Necessary, but not Sufficient

A Twilight Musing

In philosophical writings one reads of proofs or segments of evidence that are “necessary but not sufficient,” which I take to mean that a substance or idea or argument has several constituent parts, all of which, in the right proportions and quantities, are necessary to complete the whole.  Water consists of 2 units of hydrogen and one of oxygen.  Each unit is necessary, in correct proportion to the other, but not sufficient in itself to be called “water.”  There are also some interesting biblical passages and stories that illustrate this principle.

For example, when the Rich Young Ruler came to Jesus asking what he must do to have eternal life, and Jesus answered that he should obey the commandments of God (particularly the Decalogue), the Young Ruler replied that he had done so from the time of his youth.  Jesus then delivers the answer that turns him away: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).  All of the Young Ruler’s  good works were necessary (though we might question whether he was as good as he thought he was), but not sufficient to make him a part of God’s kingdom.

Similarly, Jesus faults the Scribes and Pharisees for trying to be righteous through minute attention to the command to tithe.  Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.  These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.  You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matt. 23:23-24).  James makes much the same point in his discussion of faith and works: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’  Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” for “faith apart from works is useless” (James 2:18, 20 [my italics]).  As Abraham’s faith was manifested by his putting Isaac on the altar and taking up the knife to slay him, and Rahab’s was shown by helping God’s spies to escape, so all who express faith must complete faith by obedient works.

But as shown by the insufficiency of the virtuous works of the scribes and Pharisees, good deeds without faith are also insufficient for pleasing God.  Both faith and works are necessary, but neither apart from the other identifies us as children of God and members of His kingdom.  In the Old Testament, the prophets often pointed out the insufficiency of ritual obedience to make a wayward people right with God, as in Amos 6:21ff.  (See also Is. 1:10ff.)

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of them I will not listen.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

How, you will say, is this to be applied to our modern situation?  I think of the frequently heard comment of people questioned about their religious identity: “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” by which they usually mean, “I believe in a spiritual reality that transcends the surface meaning of the material world, but I don’t thereby feel required to accept a personal God or to be a participant in any religious organization.”  Certainly we as Christians see some sense of supra-material spiritual reality as necessary to knowing God, but it is not within itself sufficient to bring us to God.

But the application can be closer to home.  In what ways do we Christians try to turn “necessary” things into “sufficiencies”?  Good Christian fellowship is a necessary part of being a church, but it isn’t sufficient to be the whole reason for attending services, nor is the absence of fellowship that “meets our needs” sufficient reason to forsake the assembly.  I Cor. 13 presents a number of activities that are necessary to Christian character (generosity, willingness to die for Christ, powerful use of spiritual gifts), but they are insufficient virtues if not embedded in love.  Tolerance, compassion, and social justice are both necessary characteristics of Christian living and commonly held secular principles, but when they are made sufficient within themselves, they are often given precedence over adherence to God’s commands and His Truth.

Ah, yes, Truth, which together with Beauty and Goodness constitute a traditional metaphysical triad that evokes the only Reality wherein each of its parts is sufficient to be counted as the whole: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Three-in-One and the One in Three.       Those who have seen the Son have seen the Father, for in the Son “dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 1:9, KJV).  The whole of John 14 is devoted to Jesus’ assurances to His disciples that He is in the Father and the Father is in Him, and that after Jesus is gone from the earth, the Holy Spirit will be the new Presence of the unified Son and Father, functioning as Comforter and Teacher for the disciples.  Embracing the Light of the Holy Spirit banishes the darkness of our poor attempts to find sufficiency in anything but God Himself. The best antidote to substituting any part for the whole is submitting wholly to the total sufficiency of God’s love and grace, wherein we can integrate the parts of our lives.

Image: Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler By Heinrich Hofmann - Riverside Church, New York, Public Domain,


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)