11 Jan 2015

Salvation by Works vs. Faith

Religious 11 Comments

One of the most amazing and/or horrifying things about Protestant Christianity is the doctrine of salvation through faith. This is very counterintuitive; hence the familiar question, “So a serial killer gets into heaven if he accepts Jesus on his deathbed?!” I completely empathize with this incredulity, because I would have recoiled in a similar fashion even when I was a young teenaged theist, let alone in my young 20s as an atheist.

(Note: I was raised Catholic, but I don’t want to refer to Catholic doctrine when I do posts like this, because by no means was I a scholar of Catholic theologians. I’m talking about my personal perspective, when I was growing up as someone raised in the Catholic Church. Looking back, I know that the idea of salvation through faith in Christ–in the way that Protestants mean–would have sounded nutty to me.)

Yet now that I understand and believe in this doctrine, it jumps out at me from both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old, even though the Israelites were under the Law, even within that framework they had all kinds of elaborate rituals in which an innocent animal would be sacrificed to blot out their sins.

(I’m pretty sure I got this idea from Matthew Henry’s (concise) commentary on Romans 10: 1-4, when he writes:

The Jews built on a false foundation, and refused to come to Christ for free salvation by faith, and numbers in every age do the same in various ways. The strictness of the law showed men their need of salvation by grace, through faith. And the ceremonies shadowed forth Christ as fulfilling the righteousness, and bearing the curse of the law. So that even under the law, all who were justified before God, obtained that blessing by faith, whereby they were made partakers of the perfect righteousness of the promised Redeemer.


In the New Testament, there are many examples of Jesus healing someone and tying it to the person’s faith. The best example is Matthew 9:

27 As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”

28 When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?”

“Yes, Lord,” they replied.

29 Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; 30 and their sight was restored.

There is not a single episode where Jesus says to someone, “I’m going to heal you, because you’ve been a pretty good person.” No, Jesus explicitly says “No one is good–except God alone,” and elsewhere He says to the crowd listening to His sermon that they are evil. Note well, He’s not denouncing the Pharisees there–He is addressing the regular people who flocked to hear His teachings, and being clear that unlike God, they are evil.

There *is* an occasion when Jesus discusses someone’s fidelity to the Law, and it goes like this (Mt 19):

16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

18 “Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’[c] and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’[d]”

20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife[e] or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.

Even as I’m re-reading this just now in pasting it in here, I am amazed at how much this story crystallizes the Protestant view. Yes, if you could perfectly follow the Law, not only the letter but also its spirit, then you would be blameless before God.

But that it impossible for man. That’s why, instead, to receive eternal life you must abandon worldly concerns and follow Jesus. Then even sinners–like Peter–can sit on thrones.

11 Responses to “Salvation by Works vs. Faith”

  1. Anon says:

    “That’s why, instead, to receive eternal life you must abandon worldly concerns and follow Jesus.”

    The only way one can purposefully abandon worldly concerns, is to kill themselves. As long as I am alive, it is absolutely necessary for me to concern myself with my physical body and my physical surroundings.

    Is suicide really what you are calling upon your readers to do?

    • Bob Murphy says:

      “Is suicide really what you are calling upon your readers to do?”

      Do you think that’s what Jesus was calling for in the passages quoted above?

      • Anon says:

        “Do you think that’s what Jesus was calling for in the passages quoted above?”

        Did He have to say so explicitly before “abandon worldly concerns” means just that?

        How else can I abandon worldly concerns? As long as I am alive, I am concerned with the world whether I believe it or not.

        Heaven remains a thought to Earthly, mortal, physical beings like me. I cannot physically exist as only pure thought. I have bodily urges, cravings, desires, pleasures and pains.

        • Bob Murphy says:

          Anon, when I say abandon worldly concerns and follow Jesus, I mean it in this sense (Matthew 6:25-34):

          25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[a]?

          28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

          (Bold added.)

  2. Tom Chapman says:

    Bob – Your posts on matters of faith are always encouraging and thought provoking. As someone with a Romance Catholic (RC) background, you typically represent the Protestant perspective accurately and fairly. Do you mind sharing whether your background causes you to filter the teaching of salvation by faith alone thru RC teaching? In other words, do you embrace the Protestant perspective without the RC teaching on faith plus the 7 sacraments? Of course, you are free to answer “none ya” if you like.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Tom, I think I still retain the intellectualism of the Catholic theologians (meaning the attitude, not that I’m on par with Thomas Aquinas), but no I don’t harbor any special attachment to the sacraments of the Catholic Church at this point.

      • khodge says:

        If Krugman sycophants can call him Hari Seldon, surely it is much less of an exaggeration to call you Acquinas.

  3. Innocent says:

    All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If this were not so then why need a Savior? As to works versus faith I would add an additional thought, and this is why in the end we are not those who can judge any man or woman.

    It is not a question of confession or ‘faith’ by which we are saved. It is one of sincere desire, from which works are brought about. Could someone have a sincere desire on a deathbed, sure, is it likely, no. It is not simply confessing Jesus is the Christ, but being wrought upon by him that is the change. You can leave the path at any time, but so long as you are on the path, and moving forward, to such is ‘Salvation’ freely given. To those, sincerely making strides to reach out to God. He does not care if you just got on the path or have been walking on it the entire time.

    Faith without works is dead means that if you are walking on the path to a location, you are moving toward that location. It is seen and felt by those who walk the path. They will see sign posts and reach mile markers and meet additional travelers along the way.

    Yet since we have all sinned and fallen short it does not matter how far you make it along the route, for just as Christ taught in the parable in which the master calls more and more men to his property for the harvest and pays them all the same wage ( demonstrating his generosity to all ) so to will God and Christ do the same for all those that seek them earnestly.

    In many ways I enjoy the bit of fiction, ‘The Pilgrims Progress’ as a demonstration of this as a fun narrative. When Faithful dies at the hands of the people of Vanity he takes the shortest route of the journey that Christian is on ( going to the gate of Heaven). It was that he, Faithful, had full purpose of heart and that his journey was cut short did not matter.

    In this regard it shows why we should have charity to all men. For if they had felt and seen and experienced what we who have been wrought on by God, who is to say they would not act the same as us? For my own experiences with God, I would suggest had an atheist had them they could not remain an atheist. But since they have not had these experiences it makes logical sense for them the path they are on, it also make earnest sense to me why they would deride me and mock what I tell them. How can you be angry at lack of experience?

    This is why in many ways I like the thought of, Judge not lest ye be Judged.

    Still, I would suggest that to those that seek they shall find. To him that knocketh the same it shall be opened.

    Cheers friends, and no hard feelings if you mock me. Seek Christ, He is there for all to find, and knowledge and peace are there for all that do. Not peace of this world, but of that which we shall all surely come to at our journeys end. May you, like Faithful in the ‘Pilgrims Promise’, reap that which has been sown and find that it has been good.

  4. Dan W. says:

    Works without faith is spiritual death. Faith without works (or action) is likewise sterile and lifeless.

    Jesus condemned the pharisees for their hypocrisy. They feigned righteous works but they did it to please themselves. They did not love god or their fellowman.

    James condemned the “believer” who professed faith but did nothing to act on it. The example he gives of one who believes it sufficient to tell the destitute person to be clothed and fed. Such belief is cheap. Christian faith expects one to feed and clothe the hungry and not to simply express a desire that they be such.

    The first work God expects of every believer is to repent. Jesus does save the sinner. But he can only save those who repent. There may be serial killers in heaven. But we must presume, for it to be heaven, only repentant serial killers will be there.

  5. khodge says:

    I’m not sure it is as cut and dry as you make it sound. Even in Catholic theology we have the “problem” of deathbed conversions.

    I don’t take comfort this: someone on his deathbed does not accept Christ because he or she has spent his entire life rejecting Jesus (i.e. this not a “win” for believers because God – as we all should – desires all to be saved).

    More comforting: someone repenting on his deathbed has very likely struggled his entire life with good and evil. What finally happens is God’s grace, at that moment, is able to break through the hardness of heart that has kept that person from accepting Christ as his savior.

  6. Tel says:

    Well, you could follow the Law, but that’s a bit difficult. Law can be complex, confusing, seemingly contradictory in places, might change from time to time, open to interpretation. Hmmm, come to think of it, we’ve made following the law so difficult, it’s actually impossible… I wonder what you are going to do about that?

    You probably need some friends, someone on your side. Follow us, we can, errr, you know, look after you, smooth off some of the rough edges, grease the wheels a bit. Don’t you worry about that mean old Law, these things can be sorted.

    Spirituality? Sounds more like opening a small business in New York.

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