I object, Your Honor!
Ken, you can cite as many passages as you like to support the idea that Scripture consistently teaches that to receive the blessing of God we must trust him (faith) and do what he tells us to do (obedience). You can soften this by adding that this has never meant that God required perfect obedience (any more than we Protestants believe he requires perfect faith) and that the merciful God has always provided a means of atonement and forgiveness for failures to trust and obey. You can attempt to make your argument more palatable by saying that in the end our obedience is as much a work of God’s grace and Spirit within us as we Protestants believe our faith to be. But no matter how many spices you put on this dish, it’s still a bad dish.
After all, does not St Paul explicitly and repeatedly state that we are justified by faith and NOT by works?
Doesn’t he say in Galatians 2:16 that “a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”? Doesn’t he say in Romans 3:28, “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law?” Doesn’t he say in Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved though faith… not because of works, lest any man should boast”?
I’ve saved this issue until now because I wanted to first think through the nature of justification. But it’s this issue of ‘faith versus works’ that most people (Protestant as well as Catholic) have in mind when they think of Luther and the entire justification debate. Both issues are important and on both I believe Luther fundamentally misunderstood what St Paul was saying.
FAITH AND WORKS
So to the question: What does St Paul mean when he says, as he does in various places, that justification is by faith in Christ and “not by works” or “not by works of the law” or “apart from works” or “apart from works of the law?”
What Protestantism takes Paul to mean is that we don’t have to do anything to be saved. Just believe.
In other words, they take “works” or “works of the law” to refer to the general notion that one would have to do something to enter heaven, that the path for Christians is like the path was for Noah, Abraham and all the Old Testament saints: faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing. They read Paul as saying, “No, for Christians the path is faith alone.”
Rather than torturing you with a long inductive argument leading to a conclusion that remains mysterious until the end, this time I want to simply state what I believe Paul is saying in these passages and then present my Scriptural reasons for saying this. Here goes:
In these passages, Paul is not teaching that we don’t have to do anything in order to be saved. He’s not pitting faith against obedience when he says “faith, not works of the law.” He’s saying that Gentiles don’t have to become Jews in order to be saved.
Here’s my argument in five steps:
ONE: When we read the Old Testament prophets, we never find them complaining about Jews who think they need to obey God’s commandments in order to receive his blessings. Those are the good guys. The Jews they complain about – and rail against! – are those who think they don’t need to live the moral commands of God in order to receive his blessings, that being a descendant of Abraham and member of the covenant people of Israel is enough.
There were always those children of Abraham who, like Noah and Abraham, Moses and David, loved God, trusted him, and did their best to walk in his commandments. These were Psalm 119 kinds of people: “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps 119:97).
But there were also those who did not. They thought they had it made in the shade (a technical Hebrew idiom) because they were ‘the right people.’ They assumed they would be blessed because they wore those badges of identity that marked them out as separate from the sinful gentile nations around them; primarily, circumcision, Sabbath, and the food laws.
These are the people the Lord is talking about when he says through the prophet Isaiah,
The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me? says the Lord. I have had more than enough of burnt offerings . . . I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats . . . Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations — I cannot bear your evil assemblies . . . Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.
Notice God does not say, “You guys keep thinking you have to do something in order to be blessed. What I want is faith alone.”
What God says is, “You guys keep thinking you don’t have to do something in order to be blessed. What I want is faithful obedience and not this arrogant reliance on your status as the descendants of Abraham and children of the covenant!”
TWO: When we come to the New Testament, we find John the Baptist dealing with exactly the same kinds of people and preaching exactly the same message as Isaiah.
Remember when the Pharisees and Sadducees come out to see John? What does he say to them?
He does not say, “Listen, you need to understand that you don’t need to do anything to be saved. You guys have got it all wrong thinking you need to please God with your obedience. What God wants is faith! Instead, he says to them exactly what Isaiah said to the Jews of his day.
Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham (Matthew 3:8-9).
Their problem (as in Isaiah’s time) is not that they think they need to obey God’s commandments in order to receive his blessing.
Their problem is the exact reverse: they think they don’t need to obey God’s commandments in order to receive his blessing. In their minds having “Abraham as our father” is all that matters. To which John responds, “No. I want to see true faith and true obedience in your lives. You need to stop presuming that being a Jew is enough.” As we read in verse 10, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
THREE: This is the same attitude Paul was dealing with in the early Church.
Early on, as the Gospel spread outside Palestine and Gentiles were entering the church, we begin to hear about certain Jewish believers who are having a hard time with Gentiles becoming Christians and not keeping the customs of Moses.
We meet them first in Acts 15:1: “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'” Notice they’re not saying that in order to be saved, Gentiles need to love God and neighbor and strive to do good. They’re saying that unless the Gentiles are circumcised (essentially become Jews) they cannot be saved.
In fact, the very first council of the Christian Church met because of this exact issue! (Acts 15)
Now, nearly a decade later, Paul returns to Jerusalem and finds the same situation. He meets with James, the leader of the Church in Jerusalem. He shares what God has been doing through him among the Gentiles and James immediately responds,
You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed; they are all zealous for the law and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs (Acts 21:20,21).
In other words, this is the background to Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians. This is what Paul was dealing with: Jewish believers who were continually fighting him and insisting that in order to be saved Gentiles needed to receive circumcision and observe the customs of Moses.
FOUR: When Paul uses the words “works” and “works of the law,” this is what he’s referring to.
Now, it’s true that no one can ‘earn’ salvation by working really hard to pick himself up by his own moral bootstraps. Protestants are correct in this. We do not earn our salvation as though we were God’s employees providing needed serviced to God and receiving the paycheck of eternal life.
But, this is not what Paul is talking about in the passages most often cited.
In Galatians 2:16 Paul writes, “[We] know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” Luther and Protestants since have taken this this to mean that we don’t have to do anything to be saved. Just believe. But when we read through Galatians looking for hints of who Paul is dealing with and what he has in mind by “works of the law,’ looking for illustrations of what he’s talking about, it becomes clear that he’s dealing with the same people and the same issues the church was dealing with in Acts 15.
He identifies clearly the enemies he has in his mind who have been disturbing the Galatian believers. He refers to them as the “circumcision party.” He talks about how certain Christians were demanding that Titus be circumcised (2:1-4). He talks about how when certain Jewish believers came “from James,” Peter “fearing the circumcision party” separated himself from the Gentile believers and would not eat with them (2:11,12). He talks about how in Christ there is no more Jew and Gentile (3:28). At one point, in exasperation, he cries out, “You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years! I am afraid I have labored over you in vain” (4:11). Everywhere you look in Galatians it’s circumcision and food laws and Sabbaths and new moon festivals and annual feasts. This is what Paul’s enemies are insisting on for Gentiles to be saved.
And it’s the same in Romans.
If Paul wants to stress that we’re saved by faith apart from obedience, why does he spend so much time in Romans talking about circumcision? He explains to the Jewish believers that “circumcision is of value” only if one is really living in obedience to God. He stresses that “he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly [i.e. circumcision] . . . He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart” (2:25-29). Paul spends most of chapter four making an elaborate argument about how Abraham was the friend of God before he received circumcision.
He wants his readers to understand that it isn’t about being a Jew. This isn’t what matters to God.
In both Galatians and Romans, we we do not find Paul pitting faith against obedience. In fact, as we’ve seen in previous posts, Paul repeatedly insists that we must persevere in “doing good” in order to reap the harvest of eternal life (e.g. Galatians 6:6,7; Romans 2:6-16).
When Paul speaks of how we are justified apart from “law” or “works” or “works of the law,” he’s not saying we are justified apart from the need to love God and neighbor and imitate the faithful obedience of a Noah or an Abraham. He’s answering false teachers he’s dealing with at that moment and he’s saying that Gentiles do not need to become Jews, receive circumcision and keep the customs of Moses.
One of the strongest evidences that this is what Paul has in mind in Romans is the fact that immediately after making his classic statement in 3:28, “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law,” he asks the strangest rhetorical question: “Or is God the God of Jews only?” (3:29). Think about it: If “works of the law” in Paul’s meant “being obedient to God,” as Luther thought, why would he immediately ask, “Or is God the God of Jews only?” Clearly in his mind “works of the law” had to do with being Jewish.
FIVE: There are three little passages in Paul that I think virtually prove that the interpretation I’ve given here of what Paul was opposing in his ministry and what Paul was affirming, is true.
Three times the apostle tells his readers exactly what doesn’t count with God and what does count with God.
In Galatians 5:6 he writes, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.” In Galatians 6:15, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”
These passages clearly support the idea that what Paul was dealing with in Galatia was the Judaizers. It isn’t about being Jewish or not being Jewish, he says. It’s about having a faith that works through love and being a new creation in Christ.
But it’s the third passage I have in mind that I think puts the nail in the coffin of imagining that faith vs. works in Paul means faith vs. obedience. In 1 Cor 7:19 the apostle writes:
For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.
Allow that little passage to sink in. It’s not about being a Jew or not being a Jew, Paul says. It’s about obedience to God’s commandments.
So here we have Paul — the one who supposedly taught Luther that we don’t have to do anything to be saved, that justification is by faith alone — clearly teaching that what counts with God is keeping him commandments.
Paul’s complete teaching about the Law is the most confusing aspect of his entire theology. He says a lot more about the Old Testament Law than what we’ve looked at here, and much of it, as Peter says, is “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16).
But what we’ve covered in this lesson isn’t that hard to understand. And it supports the argument that from Abel to Noah to Abraham to Moses to Isaiah to John the Baptist to Jesus to Paul, Scripture presents us with a consistent message: we make our way to God and to eternal life as we respond to God’s grace in faith and the obedience of faith. God is merciful. He’s there to pick us up and dust us off and send us on our way whenever we fall. But this is the path to eternal life.