We all have been taught that we are saved by faith, not works, but that isn’t the whole story.
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Faith is not something that we are born with, and it is not something we can earn or purchase: faith is a choice. Faith is a decision to believe, without any proof to justify that belief.
The letter to the Messianic Jews, supposedly written by Shaul (Paul), says it best in Hebrews 11:1:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
In other words, any absolute proof of God or that Yeshua is the Messiah is the antithesis of faith because Abraham, the “Poster Child” for faith, never had any proof of God’s existence or trustworthiness, yet when he heard from God, he believed. That is why in Christianity they say only by faith are we saved, not by works, because (this is their favorite verse) in Romans 4 we are told that Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness (which Shaul quoted from Genesis 15:6).
But to say that faith is all we need is wrong, as stated by James in James 2:14, where he says that faith without works is dead.
So, nu? Who’s right? Shaul says through faith we are saved, and James says without works we are dead: someone has to be wrong, right?
The answer is they are both correct: the missing part that brings these two seemingly opposite statements into concordance is understanding what God said is the real reason Abraham was considered righteous.
Let’s back up for a minute: people have, for centuries, been taught that faith brings salvation, but it doesn’t: salvation only comes from forgiveness of sin. A sinful person cannot be in the presence of God, no matter how strongly they believe in him.
The general understanding of “works” is strict obedience to the commandments God gave in the Torah. Before Yeshua’s ministry, the Pharisees taught only the literal value or written word (called the P’shat) of the Torah commandments, and that only through obedience can we be forgiven, accompanied by the appropriate sacrifice. This is what I call “performance-based salvation”: they placed works over faith.
Yeshua taught us that we needed more than just a literal understanding, we need to know the deeper, spiritual meaning of God’s commandments (called the Remes). This was a totally new way to see the commandments, yet Yeshua never taught to ignore the commandments; obedience was still necessary, with the proper sacrifice brought to the temple in Jerusalem, in order to be forgiven of sin. The only thing that changed was after Yeshua’s sacrifice and resurrection, there was no longer a need to bring an animal to the temple, which was destroyed leaving Yeshua as the only means to attain forgiveness of sin.
By the end of the First Century, when the number of Gentiles joining the “Way” began to vastly outnumber the Jews, they began to separate themselves from the Jewish population (which was in big trouble with Rome) and started to change things around, such as a different day for the Sabbath, rejecting some of the basic Torah commandments, and totally ignoring the rabbinic (later to be Talmudic) additional requirements that the Pharisees demanded. By the end of the Third Century, Christianity had become a totally different religion, and the teaching that faith is all we need not only took precedence over obedience but was used to justify ignoring God’s Torah!
The Pharisees taught performance-based salvation over faith, and Christianity taught faith-based salvation over obedience.
Both are wrong.
Now we can get back to what God tells us is his reason for crediting Abraham as righteous, which had seemingly been lost to everyone, except to James.
In my 67+ years of experience with Christians, I have never heard any of them quote Genesis 26:5; that is where God confirms the promise he made with Abraham to Isaac and says the reason is:
…because that Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws. (JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh)
When God said that Abraham hearkened to his voice, he meant that Abraham believed him, but that wasn’t all. God said Abraham did more than just believe him, he did everything that God told him to do!
What God is saying is that faith isn’t enough for him! Abraham was righteous because he believed AND DID what God told him to do!
That is what James was saying- faith without obedience to what God tells us to do will not save us. We must do as God said Abraham did: we must be more than faithful, we must be obedient.
The early Christians wanted to separate themselves from the Jewish people because of the political strife between the Judeans and Rome, and they succeeded so well they also separated themselves from God by teaching those who had faith in Yeshua did not have to obey the Torah.
And the only place (how many times do I have to say this before people realize it?) that God tells us what he wants us to do is in the Torah! Nowhere else, people- only in those first five books will you find God saying, “Tell the children of Israel this is what the Lord, God says to do…”.
Read Genesis 26:5 for yourself- make sure that what I am telling you is true. Abraham was considered righteous, which is why he received the promises from God, because he did more than just faithfully believe: he also did everything God told him to do.
It has never been either faith or works, it has always been both. If your faith doesn’t motivate you to be obedient to God’s instructions, then you do not have the kind of faith that results in forgiveness of sin, which is the only way we are saved.
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That’s it for now, so l’hitraot and Baruch HaShem!