Answer: Neither. Instead, God focuses on whether we are focused on ourselves or on him. He delights in those who are focused on him and has surprisingly constructive thoughts about those who take him seriously, even those who do ill. Check out Zephaniah 1:12-13, in which the Lord talks about the visit he will conduct on That Great Day:
At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps
and punish those who are complacent,
who are like wine left on its dregs,
who think, ‘The Lord will do nothing,
either good or bad.’
Their wealth will be plundered,
their houses demolished.
Though they build houses,
they will not live in them;
though they plant vineyards,
they will not drink the wine.”
The favored, flawed contrast in much of our preaching today is between relationship and religion. Yet this is a false dichotomy: both relationship and religion have the same eerie focus on our attitude/knowledge/perspective. The less favored contrast in our (and every other) generation, however, is the one consistently highlighted throughout the Bible: Who is the principle and primary force and actor in your life today? You or God? (Or, frequently, another god?)
If the answer is God, then a number of things follow on as a result–things like humility, prayer, fear, worship–and yes, good works. There is a word that describes the source of humility, prayer, fear, worship, and good works in your life. That word is faith.
You are not saved by your faith. Instead, faith is simply the description of a life lived centered on him. Faith the size of a mustard seed is ample–and this is not because faith is so powerful. It is because he is so powerful. After all, the Lord can endow even rocks with faith. Faith, in other words, is no great shakes. The great shakes is always him.
This is why Paul’s contrast in Ephesians 2:8 isn’t faith and works. It’s grace and works. Yes, grace is apprehended by faith, according to Paul (and everyone else in the New Testament). But the difference between grace and works will always be misunderstood if we look through the wrong end of the telescope. The wrong end of the telescope is us–i.e., our faith versus our works. This, as James points out, is a false dichotomy. The right end of the telescope is God. The question God is constantly asking, in places like Zephaniah 1:12-13, is which direction our telescope is facing. Telescopes facing the wrong way will not much enjoy the visitation of the Lord on his great day.
Always gracious, Jesus credits our faith with a vital role in the process. Always prone to wander, we mistake our faith as the object of assurance and adoration. We become obsessed with our faith the same way we previously were obsessed by our works and the same way we are obsessed with everything about ourselves. Like the flea which rides on the elephant’s back as the elephant thunders across the bridge, we theolo-fleas shout, “Look how we shook that bridge!” Nope. Faith is the flea. It is the elephant that rocks the bridge.
In the end, there is often precious little difference between the lives of those who say “I will go to heaven when I die because I am basically a good person” and “I will go to heaven when I die because of my faith.” Both statements have in common a lifetime subscription to the card-carrying cult of me. We love us some us. But it is neither our actions or our faith that save us. It is Jesus who saves. Faith–small, shaky, unseen–is the God-granted apprehension of that, a miracle but nothing more.