This month’s Christianity Today contains an article by Andy Horvath titled
What You Probably Don’t Know about ‘The Least of These’
The article is of a kind whose content reveals confusion about the nature of faith. Here’s the money paragraph from the peice:
Also, caring for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned isn’t taught elsewhere in the New Testament as the measuring stick for salvation. Can we really affirm that what ultimately matters is caring for the poor, not faith in Jesus? This reading veers toward a mere social gospel, where what ultimately matters are actions, not beliefs. As a result, the importance of evangelism is minimized, and feeding people is prioritized over calling them to follow Christ.
Read carefully, Horvath reveals a deep misunderstanding of what it means to follow Christ and, more broadly, how actions are related to faith. I would argue that caring for the poor (and other acts of love) is precisely how faith in Jesus is scored (see the syllogism, below). Mr. Horvath claims that since caring for the marginalized of society isn’t widely taught in the New Testament those who order their lives toward showing compassion for these people gain no salvific credit. This is breathtakingly naive. Let’s take this apart, claim by claim, to see why.
Horvath: Can we really affirm that what ultimately matters is caring for the poor, not faith in Jesus?
How is caring for the poor mutually exclusive of faith in Jesus? This claim would surely surprise Mother Theresa. Per Mother Theresa, the person who helps 47 poor people is just as faithful as the person who helps 617 poor people. Faithfulness simply means to live by faith. If you claim to have faith in the safety offered by commercial banks but then squirrel all your money away under your mattress, can you truthfully claim you have faith in commercial banks? By the same token, if you have faith in Jesus and ignore His teachings (they are divine, after all), how can you say you have faith in who He was and what He demands?
Horvath: This reading veers toward a mere social gospel, where what ultimately matters are actions, not beliefs.
Where does Mr. Horvath get the notion that what we do is disconnected from our beliefs? To understand faith as disconnected from action is a conceit shared by many (most) contemporary Christians – Christians who accept, without critical reflection I believe, the notion that good works especially ordered to the priorities taught by Christ, do not count toward salvation. Mr. Horvath and those who share this understanding of salvation do not understand faith as something that must be expressed. Yes, salvation means you must express your faith. Many of the believers I know who agree with Mr. Horvath define their faith as simply assenting to the truth that they are redeemed by Christ’s atoning death and so assume that they will be granted eternal life.
This is almost absurdly naive. This understanding of faith, unless expressed in some way, is no more than an interior feeling. An emotion. According to St. Paul faith must be expressed so that others may see and benefit((I’ve written on this extensively and would refer you to this article.)). In a nutshell, the relationship of faith to good works is captured in the following syllogism:
- Faith is necessary for salvation.
- Faithfulness is the proper expression of faith.
- Works (i.e., acts that conform with one’s faith) is the proper expression of faithfulness.
Therefore, works are necessary for salvation. Faith unexpressed is to have no faith. For example, suppose I feel deep compassion for a certain homeless widow, but do nothing to express that compassion. Is the fact that my compassion is heart-felt sufficient for others to judge me as a compassionate person?
The bottom line is that for humans, actions speak louder than words. To have faith in Jesus/God is to walk the walk, not talk the talk?
Now, go and study
Michael, I encourage you to read the article in its entirety (it’s NOT behind a paywall), as many of your concerns are unfounded.
Thanks for the response. Let me answer you in two parts. First, in this comment I want to make sure you understand my point of view. In the subsequent comment, I’ll turn to the text and present what I believe is an interpretation more consistent with this context.
In issues such as this, a larger question needs to be addressed, specifically how works righteousness is to be defined. My view is that of Wright, Dunn, and others who hold that St. Paul’s works righteousness refers to cultic obedience. It is the faith requirement (“faith alone”) that merits entry into the covenant (i.e., gentiles get in by faith, Jews by circumcision), but once in the covenant, one’s faith must be expressed. It is not, as you correctly point out, an interior assent to truth. Faith, to be salvific, must be expressed.
The example I use is trust (a more accurate English translation of faith as understood by people of the 1st century Near East). If you say you trust that banks will take care of your life savings, but keep all your money stuffed in your mattress, your faith is empty. Paul referred to acts that express one’s faith and faithfulness or works of faith.
With this in mind, the kind of behavior exhibited by those placed at the right hand of God (Matt 25:34) is behavior that is salvific because it is faithful, i.e., it is a faith that expresses and instantiates that which God wills.
Now, let’s turn to the text in question: within the scope of Matthew 25:31-41, the righteous are the ones that cared for the disenfranchised and are the ones who will inherit the Kingdom. Here, the people deemed as righteous are those culled from all the nations, presumably including gentiles.
Here’s my summary of the story:
1. The people of the nations are divided into two camps: people on the left and people on the right.
2. The people on the right have been judged by the Father as righteous and will inherit the Kingdom.
3. The righteous then ask, why were they deemed righteous? The answer is that they cared for the disenfranchised.
At this point in the narrative, we learn that those people who care for the disenfranchised, merit salvation. Those that do not go into the eternal fire with the devil and his minions.
However, the people who have just been judged as righteous are confused because they take Jesus’s words literally. When He says, “You cared for me”, they ask, “But we don’t know you, we’ve never seen you, we’ve never even heard of you. How could we have taken care of you?”
4. Jesus’s answer contains a metaphor: even the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the sick, etc., are symbolic of Jesus. When you care for someone no matter what their station or circumstances in life, says Jesus, it is as if you were caring for me.
*Michael, from both your initial blog and your additional comments, it is still not clear to me that you have understood my article. You effect a straw man by attributing beliefs to me that I do not have, and you miss my essential point. Now, go and read.