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Is salvation by faith or by works?

There is a huge body of scripture that says that the immoral and wicked will go to hell. For example:

Gal 5:19-21 Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

1 Cor 6:9-10 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.

These two passages are very clear about the consequence of immoral and wicked living. It is very clear that leading a good, clean, straight, morally pure life is a requirement of Christianity. That is what God expects of those who will follow him. It is true that God will forgive sins, even great sins — if a person is truly repentant and requests forgiveness. However, that repentance must be sincere. God is not a God of sham, and not one to be fooled. A person who believes that he can repeatedly sin and then erase the sin by asking for forgiveness is in great danger of self-deception. Being honestly and truly repentant is not a thing a person can necessarily do. Perhaps it is God who gives us a repentant heart and not ourselves. At any rate it is God who decides if we are truly repentant or not. If one repeatedly sins, repentance doesn’t come easily. True repentance only comes from the right kind of person. A good person. A person who still knows right from wrong. Bad people, those who are lost to morality, can’t repent.

Both of the above quoted passages are quotations from letters written by the apostle Paul. How then does Paul say the following?

Gal 2:16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

Eph 2:8-9 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.

He appears to be saying that one is saved by faith alone, and not by works. How does this assertion square with the known fact that obedience to God (and to the teachings of Jesus) in the form of clean, upright, moral living is central to Christianity? It is a perplexing paradox. We may be saved by a faith that includes obedience to God in the form of clean, moral, upright living but to say that we are saved by faith only and not by works is perplexing. It is obvious that any faith (however one defines the word “faith”) that does not include obedience to God in the form of good, clean upright living will lead to hell. I am reminded of the following comment of Peter that I suspect refers to such statements of Paul:

II Peter 3:15-16 And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction. Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness.

The apostle James also deals with this topic:

James 2:14-26 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled," but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe; and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

What did Paul mean by “works of the law”? I note that Jewish law (Mosaic law) specified a whole lot of rules, regulations, rites and practices that impacted every aspect of Jewish life. They included everything ranging from rules on what Jews could and couldn’t do on their Sabbath, to ceremonies of washing their hands before eating to procedures for cleaning pots and pans to the circumcision of males. To the Jews these rules and rites were very important and were central to their concept of right living, righteousness before God. Obedience to these rules was necessary in their minds to righteousness before God. Jesus, in his ministry, downplayed these rules, often violated them, and emphasized certain central spiritual principles: peacefulness, humility, truthfulness, kindness towards others, forgiveness of others, helping the poor and needy, moral purity, love of neighbor, etc. Jesus taught that true righteousness lay in the things he taught. Paul, in speaking of “works of the law” may have had in mind all the rites and rules of Mosaic law.

Why is the question that we have addressed important? It is important because essentially all Protestant denominations carry as a fundamental dogmatic tenet the assumption that one is saved by grace alone through faith alone, and not by works. It is a basic, starting assumption on which the entire edifice of their dogmatic system is erected. It is based on the above statements of Paul (and other similar ones). It probably started with early Protestant reformers such as John Calvin. Because of this starting assumption many denominations neglect the importance of works, the importance of obedience to the teachings of Jesus. Because of this basic tenet, they don’t understand the importance of focusing on the teachings of Jesus, of obeying his teachings, of living as he taught. In their sermons they neglect the importance of the practice of Christianity. Their sermons are lopsided in favor of dogma and doctrine. I note that Paul, Peter, John and all the apostles gave great attention to the practice. You see it in all the letters. In their letters one feels the spirit of Christianity based in the teachings of Jesus. The practice of Christianity is crucial and essential. Without it one does not have Christianity. I believe most of Protestantism has strayed far from true Christianity and I believe this basic starting assumption is a main reason.

Aug 2013

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