In 1971, an experiment was conducted involving undergraduates. They were divided into two groups. One group was told to act the role of prison guards and the other group was told to act the role of prisoners.
The actions performed by each group changed the actors. Those acting the role of guard quickly became more authoritarian minded and within a period of six days were sadistically subjecting their mock prisoners to intentionally humiliating acts. Those playing the role of prisoner were also changed by their acting and quickly became more passive and depressed. The experiment shows us that outward actions effect our emotions, which in turn goes on to affect our identity. We become different types of people based on what we do; we change inwardly based on what we do outwardly.
What if the premise of the experiment had been positive instead of negative and involved helping people, instead of confining and controlling them as prison guard roles demanded. What if one group had been told to act out the role of giving food to homeless people and the other group had been told to act as homeless people receiving the food. Is it possible that the givers of the food would have become kinder and more generous, while the receivers of the food became more grateful and contented?
The question ties in nicely with a sometimes rancorous debate between Catholics and Protestants on the necessity of good works. Is faith alone enough to be saved, as Protestants claim or should a genuine faith in Christ lead into good works? Rather than just pick a side and quote carefully selected Bible verses which support one viewpoint, it might be wiser to just acknowledge that there are verses which support both sides of the argument. Some speak on behalf of works alone and others speak of faith alone.
A Scriptural example of salvation based on works can be found in Matthew 19:16-21 where Christ is asked “What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” Christ does not correct the man and lecture him on faith alone. Instead he tells him to keep the commandments, and to love his neighbor as himself. When pressed by the man, Christ tells him to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Christ never mentions faith but one could argue that these acts, especially the act of selling all his possessions demonstrate a preexisting faith in Christ and His divine knowledge of salvation. Why else would the man ask Christ about salvation in the first place?
On the other side of coin, a brief Scriptural example of faith alone can be found in Romans 10:9 where Paul tells us that if we confess Christ with our mouth and believe that God raised Him from the dead, we are saved. There is no mention of works but in light of James 2:26, “faith without works is dead” we can presume Paul understood that genuine faith would always lead into works in one way or another. Therefore, if there are no works a person’s faith is not genuine, or “dead” according to James.
There are other verses for both sides of the argument but when all the verses are objectively considered, it becomes clear that we need faith and will perform good works if the faith is genuine. Catholics can say genuine faith leads into genuine works. Protestants can say that without pre-existent faith in Christ, there would be little or no desire to follow Christ’s commands to do good works. Both are correct.
It could also be argued though that good works can transform a Christian in much the same way that acting out as a prison guard transformed the students of the 1971 experiment. Behaving like a prison guard transformed the inward person of those students in a negative way, making them sadistic. Why then would outward, Christian oriented good works not transform the inward person of a Christian in a positive way?
Arguably, the inward person of a Christian is already transformed by the faith it takes to believe in the Risen Christ but the following up with good works should always be the next step. Once good works in the name of God are begun, the inward transformation begins to grow into external dimensions. Christianity still remains an inward belief, but it begins to progress into a lively, outward behavior as well. This is likely what James meant when he identified faith without works as being dead.
Aside from social experiments and carefully selected Bible verses though, the notion of changing the inward self by adjusting outward behavior is not a new idea and appeals to our common sense anyway. The idea of people who are depressed doing something to make themselves feel better has been around forever. It’s not scientific, it’s just sensible and it works. If it works it works in terms of making us feel better, it can also work in terms of making us do better.
A person on a tight budget who gives $10 per week to homeless folk will naturally begin to grow less attached to the worldly things that money could buy. The trips to Starbucks would become less important. They would easily become increasingly comfortable giving more money to the poor, even to the point of doing without even more luxuries for themselves for the benefit of others. A person who donates a few hours per week at a food kitchen would soon learn that their personal time is better spent helping others than watching a reality show on television. These good works might seem like arduous chores in the beginning but would easily become habitual before long and pleasurable as one gains a greater sense of improving the world about them. The mustard seed of faith would have grown into something bigger.
The Kingdom of God, established internally through faith, can and should be made to radiate outward through good works. Good works strengthen us within and change the world without. This is how God’s Kingdom is made greater in both internal and external dimensions. Good works in the name of God is the way every Christian can empower God’s Kingdom on Earth, bringing ourselves ever closer to our Creator, making constant encroachments upon the fallen world and following in the steps of Jesus Christ.