Paul on Grace and Works

This week my Tuesday night Bible class, The Jewish Context of the Bible, continued our discussion on famous rabbis.  This week we discussed Sha’ul (Saul/Paul).  You can find the audio on the website of Prestoncrest Church of Christ, or on my Audio Lessons page.

With Sha’ul, there is just too much to cover, and so I aimed at looking at him rabbinically.  In other words, looking at the things that Rabbi Sha’ul would have done and taught as compared to his rabbinic peers of the day.  Unfortunately, even with that narrowing of him, we ran out of time.  At the end I hit on this question: how does this new thing about grace through Messiah mesh with the Jewish lifestyle of following God’s Torah?  This was a major issue for him to cover, and so here now is my thoughts on one aspect of this multi-faceted issue.

One of the ladies who attends my class sent me an e-mail with her thoughts.  In it she quoted from a book she’s reading, The Jesus I Never Knew, and I thought it was so good that I wanted to share it with everyone on my blog.

Jesus’ message met a mixed response among first-century Jews, many of whom preferred the style of John the Baptist, with his insect diet and his stern message of judgment and wrath, to Jesus’ message of grace and a banquet spread for all. I can understand this odd preference for the law because of the legalistic environment I grew up in. Grace was slippery, evanescent hard to get my mind around. Sin was concrete, visible, an easy target to pounce on. Under law, I always knew where I ranked.

Wendy Kaminer, a modern Jew trying to comprehend Christianity, confesses that “as an article of faith, this doctrine of salvation by grace and grace alone is remarkably unappealing to me. It takes, I think, remarkable disregard for justice to idealize a God who so values belief over action. I prefer the God who looks down upon us (in a very old joke) and says ‘I wish they’d stop worrying about whether or not I exist and start obeying my commandments.'”

In truth we Christians, too, may find it easier to follow a God who simply says, “Start obeying my commandments.”

–P. Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, Ch. 8, “Mission: A Revolution of Grace”

I think this Jew that Yancey quotes is looking at typical evangelical Christianity with its focus on “saved by grace” to the max and with little focus on doing something.  And if that’s the true Christianity, then I would agree with this Jew.  However, the true Christianity (in my opinion) is one that focuses on this question: “Okay, I’m saved…now what do I do?”  Contrary to what most Christians say, I believe that Christianity is NOT focused on salvation.  Rather, Christianity is focused on living a life for God in this world and by doing that we bring others to do the same.  This is called “Kingdom Theology” – the idea that Jesus wants us to bring God’s Kingdom now.  It is not a future event, but it’s happening now. We are to bring God’s reign into people’s lives, and that happens any time and anywhere people submit themselves to God and obey Him.  That’s the Kingdom, and that’s why we are told to pray: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.” (Matt. 6:10)  In other words, we’re asking God to bring his Kingdom now.  What is His Kingdom?  It is, as Jesus explains, where God’s will is done on Earth as it is in Heaven.

Paul weighs in on this issue and writes something remarkable in Phillipians 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.”

You are saved by God’s Grace through faith in Jesus, but as James explains in James 2:14-26, faith without deeds is dead.  So how do the two mix?  First off, note that someone who says “I believe in Jesus” but does not do what he says is not a believer.  Jesus says, “Why do you call me, Lord, Lord, but do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46)  So if you’re really a saved Christian, then you’re trying to follow God’s commandments, working out your salvation as Paul writes in Phillipians.  But don’t think I mean to say that we can earn our salvation, rather, as Dr. Henry Morris wrote, “We are not told here to work for our salvation, but to work it out – that is, to demonstrate its reality in our daily lives.”  In other words: there is nothing you can do to gain salvation, only God provides that through Jesus, but you are then called to show that faith in your life by obeying God.

The mix of faith and works is thus: you are saved by faith, but your faith is measured by your response to God.  You can see how much faith you have by how much you put into practice God’s will in your life and when you fail grace covers the rest.  That’s how you can be saved by faith and still work out your salvation.  This reminds me of what Akiva said in the Mishnah, Avot 3:16:

“The world is judged by grace, yet all is according to the excess of works that be good or evil.”

If you truly believe that God is God and that He has saved you, then your response should be to totally put His commands into practice.  Thus, a Christian trying with all their might to follow God’s commands is “living by faith”.  That is the Christianity I subscribe to, and I think that this Jew that Yancey quoted would have a different take on it were she to hear this version.

Peace to you,

James

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5 thoughts on “Paul on Grace and Works

  1. Good write up James. I have recently been reading, studying and praying about the law:grace relationship. You are dead on when speaking about “lawless” Christians. Paul confronts this terrible error, known later as antinomianism, in his epistles using such language as Romans 2:12-13: “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” Obviously, we have context to take into account here, but the point remains that “If we love Him, we will keep His commandments.”
    One thing I was hoping you could clear up; you wrote”You can see how much faith you have by how much you put into practice God’s will in your life and when you fail grace covers the rest.” Can you elaborate? How does grace cover the rest? It would seem from Ephesians 2:8-9 that grace covers all and that your faith itself is of grace.
    Thanks for the thoughts.

    David

    • That statement was phrased awkwardly. My apologies. My comment was meant in this way: when you are trying to live for God with all your might, you will obviously sin less than if you didn’t try at all. Therefore, you bring less sin into life and grace has to cover less and less. But don’t get me wrong: if you sin only once, you still need grace. Grace still covers over all sin and no amount of good deeds can make up for even one sin, for the Jesus is our scapegoat and “his death is our covering.” I was merely noting that when you try to implement God’s commands in your life, you have the opposite of Paul’s writing in Romans 6:1-4 – “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

      If you are dead to sin, live like it.

      Peace,

      James

  2. What you describe here is pretty much what the Church has always taught. Not sure if you realize that or not so I thought I’d share it.

    I haven’t read lots of your blog yet, just ran across it, but I see you have a strong interest in the Jewish roots of the faith.

    I have been studying into the roots as well, particularly the aspects of the liturgy of the synagouges etc. over time. When you begin to understand Judaism ( not modern Reform judaism though ) you begin to understand the roots of the Church and you see such strong parallels its astounding.

    • Hey there friend. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You are correct: the church has always taught this.

      But surprisingly, some of the newer non-denominational churches teach a grace-only-to-the-max Christianity where all you have to do is believe and then you’re free to keep living contrary to God’s will (of course, they don’t put it that way, but that’s basically what it is). Most churches have taught what I wrote above, but in my experience very few people understand how grace and works relate to one another. Or, for Rabbi Sha’ul the observant Jew, how Grace through Christ and the Torah relate.

      Peace,
      James

  3. One semantics thought: You are saved “by grace through faith”, not “saved by faith” as you put.

    I once asked this question on another site… Does grace lead to faith, or does faith lead to grace?

    I mention that here, because one of the answers I got popped into my head while reading this… The answer (an excerpt, at least) “So grace doesn’t lead to faith, grace expects and demands faith.”

    And the reason that popped into my head was it’s what you are saying, except on a grander scale. Just as grace “expects and demands” faith, faith, in turn “expects and demands” works, as a demonstration of that faith.

    For example, I can tell my wife I love her 20 times a day, but if I don’t demonstrate that love, do I really have love? In the same way, if we don’t demonstrate our faith in God, do we really have it? It’s much more than a simple profession.

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