. That is why James tells us that faith without works is dead (Jas 2.26). And that is also why the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says that Christ is “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb 5.9).
Much like forgiveness is impossible to possess selfishly, salvation is not something one obtains for oneself, but rather something we are invited to participate in for the sake of others. It is a life we are called into, not some kind of eschatological get out of jail free card.