Are we Saved by Faith or Works? (Part 2 of 3)

Note: This post is a continuation of my previous post. Click here to find it.

Picture yourself at the gym, having just completed a gnarly workout. You’ve been doing this every day since you were practically a fetus. The intense work out took a lot of time, sweat, and (not in front of others) tears. You devoted your life to staying healthy and strong (and I mean ripped!).

Then one day, while talking with a friend, you discover that he, too, is gaining muscle mass and getting ripped. And by the look of his progress, you might even dare to say as fast as you are.

“What’s your secret?” you ask him. “What gym do you go to? How long do you train?”

“Gym?” He laughs. “No, no, no. I don’t go to any gym. I don’t have time for that.”

You raise an eyebrow.

He continues, “I drink this new protein shake. Experts say that by drinking it you can put on muscle mass just by sitting on your couch. Who needs to go to the gym to be healthy, right?”

Your blood pressure rises. You wonder how that scrawny brat can claim to be as healthy as you are while you’ve slaved in the gym your entire life! That new protein shake is cheating!

If you can appreciate the frustration, you might understand what some of the Jews were thinking when Christianity replaced Judaism.

First Century Judaism

Pride in the Law
If you were a Jew in the times of Jesus, you would have been immersed in Jewish customs from an early age. You would live by the laws set forth in the days of Moses (referred to as the Law of Moses). You would eat by the Law, wash yourself by the Law, worship by the Law, and even celebrate by the Law. It wasn’t an easy lifestyle, but nobody said being God’s chosen people would be easy, right?

Jimmy Akin explains that from St. Paul’s perspective,“The Jewish people were chosen by God in such a way that, in order to experience forgiveness and salvation, one must become a Jew. For men, that would mean accepting circumcision, and for both men and women it would mean adopting a Jewish identity and embracing the Law of Moses as a way of life.”1

And no doubt, they took pride in their ways. After all, they were the chosen people, and they worked hard for that title. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says that the Jews even “boast in Torah (the law) and boast of [their] relation to God” (Rom 2:17). They were bound by the law, and they were proud of it, just like the jock who is proud of his intense workouts.

A Life Set Apart
Part of the Jewish law, however, required that Jews live separated from the Gentiles (i.e. anyone who isn’t a Jew). We see this when St. Peter says to the crowd at Cornelius’ house: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile” (Acts 10:28).

Yet in spite of the rigor required to obey the Law, humanity needed more to save their souls. People couldn’t obey the law perfectly. Humanity still needed a savior.

From the Old to the New Covenant

What Changed?
In first century Palestine, something radical happened. Christianity emerged from the roots of Judaism. Jesus of Nazareth, a devout Jew, died on the cross, rose from the dead, and established a New Covenant. The New Covenant made waves among the Jews. Many Jews converted to Christianity within days of its advent, while many more would continue to convert as the early Church matured.

But adapting to life under the New Covenant was not an easy task. It raised many important questions. What were the Christians to do with their Jewish history? Did the Law of Moses still apply? Were gentiles allowed to be Christians? At first, early Christians continued to live in accord with the Jewish law. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

[The early Christians] observed the distinction between legally clean and unclean food, refused to eat with Gentiles or to enter their houses, etc. (Acts, 10:14, 28; 11:3). At Jerusalem they frequented the Temple and took part in Jewish religious life as of old (Acts, 2:46; 3:1; 21:20-26), so that, judged from external appearances, they seemed to be merely a new Jewish sect distinguished by the union and charity existing among its members.2

As the early Church matured, however, they began to understand how Christianity would differ from Judaism. Christians were no longer bound to observe the Law of Moses, and gentiles were free to convert to Christianity without ever becoming Jews (Acts 15). The new protein shake had officially arrived. And the jocks were not pleased.

A First Century Dilemma
You can imagine that there was some tension between Jewish Christians and gentile Christians. After all, the Jews were distinguished among the nations as God’s chosen people, and they worked hard to earn that title (Ex 19:5). Now suddenly the gentiles were free to become Christians without ever having lived under the Law.

As a result, some of the Jewish Christians insisted that the gentiles must first observe the Law of Moses if they want to become Christians (i.e. they must first become Jews). In doing so, these Jewish Christians earned themselves a name in history: the Judaizers.

The early Church addressed this concern at the Council of Jerusalem, when Peter declared that the gentiles weren’t required to obey the Law of Moses (Acts 15:7-11). Despite the decision of the Church, the Judaizers continued to spread their heretical teaching through the land.

St. Paul fought this heresy, calling himself the apostle to the gentiles (Rom 11:13). We see this as he warned of the Judaizer’s teaching when he says that “there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (Gal 1:7). By insisting that gentile believers must observe the Law of Moses (or at least parts of it), the Judaizers were clinging to the Old Covenant. They weren’t fully relying on the New Covenant to save them, insisting that they were still bound to parts of the old.

But it was impossible for anyone to obey the Law perfectly. And even then, it couldn’t save mankind. The New Covenant, however, offered salvation through Jesus, which is sufficient for salvation.

Many of St. Paul’s writings emphasized this aspect of the transition from the Old to the New Covenant. In his letter to the Galatians St. Paul wrote that “it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Gal 3:11). And “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). Finally, in his letter to the Romans, St. Paul spells out the Christian belief in light of the Old Covenant:

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… to be received by faith… Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom 3:23-25, 27-28, emphasis added).

Paul made himself clear: Salvation comes from the New Covenant, as a gift from God, through Jesus. God’s followers can no longer boast in the Old Covenant, for God has revealed a new and better one: the covenant in Jesus’ blood (Luke 22:20). It’s a covenant that requires total reliance on Jesus, apart from the Law of Moses.

Closing Thoughts

It would be tempting to stop here and conclude that Christians are saved by faith alone. After all, Paul went through great lengths to squash the Judaizers’ false teaching. Many of the New Testament books of the Bible emphasized the importance of faith in a Christian’s life. And much of the emphasis seems to downplay the importance of good works.

But we would be cutting ourselves short if we stopped there. Much of the emphasis on faith can be misleading if we’re not careful. After all, Jesus spoke a great deal of the importance of our actions. And many of the New Testament instruct on proper conduct among Christians.

To anyone tempted to say that we’re saved by faith alone, there’s one more dilemma. The only time the phrase “faith alone” is used in the Bible is in the letter from James. And I quote: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24, emphasis added).

So, as we asked in the first post (see here), are we saved by faith or works? Would Paul Say “faith” while James says “works”? I doubt that the two biblical authors would disagree with each other. So we’ll build off of what we know of Israel’s history and see if we can make sense of this dilemma in my next post. Click below to continue reading.

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1. 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. 96. Print.

2. “Judaizers.” Catholic Answers. Catholic Answers, n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2017.