In every Christian’s life I feel that there should be a time when they feel confident about their answer to the question – “What is more important, works or faith”?
Perhaps the first thing we need to ask is, has the law – the Ten Commandments – been “done away” and therefore “works” are not needed? Or should we be conscious every waking moment that we are “keeping the law”?
It is important that we understand what God requires of us, because it will make a difference as to what our priorities are, and where most of our effort is applied in our day to day living.
Before I go too much further, maybe I should define just what “works” and “faith” I am talking about. There are many types of “works” that people can do. There is the work of earning a living, being a volunteer, or working to help those who are worse off. But there is also a different type of “works”, and that is what I am talking about.
The “works” of keeping the laws, statutes and judgments of God.
By “faith” I mean our belief in God and His promises. Our conviction that God says what He means and means what He says. Our “faith” in the sacrifice of Christ, and that His spilt blood is able to atone or cover our past sins. If we have “faith” in this, our belief will be demonstrated by a changed way of living. We will be trying to come more like Christ, and less concerned about following our own agenda.
In looking at some of the Scriptures that are relevant to the question, I am going to quote from the New Living Translation (NLT). The NLT is a “thought for thought translation”, and it is helpful, at times, to focus on the concepts involved, rather than the actual words themselves. Also, by moving away from the more traditional KJV or NKJV, it can encourage us to take a fresh look at what God – through the Scriptures – is trying to tell us.
It seems that many people have arrived at different conclusions in their understanding of what the apostle Paul wrote in Galatians “ … no one will ever be saved by obeying the law” (Gal 2:16), and also “Consequently, it is clear that no one can ever be right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, ”It is through faith that a righteous person has life"”(Gal 3:11).
Some have thought that Paul was referring only to the Sacrificial Laws, but that the Ten Commandments were (and are) still required to be kept in order for us to “get” salvation. Others have taken it to mean that “the Law has been done away” or that “Christ nailed the Law to the cross”, and that any and all Old Testament law is no longer binding on us, as Christians, today. Another way that thought is often stated is that “Christ did it all for us” and all that is left for us to do is to “believe on the Name of the Lord”.
I think that most Christians who are reading this article will agree that the sacrificial laws were a type and reminder of Christ, and are no longer required today as we are told in Heb 7:18 “Yes, the old requirement about the priesthood was set aside because it was weak and useless. 19 For the law made nothing perfect, and now a better hope has taken its place. And that is how we draw near to God.” So the law being spoken about in Galatians by Paul are all the instructions of God, except for “ … that old system [that] deals only with food and drink and ritual washing – external regulations that are in effect only until their limitations can be corrected” Heb 9:10.
So, if Paul is saying is that we can’t be saved by obeying the law, we perhaps need to ask ourselves the following questions.
How important are “works”?
Is “faith” more important than “works”?
Once we start to look at some of the Scriptures that relate to this topic, we realize that the principles that are involved have far reaching consequences, and are spread throughout the Bible. So please keep in mind that this paper is more of a brief overview rather than a exhaustive one.
As I was reading The New Living Translation it seemed to me that the answer to the question about whether it is necessary to keep the Ten Commandments or not, is to be found in Romans. If we understand what Paul is saying about Faith in Romans, then I feel that it is easier to understand the relationship between our Faith and our Works – part of which is the keeping of the Ten Commandments.
Just one verse in Romans helps explain things. Rom 3:20 “For no one can ever be made right in God’s sight by doing what the law commands. For the more we know God’s law, the clearer it becomes that we aren’t obeying it”. Reading verses 19 and 20 together makes it clear that the law Paul is talking about here is the law that will be used to judge the world, the Ten Commandments, the Statutes and the Judgements.
If we can’t be made righteous (or right with God) by obeying the Ten Commandments, what hope do we have? Paul also answers this question in Rom 3:21,22. “But now God has shown us a different way of being right in His sight – not by obeying the law but by the way promised in the Scriptures long ago. We are made right in God’s sight when we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, no matter who we are or what we have done.”
Just to emphasize “what we have done”, Paul adds in verse 23 “For all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious standard.”
So immediately we can see the importance of trust in Jesus Christ. We can expand this thought and say that it is our belief, conviction or feeling that our Lord can do what He said He came to do – to give us Life (John 10:10), Living Water (John 7:37-39), the Bread from heaven (John 6:47-51) – that is far more effective in making us righteous before God, than attempting to obey all of God’s laws by our own effort. Rom 9:31,32 “But the Jews, who tried so hard to get right with God by keeping the law, never succeeded. 32 Why not? Because they were trying to get right with God by keeping the law and being good instead of by depending on faith.”
As Paul says himself, we can’t afford to forget about the Law, but we do need to get our emphasis right. We need to grow in the faith of Christ first, and then let that faith of Christ within us, keep the law. To put it another way, we first have to ask (seek and knock) God for the Holy Spirit. We then need to grow in the Holy Spirit, so that eventually we can begin to keep the law in the spirit. As Paul is bringing out in Galatians, to attempt to keep the law by our own strength will always result in failure. Yet the law has to be kept if we are going to show our Lord that we love Him (John 14:15)
Rom 3:30,31 “There is only one God, and there is only one way of being accepted by Him. He makes people right with himself only by faith, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. 31 Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the law? Of course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the law.”
Keeping the law should be allowed to come naturally AFTER we have started to develop a strong faith in Christ. Trying to keep the Law without that faith is really impossible for humans to do. We need to seek Christ first, and then in good time our minds will be changed so that we can, if we want to, love God and love our fellow man (Mat 22:37-40). Obviously, the way we go about “keeping the law” should not be to keep trying “harder and harder”. Yes, we need to know what we are aiming for, and yes, we look forward to the day when we will no longer sin (1 John 3:9), but as humans it is just not possible to “keep the law” in a way that will make us right with God. If we try to do so with our own strength, we will always fail because the Scriptures make it clear that everyone is a sinner (Rom 3:10, 1 John 1:8).
However, if we establish, strengthen and increase our faith in what Christ’s sacrifice was able to accomplish, then we can avoid the penalty of the law – which is death. Rom 3:27 “Can we boast then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on our good deeds. It is based on our faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law”.
Here, Paul shows – using Abraham as an example – that faith is “belief” in the God who can bring the dead back to life (v17), and it is being “absolutely convinced” that God will do anything (and everything) He has promised (v21). The importance of faith over works is made clear in v5 “But people are declared righteous because of their faith, not because of their work.” However, we need to keep some balance in all of this, and remember what James says in James 2:20 “ … that faith that does not result in good deeds is useless.” We should also read what Paul said in Acts 26:20b “… all must turn from their sins and turn to God – and prove they have changed by the good things they do.”
Scripture tells us faith is more important than works because it has to come first and it is through our faith that it is possible to have and do good works. But we shouldn’t forget that the “litmus test” of our faith is how much “good works” we produce. Unless we are showing the fruit of the Spirit, that is, putting God first and loving our fellow man, we have such little faith that we should consider ourselves still at the threshold of a Christian life. This should not be a time to get discouraged, but rather a time to learn that coming into an effective working relationship with our God takes time and consistent effort (2 Cor 3:4-18).
Growing in faith is another topic. Briefly it entails putting God first in our lives by making sure we get in Bible Study/Reading every day and we pray each day for a reasonable amount of time. We should plan for times of meditation and, as we are able, we should fast. To put it another way, we should take whatever steps are necessary to show God that we love Him and that He comes first in our lives – the first great Commandment. Having established a working relationship with God through this time spent in God’s presence and asking Him to guide us through everything that we face in life, our faith is increased when we see prayers answered (“no” and “wait” are still answers), we understand more of the scriptures, we begin to put others ahead of self, and we see prophecy turning into reality.
Each person has to make their own decision, but I think that the emphasis should be on getting Christ into our lives – and hence get right with God – and not about trying to do things just to avoid the penalty of sin. We have to accept the unpalatable fact that until we are changed to spirit beings, we will sin, we always carry within ourselves the capacity to sin, and we will be affected by the world around us that is also full of sin. The only way out is to trust Jesus Christ, and have faith that He paid the full penalty for all of mankind. The Believer’s Bible Commentary puts it this way on page 1893 when he talks about Gal 5:17, “The Spirit of God does not lead people to look to the law as a means of justification”. However, the correct kind of faith is not passive. Having accepted Christ sacrifice as the ONLY way out of our sinful human life, we are expected to use this new power which we are given to start changing and growing in the fruit of the Spirit.
We also need to understand that Christ has not “done it all for us” – He makes salvation possible, but not automatic as some like to believe (Mat 7:21). Having accepted that our salvation comes through faith in Christ and is a free gift from God, we still have to demonstrate that we want, and value, the gift God is offering us. To help us demonstrate where we stand on the issue of accepting or rejecting God’s invitation to become part of His family (Eph 2:19), God has left us with a battle on our hands. Our human nature wants to take the “easy way out” and break God’s law when it suits, but the nature of Christ which is beginning to grow within us, wants to come into harmony with the law of love.
I think The Believer’s Bible Commentary sums it up well in the comments about Gal 5:18, also on page 1893; “The Spirit and the flesh are in constant conflict. God could have removed the fleshly nature from believers at the time of their conversion, but He did not choose to do so. Why? He wanted to keep them continually reminded of their own weakness, to keep them continually dependant on Christ, their Priest and Advocate; and to cause them to praise unceasingly the One who saved such worms.” Knowing human nature, if we could do something ourselves, then sooner or later we would begin to boast about it – and this would take the credit away from God. The battle between flesh and the Spirit is a constant reminder of where we stand. Notice too Eph 2:8,9 “God saved you by His special favour when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. 9 Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.”
Please don’t misunderstand. There are positive physical benefits that come from obeying the Ten Commandments, the Statutes and Judgements (Lev 26:1-12; Deut 28:1-14). It is just that through obedience alone, we will never achieve eternal life.
We need to put more of our effort into getting the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of God (Rom 8:8-14) – moving in our life, and then the physical works will, if we truly desire it, begin to take care of themselves. Rom 7:6 “But now we have been released from the law, for we died with Christ, and we are no longer captive to its power. Now we can really serve God, not in the old way by obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way, by the Spirit.” This verse is another way of stating the Old and New Covenant. Under the Old Covenant the people were told to keep the law. But there have been very few humans who can keep the law perfectly, so the law on its own will usually end in our death. Under the New Covenant, our belief in Jesus Christ grows to the point where we do begin to keep the spirit of the law. Under the New Covenant God has given us a way of obtaining salvation through Christ living in us.
To put it another way. Before our conversion and acceptance of Christ's sacrifice to atone or cover our sins, no matter how hard we tried, there would always be times when we ended up breaking God's law of love. We would either fail to keep close to God and respect His laws, or we would treat another human in a way that we would not like it if we were in their position. After our conversion, when we start walking by faith, the times we get it "wrong" become less, and the time we are "right" (acting with love for God and fellow man) become more frequent.
So the answer to the question “Works or Faith?” is that both are required, but faith needs to be built first so that the “Works” are done by the Holy Spirit and Christ living in us, not by human effort alone. We need to keep in mind that we can do nothing by ourselves, to get eternal life (Eph 2:8,9).
Ignoring our relationship with God by not putting God first (Mark 12:30) could effectively cut us off from any further growth. Not making forward progress could cause us to get frustrated and depressed. This is a bad situation for a Christian and can open up an opportunity for Satan to become involved. Many Christians who have “let down” on putting God first become stale and frustrated over time, but cover this up by “doing The Work” or by getting involved in Church activities and social functions. This is a situation that we need to be on the lookout for. When we try to “cover up” our lack of spiritual strength by becoming physically active in physical things that do not build our relationship with God, we can become so “busy” that we fail to see what is really happening in our life.
Please don’t misunderstand. There is a time for “doing The Work”, Church activities and “helping out” – but never at the expense of our relationship with God and Jesus Christ. God always has to come first, according to our Lord’s instructions (Mat 22:37-39; Mark 12:30,31).
If, as a Christian, we start to feel tired, stale, frustrated, or lacking that “first love” the answer, I believe, lies in getting back to building our faith in Christ. Once we have enough faith, the fruits will “automatically” flow, because once again Christ will be living in us.
Four times in Matthew and once each in Mark and Luke, Christ uses the term “little faith” or “no faith” to his disciples, in a negative way. I feel we need to “get the point” and try to avoid the same condition. We all need “great faith” like the Centurion (Mat 8:10; Luke 7:9) who had no trouble understanding the power our Lord had been given by the Father, and was willing to take action based on that faith. The disciples asked Christ to increase their faith in Luke 17:5-10. The answer was - do all the things that is our duty to do, and stay humble. Even if we are able to do many things "right", we still haven't gone above and beyond what was required, so always see ourselves as "unprofitable servants".
The message of Galatians is quite simple really when we understand the importance of faith as brought out by Paul in Romans. It seems that the Galatians had been tricked (Gal 1:6,7) into giving up trying to grow in faith, and instead had started to think that they could “get salvation” by keeping the law and physical rituals. If we just look to the law and ignore the need for the inner spiritual power required to keep the law in the spirit, then we are doomed for failure (Gal 3:11).
We first need to build (and continue to build) a working relationship with God and His son Jesus Christ – the first four Commandments – and then, and only then, will we be able to start showing the fruits by keeping the remaining six. Yes the law, and the fruit that comes from keeping the law, is important but none of this can be realized in a totally successful way without first growing in faith. But, even then, we have to keep in mind that there is something even more important than “faith”. The Apostle Paul says in 1 Cor 13:13 “There are three things that will endure – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love”. If we don’t love God and others, then our lives are of no value whatsoever (v3).
Gal 6:15b, 16 “What counts is whether we really have been changed into new and different people. 16 May God’s mercy and peace be upon all those who live by this principle. They are the new people of God”.
One final quote, from the NIV Life Application Bible, page 2121, under the heading “What is the law?” (Gal 3) “We are to obey this moral law [the Ten Commandments] not to obtain salvation, but to live in ways pleasing to God”.
Bob Orchard June 2009
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