Are we Saved by Faith or Works? (Part 1 of 3)

Picture yourself standing on the sandy shores of a beach. You pick up a single grain of sand. Over the next ten thousand years, you take your first step. Another ten thousand years – your second step. For millions of years, you continue, pinching the grain of sand as you journey up Mt. Everest. Billions of years pass before you reach the top of the mountain. At the very top, you place the grain of sand. Turning around, you head back to the beach to retrieve another grain of sand. You continue to do this until all of the sand on the beach is on top of Mt. Everest. Just think about how much time this would take! By this time, eternity is just beginning.1

Sometimes it’s easy to underestimate how big eternity is. It’s not just a long time. It’s time without end. And what is scary is that our finite lives on earth determine where we will spend eternity. Our very lives dictate whether we “will go off to eternal punishment” or “to eternal life” (Matt 25:46). If this fact doesn’t send shivers up your spine, I don’t know what will.

If a person’s biggest goal in this life isn’t to go to heaven, there is a real problem. We should all desire heaven. So how do we get there?

Well, it depends on who you ask. Some will say that “faith in Jesus and his saving works is all you need!” Others might caution you, saying things like “you’d better behave if you want to go to heaven!” And both positions seem to disagree with one another.

Are we saved by our faith? Or are we saved by our works and deeds?

To a Christian, both might sound tempting. However, there has been a greater tendency to say we are saved by faith. Many go so far as to say that we are saved by faith alone. In fact, we gave this position the name Sola Fide – a Latin term that means “by faith alone”. The term Sola Fide originated in the 16th century, within the Protestant Reformation. Simply put, Sola Fide is the assertion that a person is saved by faith alone, apart from our deeds.

A scan through the New Testament will show ample support of this claim. Take for instance, in the Letter to the Romans, when St. Paul says that the Gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). And later that “a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom 3:28). And let’s not forget when St. Paul says that “by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph 2:8-9, emphasis added).

Could it be more plain?

Actually, yes. You see, Sola Fide sounds like a legitimate interpretation of the New Testament, but it fails to explain many other verses in the Bible. For instance, to be saved, we must be baptized (1 Peter 3:21), we must confess our sins (1 John 1:8), we must persevere to the end (Matt 24:13), we must abstain from thievery, greed, drunkenness, etc (1 Cor 6:10). The list goes on.

So how are we saved? Is it by believing that Jesus came to save us? Is it through Baptism? Through works? These are all valid and important questions, and they have been debated for centuries.

To answer these questions we must understand that when the New Testament was being written, it was a time of great transition from the Jewish customs of the Old Testament to the new way of life that Jesus introduced. If you’re like me and think it’s difficult getting used to Daylight Savings Time twice a year, you might imagine that the transition from centuries-old Judaism to Christianity was a rough one. And it was. In fact, a lot of the New Testament letters focused on the particularly difficult aspects of the transition. So to answer the aforementioned questions, we must put on our historian hats and delve deep into the life of ancient Israel.

Israel and the Law of the Old Testament

Leaving Egypt
If you were an Israelite in the times of the great exodus from Egypt, you would have witnessed some of the most extreme events in Old Testament history. After four hundred years of slavery, the Israelites watched as one of the most powerful kingdoms in the world was ravaged by a series of plagues (Exodus 7-11), all dealt by the hand of God, prophesied by a former Egyptian man named Moses. Pharaoh finally broke and agreed to free the Israelites.

Shortly after their release, Moses began to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to the promised land. After reaching the Red Sea, they looked to find Egyptian chariots in hot pursuit of them (Pharaoh was evidently about as indecisive as a moth in a disco). But God had just flogged the Egyptian kingdom with flaming hail, locusts, darkness, and many more plagues. Not to mention, He was guiding the Israelites as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:23). Surely a couple of chariots wouldn’t scare the them, right?

“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?” they exclaimed (Exodus 14:11). The Israelites completely lost their cool (never mind the pillar of fire leading us, those guys have horses!).

Then it happened. God commanded Moses to raise his staff and part the Red Sea. If you’re anything like myself, images of Charlton Heston spreading his arms before the Red Sea flood your imagination as the waters part before him. The sea separated, creating a dry path from one side to the other.  All of the Israelites crossed safely. As the Egyptians pursued, the waters closed and not one of the Egyptians survived (Ex 14:28).

The Covenant at Sinai
With Egypt now a thing of the past, God lead the Israelites through the foreign land. When they arrived at Mount Sinai, we see what God had in store for this chosen people. God wanted to make them His own by establishing a covenant with them.

Some might be wondering, “what is a covenant?” Great question.

In today’s day and age, we use contracts to establish agreements between persons. Contracts establish a trading of goods and services, and are enforceable by law. A covenant is similar to a contract. It comes from the word convenire, which in Latin means ‘to come together’ or ‘to agree’.2  A covenant establishes an agreement between persons, but it’s binding under oath to God, forming new family bonds.

We’re all familiar with at least one type of modern-day covenant: marriage. A man and a woman come together to pledge their faithfulness to one another and swear to be true to their words, until death do they part. The oath is sworn before a congregation and God when they say the words “I do”, thus sealing the covenant. From that moment on they are family. They live together under a single name, in sickness and in health.

So when God brought Israel to Mt. Sinai to establish a covenant with them, it’s a big deal. It’s here that we see what God was talking about when He said, “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God” (Ex 6:7).

But like any covenant, there must be rules. At Mount Sinai God presented the Ten Commandments to Israel (Ex 20). They weren’t just arbitrary rules. They were the “dos” and “don’ts” for how to be God’s people (like a man’s promise to be true to his wife). They spelled out what was written on man’s heart – the user’s manual for a life. The Divine doctor showed a sick people how to live a healthy life.

The next day, the covenant ceremony took place. Moses read to the Israelites the terms of the covenant and they all responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey” (Ex 24:7). Then Moses finished the ceremony and the covenant was complete. God was now officially “their God” and they were “His people”.

Honeymoon Cut Short
Once the covenant was established, God called Moses up the mountain for forty days to give him the stone tablets with the Law and Commandments inscribed upon them. During this time, God provided instructions for the Arc of the Covenant, the Tabernacle, and many other details. You might come away with the image of excited newlyweds, planning their lives together: “Oh! And we can buy a house in a beautiful neighborhood, with a backyard big enough for a dog! Or maybe two dogs!”

Meanwhile, Israel was having second thoughts. Unsure if something happened to Moses, the people began to worry. They confided in Aaron: “Come here and make us a god who will go before us, because, as for this fellow Moses who led us out of the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him” (Ex 32:1). Needless to say, that day, Israel sinned a great sin.

They crafted a calf out of gold, and began to make offerings to it, participating in immoral acts (Ex 32:6). Clearly, Israel was not ready for the responsibility that they had brought upon themselves when they agreed to the covenant. They broke their end of the deal, and now it was time to reap the punishment.

God instructed Moses to return to the people. Outraged at the scene, Moses destroyed the golden calf, along with the tablets with the law inscribed on them (Ex 32:19-20). Rather than obliterate the Israelites (as he hinted (Ex 32:10)), God allowed them to live.

As the story continues, God replaced the stone tablets and renewed the covenant with Israel (Ex 34). But Israel continued to be untrue to God, so new laws were added. We see the addition of guilt offerings (Lev 5:5-6), dietary restrictions (Deut 14:3-21), and many more “laws” that were not part of the original Ten Commandments (613 laws in all).

Jimmy Akin explains that the laws can be divided into 3 categories: moral, ceremonial, and juridical (or civil). He continues, “the moral precepts consist of items that belong to God’s natural moral law, which applies to all people in all times and cultures… the ceremonial precepts were given by God to Israel to regulate its religious life… the juridical (or civil) precepts deal with the regulations of Jewish social life.”3

So why were these laws added to the Old Covenant? I think this is where we see some of God’s paternal wisdom at play. Just imagine if a father were to walk into a room only to find his two-year-old boy diligently cleaning out the wall outlet with a metal fork.

What would he do? “Excuse me son, that’s not very safe. You shouldn’t do that anymore.”

Yeah right.

“Noooooo!” the father would yell, while scooping the child up in a panic. The boy would probably cry in all of the excitement, but at least he would be saved from being electrocuted. The father then makes a new rule: the child is no longer allowed to touch the outlets (and maybe even metal forks).

No doubt, there is nothing wrong with touching an outlet, but only if you are responsible enough to know what you are doing. I believe we see God’s fatherly genius at work as he heaps additional rules upon Israel. He did not ban, for example, the eating of pork (Lev 11:7) because pork was evil (bacon proves this). It was a rule that would help Israel grow in obedience.

That’s also why we see God repeal so many laws in the New Testament (pork is suddenly allowed in Acts 10:13-16). Israel was finally responsible enough to live under mature rules. The plastic outlet covers were finally removed.

Closing Thoughts

We’ve seen how the law of the Old Testament was developed in ancient Israel, and how many of their customs came about. Our next step lies in understanding how the Old Testament was replaced by the New Covenant, and how the deep roots of the Israelite religion made way for the seeds of Christianity. Click below to continue reading.

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1. This example was borrowed from a talk called The Truth, by Fr. Larry Richards. It can be found here:

2. Hahn, Scott. A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God’s Covenant Love in Scripture. Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger, 1998. 24. Print.

3. Akin, Jimmy. The Drama of Salvation: How God Rescues Us from Our Sins and Brings Us to Eternal Life. El Cajon, CA: Catholic Answers, 2015. 105. Print.