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Light from William Tyndale on the relationship between faith and works

April 2015 | by Naomi Wells

William TyndaleOn 8 May 1528, a dangerous book was published. It was entitled The parable of the Wicked Mammon (better known to us as ‘The parable of the unrighteous steward’, in Luke 16).

According to Sir Thomas More, it was a ‘very mammona iniquitas, a very treasury and well-spring of wickedness … the wicked book of Mammon’. Archbishop Warham issued a list of 29 heresies found in the book and John Tewkesbury, a leather seller from London, was put on trial to ascertain whether he agreed with ‘heretical’ statements found in it.

The volume was added to a list of forbidden books and had to be smuggled into England from the Netherlands, ingeniously hidden in bales of cloth, sacks of flour, false sides of chests, and watertight boxes immersed in casks of wine and oil.

What was it about this 72-page, pocket-sized volume which made it so hated? The main explanation can be found in the fact that it implicitly challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Faith alone justifies

It taught that faith alone justifies and suggested that a kitchen servant could be just as pleasing to God as an apostle. The Church was threatened by this teaching and, rather than examine the book by Scripture, it chose to eradicate it by force.

It would be easy to assume that William Tyndale, the book’s author, was fierce, confrontational and aggressive in the way he wrote, to provoke such an adverse response. However, in reality, the tone of the book is warm, edifying and practical.

There is very little in it that directly attacks Roman Catholic errors and Tyndale’s motivation throughout is to help ordinary Christians live for God’s glory. In fact, many of the book’s original readers were converted through reading it.

Although the book was written almost 500 years ago and its language is slightly antiquated, it addresses issues that believers still grapple with today. The title is a little misleading, since the book is not so much a straightforward exposition of the parable as a consideration of the relationship between faith and works.

Tyndale starts with a clear statement that faith alone can make us right with God. Good works can never justify us because, as Tyndale writes, ‘a sick man must first be healed or made whole, ere he can do the deeds of a whole man’. We are utterly incapable of doing good works that please God until we have first found his forgiveness and favour.

Once we have been forgiven, however, Tyndale argues that good works are absolutely essential: ‘Faith alters [the believer], changes him wholly, fashions and forges him anew, gives him power to love, and to do that which before was impossible for him either to love or to do; and turns him into a new nature, so that he loves that which he before hated, and hates that which he before loved … and naturally brings forth good works’.

Works demonstrate faith

Works do not cause faith, but they always accompany faith. Tyndale comments: ‘If works follow not … thou mayest be sure that thy faith is but a dream’. Our works show outwardly the true faith we have inwardly.

After taking a closer look at ‘the parable of the wicked mammon’ and considering what it means to ‘make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon’, Tyndale comments on a series of New Testament verses which appear to suggest that we are saved by works.

For example on Matthew 7:21 — ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven’ — he writes: ‘It is easy to say unto Christ, Lord, Lord, but thereby thou shalt never feel or be sure of the kingdom of heaven. But and if thou do the will of God, then art thou sure that Christ is thy Lord indeed’.

The whole thrust of Tyndale’s argument is that, if good works are lacking from our lives, then there is no evidence that we have true faith. By contrast, if we are living in a godly way, it demonstrates to ourselves and to others that we have a true faith in Christ and have entered into life.

Nature of good works

Tyndale defines good works in a broad way: ‘All works are good which are done within the law of God, in faith and with thanksgiving to God’. He then expands on this summary statement with a number of points about the true nature of good works.

Motivation

Our works should be motivated by a desire to please God and imitate Christ, not to impress those around us.

Everyday tasks

The most common deeds of life can be good works if done to please God. Tyndale writes:

‘Put no difference between works, but, whatsoever comes into thy hands, that do, as time, place, and occasion giveth, and as God has put thee in degree high or low. For as to please God, there is no work better than another’.

He adds further on: ‘Now if thou compare deed to deed, there is difference betwixt washing of dishes, and preaching of the Word of God; but as touching to please God, none at all’.

Different roles

Good works will look different for each of us, as God has placed each in a different situation and given each different responsibilities: ‘Let every man therefore wait on the office wherein Christ has put him, and therein serve his brethren…

‘Let kings and head officers seek Christ in their offices, and minister peace and quietness unto the brethren; punish sin and that with mercy … Let every man, whatsoever craft or occupation he be of, whether brewer, baker, tailor, victualler, merchant, or husbandman, refer his craft and occupation unto the commonwealth, and serve his brethren as he would do Christ himself’.

Rightly directed zeal

Our zeal for good works should be in accordance with God’s revealed will in Scripture. Peter was very zealous when he rebuked Christ for saying he would die at Jerusalem, but he was severely reproved for it, because ‘he perceived not godly things, but worldly’.

Responsibility

We should not neglect our basic responsibilities in order to carry out good works. Tyndale gives the example of a father who has a basic responsibility to care and provide for his household.

It would be quite wrong for such a man to give to the poor to such an extent that his own family were neglected: ‘When thou hast done thy duty to thine household, and yet hast further abundance of the blessing of God, that owest thou to the poor that cannot labour, or would labour and can get no work, and are destitute of friends’.

Mercy and compassion

We should be marked by mercy and compassion for those in need: ‘Love seeks not her own profit, but makes a man forget himself, and turn his profit to another man, as Christ sought not himself, or his own profit, but ours’.

On a practical level, Tyndale notes that we should help the needy closest to us — ‘of thine own parish’ — before we help those further afield, and that, where possible, we should seek to put the poor in a position where they are able to support themselves.

Tyndale paints a picture of a Christian who is faithful, honest and reliable in his work, who provides for those who are dependent on him, and who is merciful and compassionate to the needy. His good works are done at home, at work and in the local community, and flow from his faith in Christ and his desire to please God in all that he does.

Same truths

Although technology may have changed the practical details of some of our good works, in the five centuries since Tyndale wrote, their essential nature was the same in 1528 as it will be in 2028.

‘So now abide sure and fast by this: that a man inwardly in the heart and before God is righteous and good through faith only, before all works. Notwithstanding, yet outwardly and openly before the people, yea, and before himself … he knows and is sure through the outward work, that he is a true believer, and in the favour of God, and righteous and good through the mercy of God.’

Naomi Wells

The author is a chartered accountant and tax adviser, and has written a number of prize-winning articles, including in church history.