Cannon's Wager: Bet on Better Works
by Lincoln Cannon on 1 September 2008 (updated 3 May 2016)
Will works save you? Some Christians enjoy debating whether good works are necessary for salvation, with responses ranging from the extremes of Calvinism (we can make absolutely no effort, spiritual or physical, toward salvation) to the extremes of Pelagianism (salvation depends almost entirely on our efforts, spiritual and physical).
Most Christians situate themselves somewhere between these two extremes. Pentecostals, leaning toward Calvinism, may claim that free-willed faith in Christ is necessary for salvation, but that any works beyond that are not necessary. Mormons, leaning toward Pelagianism, may claim that both the grace of God and our works are necessary for salvation, the former as a context of opportunity for the latter.
Underlying the debate are widely varying perspectives on the nature of salvation, grace, faith and works. What is salvation? To what extent is faith a work? How is grace manifest, to whom and for what reason? Toward what should faith be directed? Does missionary work matter?
Yet, despite all these questions, our answers and how we might position ourselves along the ideological line between Calvinism and Pelagianism, Christians almost universally agree that good works are evidence of salvation, whether or not they are necessary. In other words, while you may or may not be saved when evidencing good works, you know you’re not saved when NOT evidencing good works.
So here’s the wager: bet on better works. In any choice between ideologies, you should choose whichever you think will affect you to evidence better works. To the extent Calvinism is accurate, your choice won’t matter either way, as you’ll be saved or damned according to criteria relative to which you have absolutely no influence. To the extent Pelagianism is accurate, your better works will save you.
From the Pentecostal perspective, although the better works would not save you, they would be evidence that you had embraced the better ideology (which faith in Christ must be, definitionally), which will save you. From the Mormon perspective, the better works are the best use of the gifts and talents, inspiration and endowments, that God has given you, and so will save you according to your wise stewardship.
Bet on better works. Regardless of how you are persuaded to define “salvation” or “better works”, the wager stands. One may understand salvation in terms of “happiness” and better works in terms of “benevolence” and “power”. Another may understand salvation in terms of “utility” and better works in terms of “ethics” and “technology”. Can greater benevolence and power make you happier? Can improved ethics and technology provide increased utility?
From a secular pseudo-Calvinist perspective, it doesn’t matter whether you are benevolent and powerful or not; either way, something utterly beyond your benevolence and power determines your happiness. In other words, to the extent pseudo-Calvinism is accurate, it can’t hurt to bet on benevolence and power.
From a secular pseudo-Pelagianist perspective, your utility depends on your ethics and technology. To the extent pseudo-Pelagianism is accurate, it’s good to bet on ethics and technology.
For the secular pseudo-Pentecostal, although greater benevolence and power aren’t making you happier, they’re evidence of that which is making you happier. For the secular pseudo-Mormon, although the improved ethics and technology are not sufficient in themselves for utility, they are necessary for greater utility.
In summary, there are three ways of looking at the correlation of good works and salvation (or benevolent power and happiness, or ethical technology and utility):
- They are not correlated.
- They are positively correlated, whether or not causally related.
- They are negatively correlated, whether or not causally related.
Common sense rejects #3, whether or not it should. Moreover, I’ve never heard anyone seriously and persuasively argue that good works correlate with damnation, that benevolent power correlates with misery, or that ethical technology correlates with inutility.
#1 is of no practical consequence, by definition. Practice is limited to works, power and technology. If good works, benevolent power and ethical technology are no more likely to correlate with salvation, happiness and utility than are evil works, malevolent power and unethical technology then it doesn’t matter whether we reject #1, even if we’re wrong.
That leaves us with #2. We should embrace the idea that good works correlate with salvation, that benevolent power correlates with happiness, and that ethical technology correlates with utility. Whether or not we think the relation is causal, if we desire salvation, happiness or utility, then we should seek out good works, benevolent power or ethical technology. If the relation is causal then we’ll cause fulfillment of our desires. If the relation is not causal then they’re still evidence that we’ve done whatever else is causal.
Bet on better works, benevolent power and ethical technology. In any choice between ideologies, you should choose whichever you think will affect you to evidence better works, greater benevolence and power, increased ethics and advanced technology. If there’s anything you can do to achieve salvation, happiness or utility, you probably will have done it when you evidence these things.
Of course, there is still plenty of room for debate over what constitutes better works, benevolent power or ethical technology, but we should at least bet on them in general terms.