Work It Out

By David Baumann

Reading from Romans, 4:1-12

1 What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. 6So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness irrespective of works:
7 “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven,
   and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.”
9 Is this blessedness, then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised? We say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” 10How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, 12and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised.


A rich young man once asked Jesus, “What must I do to be saved?” It is life’s most important question, and three of the four gospels recount it. The jailer in the book of the Acts asked the same question of Paul and Silas. They answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus …” (Acts 16:31). In the first Christian sermon, Peter answers a similar question, “Repent, and … be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38). Jesus himself sais, “I am the way, … No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Today, just about every Christian tradition is agreed that one is saved by faith and not by works.

Yes, but it is easy to make that affirmation too simplistic — just as the Pharisees did by relying on circumcision more than true devotion. Jesus sent them to consult the prophets and learn what God meant when he said that he desired “mercy and not sacrifice.” Yet in several places, Jesus teaches that salvation is granted because of works that one has done: the sheep and the goats are separated because of what they had done or failed to do. Even giving a cup of cold water is enough to bring salvation.

I have two friends of decades’ standing who are atheists, but they are more courageous, virtuous, and sacrificial than most Church people I have known. Will they be saved? I have pondered whether God has made himself invisible to them thus far because their dedication to utter goodness when they expect only darkness at the end is his way to sculpt them even more richly into saints. Abraham’s faith was manifested in works. Is it not beyond question that if faith is genuine, it must show itself in how we live?

David Baumann has been an Episcopal priest for 45 years, 39 of them in the Diocese of Los Angeles. He now serves as part-time priest in southern Illinois. He has published devotions, articles, and essays, as well as science fiction novels and short stories.

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