Essay: Are We Justified by Works?
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Essay: Are We Justified by Works? 

Many Christians believe that righteous actions are crucial to being “justified” (i.e., acceptable to God), and certain sins can result in condemnation by God. They find some of the best biblical support in James. For example, James wrote, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:17). I think that serving God by caring for God’s creation and showing compassion for what God has created can help us feel closer to God and give meaning and direction to our lives. Is faith a necessary component of this process?
Some of the most compassionate people I know reject the notion of a supernatural being, and some of most hard-hearted people I know claim to have a deep faith in God. Overall, I’ve not seen a correlation between religious faith and compassion. As best I can tell, atheists, while denying that a divine being ordains how we should live, still have faith in a cosmology in the sense that they have beliefs about the way the universe should be. For example, many atheists hold that all members of a certain class of beings deserve to be treated with equal compassion and respect. There are differences among atheists about who belongs to this class. While many claim that all humans belong (though in practice they largely restrict their concern to their nation, their community, or their family), far fewer hold that nonhuman beings belong to this class. I’ve not been impressed by the arguments for including all humans and excluding all nonhumans (except, perhaps, for household animal companions and members of certain esthetically pleasing species such as giraffes and panda bears). I suspect that humans, who believe they benefit from harmfully exploiting nonhumans, are swayed by weak arguments that endorse a self-serving worldview.
Commonly, atheists seem to have difficulty abiding by a consistent ethic; what about people of faith? I think that faith can help direct works, particularly when works seem hopeless or inconsequential. I’ve seen a lot of animal advocates “burn out” and abandon the movement because they have been frustrated by the rate of progress and they have emotionally traumatized by a sense of isolation and alienation from a society that endorses animal abuse. Perhaps those whose lives are focused on serving God can better weather the difficulties that accompany challenging powerful forces.

Christianity teaches that we are called to be faithful, not to save the world. A crucial part of being faithful is living faithfully, and that means serving God by caring for what God has created. Indeed, James wrote, “I by my works will show you my faith” (2:18). As I’ve discussed in previous essays, serving God does not mean just making gestures of good works – we should always aim to be as effective as possible. Even if we fail to change the world, we have answered our calling to follow Christ if we have done our best. 

Go on to: Commentary on the Lectionary: Nov. 13 – How to Use our Talents, Matthew 25:14-30
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