For the week of November 12, 2011 / 15 Heshvan 5772
Torah: Bereshit / Genesis 18:1 - 22:24
Haftarah: 2 Kings 4:1-37


Faith and Works

But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." (Bereshit / Genesis 22:11, 12; ESV)

Perhaps one of the most confusing issues in the Bible is that of the relationship between faith and works. The more I hear the issue discussed the more it seems to me that it is rife with misunderstanding. It should strike us as curious that evangelicals, who claim to take the Bible more seriously than anyone, rally around the cry of "justification by faith alone" - when we read in the New Covenant Scriptures, "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." Here it is in context:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"-and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:21-24; ESV)

Justification is a biblical term that means "being made right with God." How one is made right with God is a major issue throughout the whole Bible that becomes most controversial in the New Covenant Scriptures. This is because it was essential to determine the basis upon which non-Jews could be included in the messianic community. Many Jewish Believers in Yeshua assumed that the embracing of Torah as given by God at Mt. Sinai through Moses and as understood by the Prophets and Sages of old was that which established right standing with God. The New Covenant writers rejected this notion. While Torah was God's true and holy revelation to Israel, it had two fundamental functions. First, it was designed to prepare Israel and the world for the coming of the Messiah. And second, it stood as an indictment against Israel and the world that we all fall short of God's requirements and need God to rescue us.

When the New Covenant writers speak against justification by works they are opposing the rabbinical claim held by some messianics of their day that Israel finds right standing with God through the Torah as a system. The rabbis knew that no one could keep Torah perfectly, but by adhering to Torah to the best of one's ability, one could be confident that he was in good stead with God. Contrary to this the New Covenant writers appeal to the example of Abraham and others whose right standing with God was clearly on the basis of their trust in him (faith, belief, and trust are the same words in the biblical languages).

It would be many years later that the faith/works controversy would take a new twist and help spawn Protestantism and affect how most Bible believers view this issue today. By the Middle Ages the Church began to regard good deeds and religious rituals as the basis of right standing with God. The rediscovery of the importance of the Bible coincided with this misguided approach to justification. Thankfully there arose those who stood for biblical truth and reestablished the correct understanding that no system of moral or ritualistic effort could ever satisfy God's requirements. Right standing with God could only come about through faith in the Messiah.

While the Protestant remedy rightly redirected us to the Biblical teaching of justification by faith, it tended to play down the place of works so much that today many Bible believers get nervous whenever someone seeks to restore works to their proper biblical place.

It is possible that this was already happening in the first century, which would explain why James addresses it. The balance between faith and works is actually all through the pages of the Bible. Right standing with God cannot be achieved by anything we do. God is the one who justifies us. Trusting in him and what he has done through Yeshua the Messiah is what makes us right with him. Good works and religious activities are the necessary fruit of real faith. Works don't produce right relationship with God, but those who claim right relationship with God yet lack the resulting fruit are most likely hypocrites.

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