Jesus and Paul, works and faith

Read time: 10 minutes

Paul Gabriner has posted a thoughtful comment on an old article about the mission to the Gentiles in the New Testament. This started out as a hurriedly written reply but has grown too big for the comments section. I’ll quote Paul Gabriner in places, but you should read what he has written, which I take to be essentially a critique of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith as a departure from Jesus’ more practical moral teaching. We begin with the “justification” of Abraham.

Paul Gabriner: You say that justification by faith means believing or trusting in God, as Abraham did at the sacrifice of Isaac. But Abraham’s faith was more than belief alone, it was belief exemplified by something that he actually did, namely bringing his son Isaac to the appointed place of sacrifice!

According to the text, Abraham’s faith was counted to him as rightness or righteousness at that moment because he believed the promise made to him regarding his descendants; he believed that God would do something in the future (Gen. 15:4-6). It means simply that he was right to believe this, even if all the evidence (his and Sarah’s age, for example) contradicted it. What follows is the repeated assurance that YHWH will give his descendants the land of Canaan. God is the principle actor in this; nothing is required of Abraham except that he make a sacrifice (15:8-11).

His faith was subsequently tested when he was instructed to sacrifice Isaac, but the real issue remains that he believed in the promise about descendants, he trusted God to fulfil that promise. After all, he could have killed Isaac in the belief that God would provide another son to replace him.

Paul Gabriner: This is something we almost never see in the Synoptic Gospels either…

We don’t find this language in the Gospels, true, though I think Jesus’ use of the Son of Man motif brings into play the idea that his followers would be justified or vindicated for their faith in him and belief in the new future that he proclaimed at the parousia. This, of course, required them acting on—and acting out—their belief faithfully, proclaiming the future event, which was the coming of the direct intervention of God, in the face of opposition and delay until the “end.” This is the theme of the parables of waiting. It was not enough to believe that they would eventually be found to have been in the right about the coming judgment; they had to persevere.

Paul makes use of the justification of Abraham for much the same purpose. Under the present eschatological circumstances, it was not the Law-observing Jewish communities of the diaspora which would be “justified”—found to have been right all along, so to speak—when God judged the nations but those communities which had believed that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead guaranteed a very different future for the ancient world. That belief had to be lived out with integrity over a long period of time, but it was on the basis of their belief or faith or trust that they were and would be justified. They were right to believe in the new future—and would as communities, as churches, inherit that new future—even if all the evidence seemed to contradict it.

Paul Gabriner: A good example is in Acts 16, where the warden of the prison from which Paul and Silas have just miraculously escaped asks them, in his astonishment, “What must I do to be saved?” and is simply told, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (verses 30-31). He is not shown to repent, a key element for salvation in the teachings of both John the Baptist and Jesus, his faith in itself seems to be sufficient to “justify” him!

I’ll get to repentance in a moment, but certainly the issue here is not personal lifestyle or behaviour but the significance of the fact that the Jesus who died in distant Palestine was now Lord over circumstances in Philippi. That was the leading issue for the apostles—the political change that they were convinced was unfolding as a result of the fact that their God had raised Jesus from the dead and had seated him at his right hand as king. So what the Philippian jailer recognised was that the God of Israel was in the process of disrupting the political-religious status quo in the ancient world. It is the historical dynamic that elicits the response of faith.

There is no reference to repentance, but his belief would certainly have entailed a radical change of lifestyle for the jailer and his family. Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 would apply: “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” They were obliged to relocate from the old kingdom of pagan darkness to the emerging kingdom of God’s Son (cf. Col. 1:13-14).

Paul Gabriner: the Synoptics use the words “repent” and “repentance” a total of 35 times, whereas Paul only uses them only 7 times together. On the other hand, the Synoptics use the word “faith” 44 times, whereas Paul uses them for a total of 95 times together!

But there is a good reason for that. Jesus, like John the Baptist, was sent to Israel to call the Jews to repent of their rebelliousness in the light of the coming destruction. Paul was writing letters to churches made up of Jews and Gentiles, who, for their different reasons, had repented and were now learning to live as signs of a new political-religious order to come.

“Faith,” on the other hand, becomes especially important for Paul because the inclusion of Gentiles had fundamentally brought into question the definitive function of Torah for the community that would inherit the age to come.

Paul Gabriner: I think it is generally accepted that in the Old Testament deeds are held to be more important than faith.

The point here, I would suggest, is that faith became especially relevant at times of crisis or transition, when it was necessary to trust that God would lead his people into a new future. The normal situation for Israel was that they would live according to the Law; they would practise the righteousness prescribed by the Law. But in abnormal circumstances a fundamental recalibration of the trust relationship between God and his people was required; and then typically the prophets would look back to the promise made to Abraham as the paradigm for faith:

Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. For the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Is. 51:1–3)

Paul Gabriner: In Paul, however, faith is a deed in itself, in fact, the “mother of all deeds” and so far superior to all others that it immediately demotes them in rank to being no more than mere “works.”

Faith is critical for Paul because Israel is facing an eschatological crisis, so it is a question of what would vouchsafe participation in the age to come. He did not believe that his people would be justified now by Torah-observance; on the contrary, after persistent religious and moral failure, they faced the condemnation of the Law. Rather, Jews like him would be justified in the long run, in history, by belief in the future rule of the risen Jesus entailed in his resurrection and ascension; and in that Paul was proved right, he was vindicated or justified.

But he is also very clear that faith in Jesus demanded a radical change of life. The transformation of the new communities of believing Jews and Gentiles was an intrinsic and central part of their witness. Paul set the bar for moral behaviour in keeping with the good news very high.

Certainly, things changed quite dramatically between Jesus and Paul, but it is not that Jesus favoured right action and Paul favoured right belief. It is because the eschatological horizons had expanded to include the Greek-Roman world. The unexpected consequence of the reformation of Israel that Jesus had proclaimed was the belief of Gentiles like Cornelius that the God of Israel was doing something remarkable that would have far-reaching consequences not just for Israel but also for the nations.

Paul Gabriner: When people ask [Jesus] the warden’s question, “how can I be saved?” he typically refers them to the Law, as he does in the case of the rich young man, whom he advises to do a superlatively good deed, “go sell your possessions and give to the poor.”

The “superlatively good deed” here, I think, is not to give to the poor but to follow Jesus (Matt. 1921), and the invitation to follow Jesus was an eschatological challenge. It meant taking up one’s own cross and following in the footsteps of the one who would suffer and be crucified in order that Israel might experience the life of the age to come. Significantly, those who had this faith, who were prepared to walk this narrow and dangerous path, would be vindicated and repayed by the Son of Man when he came with his angels, within the life time of his followers, in the glory of his Father (e.g., Matt. 16:27-28). In other words, they had faith and they would be justified.

Paul Gabriner: Of course, [Jesus] never knew Paul, the Gospel writers, later redactors of the Gospels or the fathers of the Church, all of whom developed a complex theology that came to be called “Christianity,” making free use of his title, but one which he probably never would have recognized as his own, had it come to his attention!

I don’t think Jesus saw the “conversion” of Gentiles coming; I don’t think it was Paul’s invention either. The evidence of Acts is that it is something that happened more or less spontaneously, despite the best efforts of the disciples. So people like Paul had to work out what exactly Gentile converts were getting themselves into. They went to the scriptures and recovered a profoundly Jewish (not Christian) vision of the pagan nations turning to the living God of Israel (e.g., Is. 45:22-46:2; cf. Phil. 2:10-11).

So the key here is eschatology. What is at stake is participation in a new future, and this was as true for Jesus as for Paul—they just had different futures in view. Jesus’ teaching begins with proclamation of the kingdom of God. Paul’s ministry ends with his proclamation of the kingdom of God (Acts 28:23).

But in both cases the new future—the rule of YHWH through his Son over Israel, in the first place, then over the nations of the Greek-Roman world—had become necessary because “works” had failed. On the one hand, the Jews were not keeping the commandments, were not producing the fruit of righteousness for the owner of the vineyard. So there was no way that the Old Testament hopes would be fulfilled on this basis. On the other, the Greeks were worshipping idols and denying the power and reality of the living creator God. So they needed to abandon their idols and associated ethical malpractices (Rom. 1:18-32) and serve the living God and walk according to his ways. Any belief in God’s new future entailed a far-reaching change of works.

We are accustomed to thinking of works and faith as two religious systems in competition. That is not the case biblically. It is a matter of how works and faith interact over time in the historical experience if the community, as responses to changing circumstances and changing understandings of what the future held.