On only telling half the story – yet another response to Martyn Percy

Many years of teaching theology have convinced me of the vital importance for good theology of telling the whole story. Thus we have to tell people that God is one and also three, that Jesus is fully divine and fully human, that the Bible is a book of human words and also the words of God and that salvation is a matter of divine election and also a matter of human decision.

In all these areas we have to tell the whole story by maintaining both truths simultaneously. The same also applies when we think about faith and works. We have to say that both are necessary for salvation. It is a failure to recognize this that I think is the crucial error in Martyn Percy’s new article ‘Wheat and Tares and Labourers in Vineyards – A commentary on the responses to ‘Sexuality and the Citizenship of Heaven’  ( http://modernchurch.org.uk/downloads/finish/818-articles/761-wheat-and-tares-and-labourers-in-vineyards)

Salvation is a matter of faith, of accepting the Gospel message of the grace of God in Jesus Christ which is, as the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) makes clear, available to all without distinction. This is the point made by St. John in John 3:16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ It is also the point made by St. Paul in Romans 3:21-26:

‘But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.’

However, this is only half the story. Works are also necessary for salvation, not because good works can ‘put away our sins and endure the severity of God’s judgement'(Article XII), but because saving faith necessarily shows itself in good works, that is to say, in behaving in a way that is pleasing to God. Thus Jesus himself declares in Matthew 7:21-23:

‘Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, `I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’’

Thus St. James teaches in in James 2:14-26 that faith is dead unless it expresses itself in works

‘What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.’

Thus also St. John warns us in 1 John 1:6 ‘If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth.’

What all this means is that Martyn Percy’s summary in his article of the gospel message, ‘accept Jesus, and welcome him in to your life; and God will share his home with you for eternity,’ is an inadequate summary of the teaching of the New Testament. This is because it ignores the fact that accepting Jesus and welcoming him in to your life means being prepared to radically change the way you behave. As St. Paul reminds the Christians in Rome, being a Christian means dying with Christ to our old sinful way of life and rising with Christ to a new life of godly obedience:

‘What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.’ (Romans 6:1-14)

In this passage we see both sides of the story clearly portrayed. Salvation is a matter of grace, but it is also a matter of responsible obedience.[1]

Of course, in this life our obedience will always be imperfect. That is why Jesus taught us to pray ‘forgive us our sins’ (Matthew 6:12) and why St. John tells us that ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:8-9). However, this does not mean that we can cease to bother about whether we are obedient at all. If we are not striving to obey God’s commands then our faith is purely nominal and it will not save us.

In the words of the Homily ‘A short declaration of the true, lively, and Christian faith’ in the First Book of Homilies:

‘Deceive not yourselves therefore, thinking that you have faith in God, or that you love God, or do trust in him, or do fear him, when you live in sin; for then your ungodly and sinful life, declareth the contrary, whatsoever ye say or think.’ [2]

All this is relevant to the question of what the Church is called to teach and how it is called to act.

In terms of what the Church is called to teach, it is not enough for the Church to simply declare ‘God is love’ and give the impression that everyone will therefore be automatically OK. The Church has to warn people that there will be a judgement in which the wheat is separated from the tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) and that in order to be declared righteous at the judgement what is required is a living faith in Jesus Christ, that is to say a faith that manifests itself in godly behavior. Furthermore, the Church also has to proclaim on the basis of the New Testament what this godly behaviour looks like. In the words of Matthew 28:20 it has to teach men and women ‘to observe all that I have commanded you.’

In terms of how the Church is called to act, it has to back up its words by its deeds by being willing to discipline those who are living openly and un-repentantly ungodly lives (Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 1 Timothy 1:19-20, Titus 3:10-11).

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains, the purpose of the exercise of discipline, including when necessary excommunication:

…is not to establish a community of the perfect, but a community of men who really live under the forgiving mercy of God. Discipline in a congregation is a servant of the precious grace of God. If a member of the Church falls into sin, he must be admonished and punished, lest he forfeit his own salvation and the gospel be discredited.[3]

When it comes to the current debate about sexuality the calling of the Church to teach and act in these ways means that it has to be prepared to tell people that sexual holiness, involving abstinence from all forms of sexual activity outside of monogamous heterosexual marriage, is an integral part of the holiness which is the fruit of saving faith (see for example Matthew 5:27-30, 1 Corinthians 6:9-20, Galatians 5:16-24, Colossians 3:5-6, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8). It also means that where there is open unrepentant sexual sin it would be appropriate for the Church to exercise discipline as it has done from the earliest times.

In his paper Percy criticizes the approach I have just advocated on the grounds that Christians should not be ‘policing the borders and boundaries of God’s kingdom, acting as passport control or immigration officers.’ However, this misunderstands what is going on. It is individuals who enter or exclude themselves from participation in the life of God’s kingdom. All that the Church is doing is declaring, on the basis of the teaching of the New Testament, what participation in God’s kingdom means and the fact that we need to take seriously the danger of excluding ourselves from it.

None of this means that we can ever regard ourselves as morally superior to anyone else or more deserving of God’s love. All we can ever say of ourselves is ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’ (Luke 18:13). What it does mean is that we have to ask a question about our love. Do we love God and other people enough to tell people on behalf of God what they need to do in order to be saved?

M B Davie 17.1.16

[1] The issue of the penitent thief (Luke 23:39-43) raised by Percy in his paper is a red herring. The penitent thief gave expression to the reality of his faith by means of his words prior to his death. Those to whom God grants longer life likewise need to give expression to the reality of their faith by the way they live their lives.

[2] Text in Ian Robinson (ed), The Homilies, Bishopstone: Brynmill/Preservation Press, 2006, p.33.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, London: SCM, 1959, p.360.

One thought on “On only telling half the story – yet another response to Martyn Percy

  1. Thank you so much for contending for the faith in the area of human sexuality, in which you speak for so many. We are praying that the actions of the Primates will help maintain the authority of Scripture in The Church of England Synod in the coming months.

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