Last week in Sunday School, I was asked one of the perennial questions of the Christian faith. It was asked in good faith by someone who very much wanted me to be able to give an answer. I did my best at the time, but I got to thinking that it is a question that deserves a well-considered answer. To that end, I am trying to be both comprehensive and brief in my answer.
The question: If salvation is by grace through faith why bother to be a good person? Different Christian traditions have different responses to this question. What I’m about to give is not a Lutheran, Calvinist, or Roman Catholic response, but a Wesleyan (United Methodist) response. A Wesleyan response works better with a Wesleyan question, so to put the question in Wesleyan language, why should we attend to the means of grace (works of mercy such as feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and other good deeds; and works of piety such as prayer, reading the Bible, attending worship)?
Answer: Before we turn to God, God is reaching out to us through the Holy Spirit with the grace that enables faith.* Through faith we have the relationship with God (sometimes called the love of God) that is our salvation (which begins in the here and now of this life and continues throughout all eternity). Like any relationship, our salvation has to be attended to. We attend to our relationship with God not to earn our salvation, but to continue to experience it. God tends to the relationship by granting us grace through the Holy Spirit. We tend to that relationship with God by attending to the means of grace (works of mercy and works of piety). When we tend to our relationship with God, we are not earning our salvation by works, because the ability to tend to our relationship with God is itself an unearned, unmerited gift from God.
Attending to the means of grace strengthens both the relationship to God that is our salvation and the faith we have that makes it (the relationship) possible. God, whose very nature is perfect love, never fails to attend to that relationship. Unlike God, we (who have all fallen into sin) sometimes/often/almost-always fail to attend to the relationship.
When we fail to attend to our relationship with God, that relationship (the relationship that is salvation) atrophies and falters even though God’s love for us never fails. If we neglect the relationship long enough, it and our faith cease to exist. However, if and when we turn back, God welcomes us with open arms.
To put the matter as succintly as I can: our relationship with God is never static. We’re either moving closer to God or further away from God. We attend to the means of grace (we bother to be good people) in order to move closer to and grow more deeply in love with God and thus more fully experience our salvation.
*The technical Wesleyan term for grace at this point is prevenient grace, meaning the grace that goes before and reaches out to us when we haven’t yet turned to God.