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The hajj, faith, and works

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba at the Grand mosque in Mecca during the annual haj pilgrimage November 11, 2010. The haj is one of the world's biggest displays of mass religious devotion and a duty for Muslims who can perform it (Credit: Reuters/Mohammed Salem)

How does faith and works work?  This question used to bother me more than any other in Christian theology.

To me, Islam is the quintessential works-based religion.  For example, three million Muslims are expected to take part in the “Hajj” (Arabic for “pilgrimage”) that begins today.  They will travel to the Ka’ba, their most sacred site.  They believe it was constructed by Adam and rebuilt by Abraham and Ishmael.  It contains a black stone they believe was descended from heaven to mark the center of the world.  All Muslims are required to make this pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives (Qur’an 2:125).  It is one of the ways they seek to please Allah, thus earning their place in heaven.

By contrast, yesterday I stated that self-sufficiency is spiritual suicide.  If we try to save ourselves, we miss the salvation God provides: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not of works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Here’s my problem: if God does everything, what do I do?  “Let go and let God,” people say.  But this essay won’t be written unless I type its words.  After a man transformed a field filled with brambles and weeds into a beautiful garden, his pastor commented on the marvels of God’s creation.  “Yes, pastor,” the man replied, “but you should have seen it when God had it all to himself.”

There’s another side to the story, one I decided yesterday morning to write as a follow-up to Thursday’s essay.  Several of you noted the same in your responses: “You have focused on one part of the message and left out the other.  If I plant tomatoes in decent soil and water them, I trust God’s natural laws to bring forth tomatoes.”  Another stated, “God wants us to make full use of what he has given us.”  I especially liked this comment: “God will not walk for us, so he gave us legs.”

Paul counseled the Thessalonians: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).  James warned us, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26).  How does faith and works work?

Here’s how I view the balance: as I work, God works.  My works do not earn his favor or blessing–they position me to receive what grace intends to give.  When I surveyed the news this morning, looked up Scriptures, and worked at writing this commentary, I did not create an essay that will change anyone’s life.  But if I am writing words under the Spirit’s leading, God will use them for his transforming purposes.

Once again, Oswald Chambers says it better than I can.  In this morning’s devotional he states that when a person acts on God’s word, “that second the supernatural rush of the life of God invades him instantly.  The dominating power of the world, the flesh and the devil is paralyzed, not by your act, but because your act has linked you on to God and His redemptive power.”  So pray and then work today, to the glory of God.