In Defense of the Phrase “Faith and Work”

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Recently I’ve heard several major leaders in the faith and work movement criticizing the fact that we call it the “faith and work” movement. I rise in defense of the phrase.

The most persuasive version of the concern that I have heard would run something like this: The phrase “faith and work” implies that faith and work are, by nature, separate things, and our task is to integrate them. In fact, the argument goes, they are always bound up together. We have to challenge the assumption that separateness is their natural or normal state, and it is somehow up to us to find a way to make them fit. Rather, they are integral by nature.

Now, so long as we stick to the word “separate” there is some truth here. Faith and work are not, by nature, separate things with no connection. They are indeed integral – made to be together.

However, my concern is that we not lose sight of the fact that faith and work are different things. They are not separate, but they are different. Faith is not work. Faithfulness is work (to a large extent). But faith is not faithfulness.

It is a theme that runs through all good systematic theology from beginning to end that we can and must distinguish things without separating them. We must distinguish the three persons of the godhead without separating them. We must distinguish the human and divine natures of Christ without separating them. Etc.

We must distinguish faith from faithfulness, and hence faith from work, without separating them. This is just a new version of a very old problem. Paul stresses the distinction between faith and faithfulness/work while James stresses that faith and faithfulness/work are connected, not separate. There is no contradiction here if we remember that the two can be distinct without being separate.

The stakes are high. If we do not keep both the distinction and the connection, we cannot keep the classical Protestant understanding of justification. And although it happens to be out of fashion at the moment, the classical Protestant understanding of justification really is the theology with the best and deepest biblical warrant.

Obviously the faith and work leaders who are starting to challenge the phrase “faith and work” do not intend by this to move us away from the classical Protestant understanding of justification. They are probably not even conscious that their concerns might have implications for justification. That is what troubles me.

I would not make an issue out of this if it were merely a matter of debate points. (Well, okay, let me revise that – I hope that I would not make an issue out of this if it were merely a matter of debate points.) The suggestion that we consider tearing down what has been, to date, a very successful banner over our movement suggests to me that some may be so eager to emphasize the connection between faith and work that they are in danger of neglecting the distinction.

In fact, to the extent that there is some ambiguity and tension inherent in the phrase “faith and work,” I see that as a feature, not a bug. By the very fact that we have built a movement called “faith and work,” we testify that the two can never be separate; they must always be connected. But the name simultaneously maintains the distinction. It forces us to confront the difficulties of being faithful while not resting in our faithfulness for our favor with God.

Let the phrase stand, not only because it appears to do a very good job of communicating what our movement is about in a way that makes sense to people, but also as a reminder that connecting faith to work is not reducing faith to works.

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2 thoughts on “In Defense of the Phrase “Faith and Work”

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