This is a gnarly problem.
Now the truth is I have a working understanding of this apparent contradiction through Romans 6 (thanks men’s breakfast 😉 ), but I have had trouble expressing what that working understanding is.
Lately I have been reading Virtue Reborn by Tom Wright, a book I highly recommend for any C.S. Lewis fans. Bishop Wright seems to have made an effort to follow in Mr. Lewis’s footsteps (consider some of his other titles Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope ), and he does a good job of retaining Mr. Lewis’s flavor while providing his own tasty morsels.
In any case Mr. Wright provided me with a flash of insight into that problem as I read his book. It helps if you think for a moment about Chaos (I also recommend Chaos: Making a New Science as an excellent non-technical primer) which gives us a feel for the idea of sensitive dependence on initial conditions. We frequently say “life is Chaotic”, and it really is both figuratively and technically. What I mean by this is the perspective, or the attitude we bring to a situation can (and often does) have a profound impact on the outcome. Put another way, our initial conditions can define the path we take as we deal with issues in our lives which causes the results to vary wildly.
The observation Mr. Wright made was that the “why” of good works matters. Mr. Wright explains in his book that the classical or Aristotelian approach to moral action (virtue) is self centered. How can “I” be good enough. In fact he points out the classical view has a heroic aspect in which the good doer demonstrates a superior behavior. To this view Mr. Wright incisively contrasts the Christian approach to moral action (Virtue Reborn) in which the good doer is not self centered (as in what can I do, how should I behave) but is instead Christ centered (as in, what is God’s will). This subtle difference is the humility empowered by the knowledge that it is not what I do that makes me acceptable (justified by faith). The outward action may be the same in terms of gross behavior, but the nuance of what is conveyed has a profound influence on both my own heart and the hearts of those around me. The justification I have accepted causes me to seek to do God’s will in the world, not as a mere rule follower, but from a heart filled with the love I know as the result of His love for me. If I have not responded to His love with a desire to please Him to know Him and be as He is, then have I truly accepted His sacrifice as my justification? (faith without works is dead).
As Christians we already known this, but hearing the explanation was for me an “AHA!” moment.
So I had to share.