Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
There’s been a debate among believers for centuries as to the relationship between faith and works. One side claims that faith is everything and works don’t even factor in; the other side claims that although faith is the most important, works are important too. Oddly, there seems to be Scripture that supports both sides of this conflict. These days most folk fall somewhere in the middle of the argument; with an unsure faith and confusion as to how works play into everything. One day, while listening to the Bible, the Holy Spirit showed me a story from Mark that illustrates how works actually…work.
The story starts with someone who needs Jesus. History records,
A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing you can make me clean.”
Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured (Mark 1:40-42).
This sort of thing happens several times in the Bible, somebody asks Jesus for help and then Jesus provides. This has always been the case with the Lord. Even in the Old Testament it is written,
And everyone who calls
On the name of the lord will be saved;
For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem
There will be deliverance,
As the Lord has said,
Among the survivors
Whom the Lord calls (Joel 2:32).
When you call out to the Lord for help, he will come and help you. But this is where the story gets interesting. Mark 1:43-44 continues,
Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.
Jesus tells the man to offer a sacrifice as a testimony to his healing. The healing came first, and the man’s sacrifice was to be a response to his miraculous healing. And to be sure, the man was healed; as Jesus wouldn’t send a sick person into the Temple because the Law states that such people cannot enter:
No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is hunchbacked or dwarfed, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles (Leviticus 21:18-20).
So the healing came first, and the work of the Law was to come after that. And to be sure that this was a “saved before works” scenario, check out what happens after the man left Jesus:
Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere (Mark 1:45).
The man didn’t even listen to Jesus! After being commanded to keep his trap shut and quietly go to the Temple, the man went all around town talking about what Jesus did. It was a complete act of disobedience- and yet he remained healed (as his testimony was apparently quite effective). This man’s works were not what God wanted, and yet he was indeed saved from his troubles by the Lord.
But what of James 2’s faith and works? If you haven’t read his arguments on it, it can be summed up with, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). Coming from a faith-only background, what are we supposed to do with this? If we apply our teaching from above to this, the conclusion is that works are impossible without faith. For if works require faith (no works means faith is dead), then everything still hinges on faith. This keeps up with other Scriptures better than any sort of idea that you must use deeds to prove your faith. In fact, the Bible suggests that following the Law will in fact bring no holiness, so works alone must be worthless. For it is written, “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law’” (Galatians 3:10). Following the Law given in the Bible is by no means easy, for according to James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” But wait, if someone must keep the whole Law, and by failing at one point they condemn themselves, who then can be saved through their obedience to God? The answer is: nobody. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, everyone is flawed and lacks the perfection necessary to keep God’s commands. Solomon wrote, “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). So then, when James writes about faith and works, he must be looking things from a faith-first perspective. This means then that those who worship Christ are compelled to do right. Their deeds are not a request for salvation but rather are a natural fruit of believing in Jesus as Lord. Paul discovered this as he preached to the Gentiles (who did not have the Law of Moses over them) and realized that even though he didn’t preach the Law, they started acting within the confines of it after coming to Jesus for salvation. He writes,
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 (Romans 2:14-15).
So, rather than working towards one’s salvation, salvation manifests itself in the believer through what the Bible refers to as “Fruit of the Spirit”: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23). It is because of this process that when one teacher of the Law spoke to Jesus he actually got a positive reply. The Bible records,
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions (Mark 12:32-34).
Jesus complimented the teacher because he actually got it. The Law (or works in general) is not only second to love and faith in God in importance; it is also second in the process as well.
Moreover, beyond the fruit of righteous acts of faith, God bestows gifts on those who trust in him and serve him. Jesus told his disciples before ascending to heaven,
And these signs will accompany those who believe; In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well (Mark 16:17-18).
Now, we won’t all be snake-handlers and poison-drinkers, Paul expands on this concept and explains how spiritual gifts work in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11,
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.
But why? Why does God compel believers to do good and equip them with gifts? Why does the process exist as it does? The answer is found in the last verse of Mark’s Gospel, “Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it” (Mark 16:20). The signs and acts that come through believers in Christ Jesus confirm his word- that it is true and that God is indeed good; which is why the Lord does everything he does. For he says,
For my own name’s sake I delay my wrath;
For the sake of my praise I hold it back from you,
So as not to cut you off.
See, I have refined you, though not as silver;
I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this.
How can I let myself be defamed?
I will not yield my glory to another (Isaiah 48:9-11).
This means that our works are less our own testimony, but really they are God’s testimony through us. This is why Jesus taught, “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). For by seeing the Lord working in and through you, they will not only praise our God, but through belief in Christ they’ll be saved from hell’s open maw as well. And really, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?