Some time ago I wrote an essay titled A Fruitful Faith, in which I maintained that there is a pattern of grace before law that is consistent throughout scripture, both Old Testament and New. One can also express this idea as call before response, or, as I’ve been thinking today especially, faith before works.
Frequently faith and works are seen as contradictory, and there is, of course, an approach to works that contradicts faith. There is also an idea of faith as abstract belief that divorces it from any form of works. I’m reminded, however, of the reformation formulation “by faith alone, but not by the faith that is alone.”
I found two quotes in my reading on Hebrews today (Hebrews: Ancient Christian commentary on Scripture, New Testament X). The first is from Athanasius, Festal Letters, 11.3, and is found on page 178:
[Paul] deemed it necessary to teach first about Christ and the mystery of the incarnation. Only then did he point to things in their lives that needed to be corrected. He wanted them first to know the Lord and then to want to do what he told them. For if you don’t know the one who leads the people in observing god’s commands, you are not very likely to obey them.
I like the way this is expressed. Works done to earn God’s favor or to learn about God are very different from works done because one know and loves God. The former are futile; the latter rewarding.
Again, St. John Chrysostom, On the Epistle to the Hebrews, 22.4, on page 179:
How was it “by faith” that “Enoch was taken up”? Because his pleasing God was the cause of his being taken, and faith the cause of his pleasing God. For if he had not known that he should receive a reward, how could he have pleased God? But “without faith it is impossible to please” God. How? If a person belives that there is a God and a retribution, that person will have the reward. (emphasis mine)
God’s grace, received by faith, is the cause of doing good, and doing good pleases God. But clearly none of that comes from us; it all proceeds from God and comes to us because God has called us.