Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
It’s amazing to think about how much the church has grown in the 2000 years since Christ’s death and resurrection. And yet, after such a long time to figure things out, Christians are still arguing over faith vs. works. To be fair, I’ll acknowledge that most mainstream protestant churches lean towards the faith side of things. Since I’m not a Catholic, I can’t really speak for their current beliefs either. However, there’s still a ridiculous amount of people who seem to think that they can balance their good from the bad and end up in heaven because of it.
Paul dealt heavily with faith vs. works in his day, in the form of whether or not it was necessary for guys to undergo circumcision. And by “Paul dealt with” what I mean is that he wrote really angry letters and preached quite vehemently against people who advocated the practice of membership. You can get a taste of it in Philippians 3:2; “Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.” This wasn’t an isolated note about the “Judaizers” of Paul’s day. He also wrote in Galatians 5:12, “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” Paul was a dude with anger issues before being saved, and although the love of Christ quelled most of that, people who advocated circumcision really boiled his blood. But such people are understandable during Paul’s time; as most of the New Testament hadn’t been released publically (or even fully written) yet. Well meaning Christians today who claim that baptism is a necessary part of salvation don’t really have the same excuse (nor do they seem to understand the paradox in their argument). [Note: I’m not knocking baptism; baptism is totally cool, as is circumcision. However, some people don’t seem to draw the connections between the two.]
A large part of the great schism dealt with the issue of faith vs. works as well. The church of the time was leery of letting lay people read the Bible, but continued to hammer into the general public that sin = hell. While this is true, the ways to get out of hell being preached were rather erroneous as there was far more of a focus on buying your way out of purgatory (which doesn’t even show up in the Bible) through indulgences or managing to stay alive long enough to hit a year of jubilee or some other special church occasion that would warrant a mass-forgiving rather than actually believing in Christ’s sacrifice for your salvation. This is why when Luther as well as other proto-protestants eventually read the Bible, they said, “Hey, none of this stuff actually goes along with Scripture.”
Ok, so what are some key Scriptures with faith vs. works? Let’s first check out Romans 10:5-13;
Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: “The man who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile- the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Let’s break this down a little. First, Paul goes to the Law to find his answers. Moses notes that’s if you follow the Law, you have to live by it (which is essentially impossible and therefore Paul is saying that if you follow the Law you’re damned by it). Moses also notes that you shouldn’t ask who’s going up or down and Paul compares this with messing with Jesus’ position. Then comes the big statement: acknowledge Jesus in your heart and say it with your mouth and you will be saved. Paul then spends the rest of the paragraph explaining it (citing the prophets as he does so). Seems pretty clear cut then that faith overrides works, right? Ok, moving on then to Philippians 2:12-13,
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed- not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence- continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
Ok, now these verses, also by Paul, seem to suggest that we’re to “work out” our salvation. This appears to support works over faith. However, Paul notes that it is God who helps us to perform good works. And it stands to reason that God wouldn’t help you if your relationship with him wasn’t already fixed by Jesus. So again we seem to see faith winning over works (though being tied to them). Let’s take a look then at Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast.” Alright, at this point it seems pretty clear that salvation comes by faith, not through works. Oh, but I’ve only been quoting Paul. Let’s see what James has to say on the situation:
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that- and shudder.
You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone (James 2:18-24).
Luther actually wanted James out of the Bible because of this Scripture. Are you confused yet? Paul goes on and on about how faith is the only thing needed for salvation, and then James says that you must also have works to be fully justified. Things are only compounded when you consider that Paul (who appears to be at odds with James on the most important part of Christendom) also noted, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If this is true, then how do we handle a New Testament that can’t even agree on salvation? And so the church has fought for centuries.
Luckily, an easy, concise explanation of all of this is found in the book of Acts. As Paul tries to convert high members of the government while in chains, he explains our situation with faith and works more clearly to King Agrippa. He states,
So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds (Acts 26:19-20).
Through this short note to the king, Paul explains that we are saved when we come to the Lord through faith, but then it is by our (God-assisted) deeds that we prove our status as being “saved.” In this way both Paul and James are right in their writings. Paul says salvation is only through faith, which is true. But James notes that without works it’s pretty hard to claim you’re a Christian, as works will follow salvation. So he too is proven correct.
When the church fathers wrote to the Gentiles, they actually excluded most of the Law; we read,
We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul- men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
Farewell (Acts 15:24-29).
They didn’t even mention anything like not stealing or avoiding murder. Rather, the focus of Paul’s teaching was on Jesus. Paul explains why in Romans 2:14-15,
(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them).
After coming to Christ, a person’s heart is changed and rather than having to follow the Law of Moses, Paul found that people are changed through the Holy Spirit- having the law already being hardwired into their systems.
Every other religion relies on works. Even nonbelievers think that if there is some sort of afterlife, it likely has some form of a works system. However, this is not what the Bible says. Even Jesus noted that faith is the deciding factor when he taught, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The key to salvation is the belief in and trusting of Jesus and his sacrifice. Consider this: our New Testament was chosen and canonized by a church that (as we already read) didn’t even fully adhere to the Scriptures it chose. This is because the Holy Spirit overpowered their personal opinions to make sure the right doctrine was in writing, and so although the church was saying “Salvation by works!” the very Bible they were reading was saying the opposite.
If that’s not enough for you to understand that salvation is through faith alone, then consider the criminal next to Christ on the cross. History records that as he hung next to Jesus he repented. We read,
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).
This guy repented on his deathbed and Jesus just said, “Ok, see you in heaven.” He didn’t have any time for good works. Through this and all of what we’ve discussed above, it comes to reason that the Bible is pretty clear that salvation comes by faith in Christ Jesus, and that works are a product of that. How was this ever even an issue?