Conscientious Christians are susceptible to a toxic form of reverse alchemy that changes the gold of faith into the base metals of human works. Theologian Marcus Borg relates his own all too common experience:
I grew up as a Lutheran, in a tradition that emphasized salvation by grace and not by “works of the law.” Indeed, “justification by grace” was the battle cry of the Lutheran Reformation; Luther’s own personal and theological struggle had been against salvation by works. As Lutherans, we all knew that we weren’t saved by works. Rather, we were saved by “grace through faith.”
Yet this strong emphasis on grace got transformed into a new system of conventional wisdom, not only in my own mind but, I think, in the minds of many Lutherans, and many Christians generally. The emphasis was placed upon faith rather than grace, and faith insidiously became the new requirement. Faith (most often understood as belief) is what God required, and by the lack of faith/belief one risked the peril of eternal punishment.
The requirement of faith brought with it all of the anxiety and self preoccupation that mark life in the world of conventional wisdom. Was one’s faith/belief real enough, strong enough? Thus, in many of us latter-day Lutherans, the system of conventional wisdom remained. Only the content of the requirement had changed—from good works to faith.
Faith and works have a symbiotic relationship that remains healthy only by remembering which one is the host.