Living in Pits

“Which one of you will have a son or an ox fall into a well, and will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?” – Luke 14:5

Ok, I admit it – I loved Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” Trilogy (aka “Batman”). Everything about the series was amazing. Yeah, Heath Ledger stole the show as the Joker in the second installment, but each film had its moments.

One of my favorite scenes from the trilogy was the intense build up to Bruce Wayne climbing out of the pit in “The Dark Knight Rises.” For those who’ve not seen it, click here – but come back!

The most interesting thing about this scene isn’t Wayne’s final emergence, but rather how he got there. Up to the moment of his escape, he believed he could be freed by relying on man’s inventions – the safety of a rope, the practiced skill of his own hand. It was not until he let go of his own contrivances that he could escape the prison of his own shortcomings.

How often are we like Bruce Wayne in that pit, relying on our own efforts, our own “good works” to free us from the pits and wells into which we inevitably fall?

We need saving every day

In the passage from Luke I began with, Jesus is explaining curing a man of dropsy on the Sabbath, a high sin in the eyes of the Pharisees. Jesus’ message was clear: saving a lost soul is never wrong even on the Sabbath.

Yet as I read this passage my sense is that Jesus’ point was not so much about his actions, but instead about our needs.  That is, man needs saving every day, including the Sabbath. And God, in His righteousness, saves us every day, including the Sabbath.

“Good God, man! Don’t you know it’s the Sabbath?”

Jesus often used the Sabbath to point out our dependence on God’s hand. Notice how he cast the unclean spirit out in Capernaum on a Sabbath (Mark 1:21-18). Or healing a crippled man at Bethesda (John 5:1-18). Or healing the woman in the synagogue (Luke 13:10-17).

The common thread in all of Jesus’ encounters – both on the Sabbath and other days – is how inadequate our role is in our own healing. Can our works or personal efforts save us? Do we really need God to work out our salvation? Where is faith?

Paul addresses this question beautifully in Ephesians 2, specifically verses 8 and 9: For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

We simply can’t pull ourselves from the “miry clay” of existence (Psalm 40:2). We need God to provide us His hand, His grace.

Works without faith are empty

There’s a long-standing debate (particularly between Catholicism and Reformative Protestantism) regarding the roles played by works vs. faith in salvation. For some, the question is in the interpretation of Paul’s writings from passages such as Romans 3:28 and Romans 4:5. These folks will split hairs over works of good vs. works of law. That’s the subject of a different post.

Others will point to the epistle of James where he writes in 2:26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”

Which is it? Do our works earn our salvation or are we saved simply by faith in Jesus Christ as the one true way to God the Father, repenting of our past?

“The Sacrifice of Isaac,” Rembrandt van Rijn, 1635

This confusion is around context. In both instances, James and Paul use the Genesis 22 story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac to illustrate their meaning. Yet even as some might argue James and Paul disagree, they in fact support each other.

In the case of James, he isn’t claiming we have the ability to work out our own salvation but is instead distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate faith. Both are in a sense “faith,” but “perfected” faith goes beyond easy social media labels such as “#lovetrumpshate” and “#sharingiscaring” – instead, it extends into a way of life. Works without faith are empty.

James teaches that authentic faith is demonstrated by our actions, not that our actions win our salvation. Abraham’s righteous deeds (James 2:21-22) earned him nothing. However, his obedience to God proved his faith was genuine, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

Right faith leads to right actions

Right faith leads to right actions. Paul contends that without trusting in God, Abraham could never have offered his son on the altar. He uses Abraham’s story to show that people are justified on the basis of real faith rather than their own efforts; James shows that Abraham’s faith was proven to be real because it worked itself out in his actions. Two halves of the same whole.

We each occasionally finds ourselves at the bottom of a soul-pit. All too often, we fall there through our own actions and decisions. Failed marriages, addictions, abusive relationships, depression, anger we can never seem to let go of, hatred of another because of their skin color or language or yes, even their definitions of love.

While it’s true that we can stop doing what dropped us into this pit or that well, an unrepentant heart relying on its own efforts is simply blind to the next hole into which it stumbles.

Without God’s extended hand to lift us from these self-made pits of the soul, we inevitably fall back into them, never truly escaping. Salvation doesn’t come from temporary acts of kindness trying to soothe our guilty consciences or show our Goliath-sized compassion, but by turning over our lives to a God willing to accept repentance, trusting in His will.

Bruce Wayne’s man-made ropes could never set him free. Nor can ours. Only faith – the right kind of faith – opens the narrow door to God’s forgiveness and our ultimate freedom.

What rope are you clinging to?

Colossians 1:17

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