by Abbot Joseph Homick
After 2000 years of Christianity, that question is probably not foremost in the minds of followers of Jesus. But at the beginnings of the Christian revelation it was one of the most important and burning questions. It is also in a sense at the origin of the endless faith/works debates that have unnecessarily plagued Western Christianity for the past several centuries.
The first Christians were Jewish converts. Yet that is not precise. They were Jews who accepted Jesus Christ as the Messiah and didn’t really think they were converting to or from anything. It is only when Judaism and Christianity began to be understood as distinct religions that one could be thought of as converting from one to the other. One of the main differences is that Christianity accepted Gentiles as members on the basis of faith, and Judaism did not—unless they fully adopted all the specific practices and rites that made one a Jew. But even as converts they did not have the same status as those in the bloodline of the Patriarchs.
So here is the issue. The first Christians, being Jews, believed (on the basis of the revelation of the Scriptures) that the Jews were God’s chosen people and that if one were to be saved, one had to be incorporated into this people. But when Gentiles started believing in Jesus, and even received the Holy Spirit—without having first become Jews—a great controversy erupted in the infant Church. We see evidence of this in the Acts of the Apostles and also in St Paul’s Letters to the Galatians and the Romans. Since I’m reading Romans now, I’ll focus on that.Paul’s basic argument in Romans 2-4 is about the relationship of Judaism to Christianity. The faith/works issue is related to that, but it is not what people often make it out to be. The issue is not faith vs. works (as in doing good deeds), but faith vs. “works of the law.” Paul states that “no human being will be justified [i.e., made righteous] in God’s sight by works of the law… the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:20-22). “Works of the law” are those practices that make one Jewish, like keeping the Sabbath and the dietary laws, but especially circumcision, to which Paul refers repeatedly in these chapters. So what Paul is saying is not that only faith—to the exclusion of good deeds, that is, keeping God’s commandments—is necessary for salvation, but rather that one need not become a Jew first before believing in Christ unto salvation. He makes this very clear when he puts these two sentences together: “We hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Or is God the God of Jews only?” (3:28-29). Faith is required of both Jews and Gentiles, but circumcision and other “works of the law” that define one as a Jew are not required of Gentiles.
It might seem that in chapter four Paul is talking about ordinary good works as somehow opposed to faith, but then he immediately brings in circumcision again to make it clear that the Jewish issue is the main one he is discussing. And even if some sayings of Paul do seem to oppose good works to faith, we have to realize that what we believe in is the Gospel of Christ, not just the Gospel of Paul or any other individual biblical author. The Gospel of Christ contains Paul and James and Peter and John and everything in the New Testament (and everything in the Old that is fulfilled in the New). So divine revelation has to be taken as a whole, and as a whole it is impossible to derive a doctrine of “faith alone” for salvation, when Scripture says repeatedly that we will ultimately be judged by God on the basis of works or “what we have done.” Paul himself says it right in this section of Romans: “[God] will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life [sounds like salvation to me!]; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury [sounds like damnation to me!]… There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil… but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good” (Rom. 2:6-10)
I remember years ago when one prominent evangelist publicly criticized Mother Teresa for her good works, which he said would not save her. He may have been thinking of certain passages of Paul, but evidently he hadn’t read what Paul’s Lord and Master said about feeding, clothing, visiting and caring for Him in the person of the needy. Christ gave that as the criterion for the final judgment: those who do it go to Heaven and those who don’t do it go to Hell (see Mt 25:31-46). So it is impossible to assert that faith without works will save us—that is, impossible to assert such a thing if we believe in the words of Jesus Christ, the Word of God.
Even Paul didn’t say that we’ll be saved without doing good works, for doing what is right is to keep the commandments, it is to do the will of God, and without doing the will of God no one can be saved (see, for example, Mt 7:21). Paul was only saying that one does not have to perform those works that make one a Jew in order to receive the righteousness that comes from faith, for faith as such doesn’t rest on circumcision or any other similar “work.” (He gave us several lists of things that will keep us out of the Kingdom of God, faith or no faith.) Sometimes I wish that controversy never surfaced in the early Church, because then Paul wouldn’t have had to be so vociferous in denouncing it, and he wouldn’t have been so widely misinterpreted centuries later by people trying to force his words into a completely different context
In any case, here’s the short form: put your faith in Christ and obey his commandments. Love and forgive one another as He has loved and forgiven you. Endure to the end and you shall be saved. And pray that Jews and Gentiles alike will be saved through the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Abbot Joseph Homick is the Abbot of Mt Tabor Monastery (officially called Holy Transfiguration Monastery) in Redwood Valley, California.
Permission is granted to copy or quote from his posts for use elsewhere under two conditions: you don’t alter the text and you acknowledge the source.
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