The relationship between faith, works, and the law in biblical theology is a profound and multifaceted topic. Let’s start by looking at ACTS 21, so that we can get a clear picture from the Apostle Paul of what the issue was, and how we balance faith, works and the law.
In Acts 21, the tension between adherence to OT law and the emerging NT faith, particularly in the context of diverse cultural backgrounds, is vividly illustrated. This passage presents a critical examination of how early believers navigated the complex relationship between traditional OT law and the teachings of Yahshua the Messiah, especially in the multicultural setting of Jew and Gentile believers. It highlights the efforts of the Apostles, especially Paul, to balance respect for Israelite customs with the distinct identity of the NT faith, reflecting a broader theme of cultural adaptation and religious evolution in the early assembly.
In Acts 21, the account focuses on Paul's return to Jerusalem and his interaction with the Israelite believers in the Messiah there. The passage highlights a few key points relevant to the understanding of law and faith:
1. Paul's Ministry Among Gentiles: Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Paul reports on his ministry among the Gentiles and the conversions happening there (Acts 21:17-19). 2. Israelite Believers and the Law: Israelite believers living in Jerusalem are described as zealous for the law. They were concerned about rumors that Paul was teaching Jews living among Gentiles to abandon Moses' teachings, including practices like circumcision (Acts 21:20-21). 3. Paul's Actions: The Jerusalem leaders ask Paul to join in the purification rites with four men who had taken a vow, to demonstrate that he respects the law and does not teach Jews to abandon Moses. This act was intended to show that Paul lived in obedience to the law (Acts 21:23-24). 4. Different Instructions for Gentile Believers: For Gentile believers, the leaders in Jerusalem had previously decided (as recorded in Acts 15) that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, blood, meat of strangled animals, and sexual immorality, but they were not required to follow the entire Mosaic Law (Acts 21:25).
This narrative illustrates the early struggle to balance the observance of the law with the new faith in the Messiah, particularly in how it applied differently to Jew and Gentile believers. There is a balance that we must find in observing the law and applying grace through faith.
1. Faith in the Messiah for Salvation: Central to the New Testament belief is the notion that faith in the Messiah Yahshua is the primary means of salvation. This is based on verses like John 3:16 and Ephesians 2:8-9, which emphasize faith in Yahshua for eternal life and salvation as a gift from God, not earned by works. 2. The Role of Works: While faith is seen as the key to salvation, works (good deeds or obedience to God's commands) are often viewed as the natural outcome of genuine faith. James 2:17 states, "faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." This suggests that a living, active faith naturally produces good works. 3. The Demons' Believe: The reference to demons believing in James 2:19 ("You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.") indicates that mere intellectual assent is not true faith. True faith involves trust and commitment, not just belief in existence. 4. The Law and Salvation: In New Testament theology, the law (God's commands) is important but is not seen as a means to earn salvation. The law is often viewed as a guide to how one should live and a mirror that shows humans their need for a savior due to their inability to fully keep the law (Romans 3:20). 5. Balance between Faith and Works: The balance lies in understanding that salvation is believed to be a gift received through faith, not by works, yet that genuine faith leads to a transformation that produces good works. Works are seen as evidence of faith, not the basis of salvation. 6. Implications for Holy Living: This balance impacts a believer’s life by emphasizing a relationship with the Messiah (faith) as the foundation, which then manifests in actions (works) that reflect Messiah’s teachings and love. 7. Judgment and Works: In Matthew 25, the emphasis on works (feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, etc.) in the context of judgment underscores the belief that how one lives and treats others is a reflection of one's faith and relationship with God.
In New Testament theology, faith in the Messiah is seen as essential for salvation, with works being a natural and necessary fruit of that faith, rather than a means to earn salvation. The law, meanwhile, serves as a guide and a means to understand the human need for grace.
In New Testament theology, the consequences of not obeying God's laws, despite claiming to have faith, involve several key considerations:
1. Faith and Obedience: Genuine faith in New Testament belief is expected to produce obedience to God's laws. The New Testament often stresses that true faith in Yahshua leads to a transformed life, one that seeks to obey God's commands. 1 John 2:4, for example, states, "Whoever says, 'I know him,' but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person." 2. The Role of Grace: The New Testament teaches that salvation is a gift of grace through faith in Yahshua, not earned by adherence to the law. However, this grace is not a license to ignore the law. Romans 6:1-2 addresses this, asking, "Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!" 3. Evidence of Faith: In the a New Testament perspective, good works and obedience to God's laws are seen as evidence of genuine faith. James 2:26 says, "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead." Therefore, a professed faith without obedience might be questioned regarding its authenticity. 4. Consequences of Disobedience: The New Testament warns of spiritual consequences for those who claim faith but live in persistent disobedience. This includes the loss of fellowship with God, spiritual stagnation, and in some interpretations, questioning the authenticity of one's faith. 5. Repentance and Forgiveness: The New Testament also emphasizes the importance of repentance. 1 John 1:9 states, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." This suggests that when believers fail to obey, confession and repentance are crucial steps to restore their relationship with God. 6. Judgment According to Deeds: While salvation is seen as a gift of grace through faith, the New Testament also speaks of judgment according to deeds. For instance, in Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats suggests that how one acts (particularly towards others) is important in God’s eyes.
Salvation in the New Testament is not earned by law-keeping but is a gift received through faith, this faith is expected to result in a life of obedience and good works. Disobedience, while it does not nullify the gift of salvation, leads to spiritual consequences and calls into question the authenticity of one's faith. The law is not ignored but is fulfilled in the life of a believer through the love and grace embodied in Yahshua Messiah.
From a purely biblical perspective, the issue of obedience to God's commandments, including the Ten Commandments and Mosaic Law, can be understood as follows:
1. The Ten Commandments: In the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments (found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) are presented as fundamental laws given by God to the Israelites. They include directives about worship, personal morality, and social ethics. These commandments were central to the covenant between God and Israel. 2. Mosaic Law: Beyond the Ten Commandments, the Mosaic Law, detailed in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, includes a wide range of laws covering various aspects of daily life, religious practice, and social justice. These laws were specific to the Israelites and their covenant relationship with God. 3. New Testament Perspective: In the New Testament, the approach to the Old Testament law, particularly for non-Israelite (Gentile) believers, shifts. Yahshua is seen as fulfilling the law (Matthew 5:17). The apostle Paul, in letters such as Romans and Galatians, argues that salvation comes through faith in the Messiah and not by the works of the law. However, he also upholds the moral principles of the law. 4. Yahshua’s Summarization of the Law: Yahshua summarized the law as love for God and love for neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). This summarization encapsulates the essence of the Ten Commandments and is presented as a guiding principle for believers. 5. Obedience to God’s Commandments: Throughout the Bible, obedience to God is emphasized as a sign of faith and commitment. In the Old Testament, obedience to the law was integral to the Israelites' relationship with God. In the New Testament, while adherence to the Mosaic Law (especially its ceremonial and civil aspects) is not required for Gentile believers, moral and ethical principles, particularly those embodied in the Ten Commandments, continue to be upheld. 6. Relevance of the Law in the New Testament: The New Testament teaches that while the ceremonial and civil aspects of the Mosaic Law are not binding on Gentile believers, the moral law, as a reflection of God’s character and will, remains relevant.For instance, the moral imperatives of the Ten Commandments are reiterated in various forms in the New Testament.
From a biblical narrative standpoint, the Ten Commandments and the moral principles of the Mosaic Law hold significant relevance. While the New Testament shifts the focus from law-keeping to faith in the Messiah, it upholds the moral and ethical teachings of the law, emphasizing them as an expression of love towards God and neighbor. Obedience to God, in this context, is less about legalistic adherence to a set of rules and more about living in a way that reflects God's character and commands. A believer who breaks the Ten Commandments but claims to have faith in the Messiah would be considered as sinning. This perspective is based on several biblical principles:
1. Definition of Sin: Sin is generally defined in the Bible as disobedience to God's commandments (1 John 3:4). Therefore, breaking the Ten Commandments, which are seen as fundamental laws given by God, would be classified as sin. 2. Faith and Obedience: The New Testament emphasizes that true faith in the Messiah should lead to a transformation of heart and behavior. 3. New Testament Reaffirmation of the Commandments: Many of the Ten Commandments are reaffirmed in the New Testament. For example, Yahshua discusses the commandments against murder and adultery in Matthew 5, deepening their meaning to include not just actions but also attitudes and thoughts. 4. Grace and Repentance: While biblical theology teaches that salvation is by grace through faith in the Messiah and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9), this does not give believers a license to sin. Instead, believers are called to repentance and a continual turning away from sin. 1 John 1:9 emphasizes the importance of confessing and turning away from sins. 5. The Role of the Holy Spirit: The indwelling of the Holy Spirit in believers is seen as aiding in living a life that honors God’s commandments. The Spirit is seen as a guide and helper in the process of sanctification, which includes growing in obedience to God's laws.
While Christians believe that salvation is based on faith in Yahshua, this faith is expected to result in a lifestyle that seeks to obey God's commandments, including the Ten Commandments. Breaking these commandments, while forgivable through repentance and God's grace, is still considered sin according to biblical teachings. Emphasis must be made in the distinction of the Israelite requirements, and the Gentile requirements. An Example would be the Sabbath day. A significant aspect of biblical theology, particularly the distinction in religious practices and covenant obligations between Israelites (Jews) and Gentiles in the context of early believers, as seen in Acts 21 and other New Testament writings must be clarified. The Distinction in Acts 21: In Acts 21, Israelites, including Paul, are shown practicing Old Testament rites, like purification, while still professing faith in the Messiah. This reflects their continued cultural and religious identity as Jews. On the other hand, Gentile believers were not required to adopt the ceremonial laws, as affirmed in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). The Sabbath and Israelites: For Israelites, the Sabbath was a central aspect of their covenant relationship with God, instituted at Mount Sinai and encompassing more than just rest – it was a sign of their identity and relationship with God (Exodus 31:16-17). The physical observance of the seventh day was a part of this. Sabbath in the Context of the New Covenant: The New Covenant, prophesied in the Old Testament (e.g., Jeremiah 31:31-34) and inaugurated by Yahshua, is first made with the house of Israel and Judah.
1. Gentiles and the Sabbath: For Gentile Christians, the physical observance of the seventh-day Sabbath as a covenant sign is not mandated in the New Testament. Instead, the emphasis is placed on the spiritual rest in the Messiah and principles of the Sabbath – a rest from striving for salvation through works, and an invitation to dedicate time for worship and reflection. 2. Two-fold Understanding of the Sabbath: This leads to a two-fold understanding of the Sabbath in New Testament theology: For Israelite believers, there is a continuation of the cultural and covenantal observance of the Sabbath, acknowledging its fulfillment in the Messiah. For Gentile believers, the emphasis is more on the spiritual rest and principles of the Sabbath, observed in the freedom and flexibility offered by the New Covenant. 3. Unity in Diversity: The New Testament reflects a pattern where Israelite and Gentile believers, while having distinct cultural and covenantal backgrounds, are united in their faith in the Messiah. This unity respects cultural differences, including practices like Sabbath observance, within the broader framework of the faith.
In conclusion, this reflects the broader biblical theme of the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the Messiah, while acknowledging their distinct covenantal and cultural backgrounds. This results in different, yet complementary, approaches to practices such as Sabbath observance within the believing community.
Make sure to read "The Spirit of the law VS. The Letter of the law" for deeper context: