Doctrine Ch.26 - Justification and Good Works

No official Christian or Jewish theology ever taught that heaven is a reward for a good life—they all emphasize God’s grace. So why did Paul bother to preach against salvation by works?

When I started my doctorate on the rabbis of New Testament times, I found that the area of rabbinic studies was suddenly regarded with suspicion by many Christians. A rabbinic scholar, E. P. Sanders, had just published Paul and Palestinian Judaism and was at the center of what many regard as a modern heresy: the “new perspective” on Paul. This cast doubt on what Paul meant when he said salvation is by faith and not based on works.

       For centuries, Paul’s teaching of justification by faith had been assumed to be correcting a Jewish doctrine of “salvation by works.” However, Sanders pointed out that Jews in New Testament times did not believe in salvation by works any more than they do now. There were plenty of regulations to keep, just as there were for Christians (Sunday/Sabbath observance, baptism/circumcision, church/synagogue services, various festivals and fasts, etc.), but neither Christians nor Jews thought they would qualify for heaven by living a good life. They all expected to fall short of God’s standard, so they relied on his mercy and forgiveness when they repented. Jews even had a special festival—the Day of Atonement—to help them remember anything they may have neglected to repent of. So where did we get the idea that Jews thought they were saved by works?

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All Israel will be saved

Many people outside the church today believe that a place in heaven is earned—perhaps through regularly carrying out certain religious observances, leading a moral life, or simply by being kind and helpful to others. All Christian churches reject this idea—including Catholics, as it says in the Catholic catechism: “Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.”1 Of course, “grace” for some Catholics may include the sacraments, but these aren’t “good works.” Nevertheless, despite what their various churches teach, many Christians still believe that God’s salvation is based on living a good life. Perhaps it’s no wonder that people outside the church mistakenly think that various kinds of churches teach this doctrine. And in much the same way there has been, until recently, a belief that Jews relied on the good works of keeping the commandments for their salvation.

       But Paul knew what Jews really believed—he had so recently been an exemplary practicing Jew himself. So why did he preach against salvation by works as if this were a Jewish doctrine? He said, for example: “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Rom 3:20); and “The people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works” (Rom 9:31-32).

       These verses seem to imply that Jews thought they were gaining salvation by righteous obedience of the law, and only those who succeeded would go to heaven. However, in the time of Jesus they believed that all Jews were elect—they were all going to heaven, and the unelect Gentiles were going to hell. The slogan was “All Israel will be saved.” Paul clearly disagreed with this because he tried hard to convert Jews, and he affirmed that Gentiles who trusted in Christ were going to heaven. But in what appears to be something of a contradiction, he also quoted the slogan: “All Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26).

       He does so at the end of three chapters in which he explains how this will happen—and many books have been written trying to unravel what he meant. Probably it was one of two things. First, he may have been saying that “all of the true Israel will be saved”—that is, all Jewish Christians plus Gentile Christians who are all “grafted in” to the root, which is the elect Israel (see Rom 11:22-24). Or, second, he may have meant that the Jews were going through a time of disobedience, but when that ended (probably at the return of Christ), they would all repent and be saved (see Rom 11:28-32; Zech 12:10). Paul may well have intended this not to be entirely clear because he ends the section with praise for the God of unfathomable mysteries (Rom 11:33-36).

       This leaves us with the same question: Why did Paul imply that Jews thought they’d be saved through “works of the law” when they actually taught that “all Israel will be saved”? The situation becomes clearer when we see that although they did say that all Jews will be saved (in Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1), they also had a long list of Jews who were exceptions. In the first century this list comprised only seven named individuals (such as Ahab and Balaam—see Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:2), but it also included anyone who denied core beliefs, including the physical resurrection of believers and the divine inspiration of the books of Moses. Later they added large groups such as the entire wilderness generation, because they didn’t have the faith to enter the promised land, and the generation sent into exile. At the start of the second century, when Rabbi Akiva wanted to add everyone in the ten lost tribes of Israel to this list, another influential rabbi, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, had had enough and objected. He was a conservative rabbi who normally defended the traditions from the first century, so he still believed that “all Israel will be saved” and was convinced this included the ten tribes (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:3).

Excluded from heaven

The Israelites whom these rabbis wanted to exclude from heaven were individuals who didn’t believe key doctrines and the generations who didn’t have enough faith in God. So they weren’t refused salvation for failing to observe the works of the law, but for failing to have faith in God and the Bible’s teachings. This means that Christians and Jews should have been on the same page with regard to salvation: it was based on faith in God and repentance for sin. The important difference between Jews and Christians wasn’t the matter of good works but the significance of Jesus.

       So what did Jews think about the commandments? Their writings indicate that they were extremely keen to keep every law. Every morning they recited the Shema, which includes the words “You will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them. … You will remember to obey all my commands. … These commandments that I give you … So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today …” (from Deut 6:4-9, 11:13-21; Num 15:37-41). Jews certainly wanted to obey the law. In fact they took great pleasure in it. We can see the attitude of an average Jew in a lovely parable told to illustrate the “law of the forgotten sheaf”—a clump of wheat or barley that was accidentally overlooked when the rest was harvested. The law said that rather than going back to harvest the sheaf, you should generously let the poor help themselves to it (Deut 24:19). The parable says:

A certain pious man forgot a sheaf in the middle of his field. He said to his son, “Go and offer two bullocks on my behalf, for a burnt offering and a peace offering.” His son said to him, “Father, why are you more joyful at fulfilling this one commandment than all the other commandments in Torah?” He said to him, “The Lord gave us all the commands in Torah to obey intentionally, but he only gave us this one to obey accidentally.” (Tosefta Peah 3:8)

       When the farmer notices the forgotten sheaf he is overjoyed because he can now obey a law he couldn’t obey deliberately. This law could only be obeyed by accident because you had to unintentionally forget the sheaf and then be generous. The farmer is so happy to be able to obey this law that he sends a huge offering to the Temple in thanks—the equivalent of donating two Mercedes for church ministry. We can see that for Jews, obeying the law wasn’t so they could get to heaven but because it gave them joy. For the farmer, getting the opportunity to obey this law was like finding a missing stamp for his collection. So the rabbis didn’t teach that salvation is based on obeying the law, either here or anywhere else.

The works of the law

We are still not sure why Paul suggests that some Jews aimed to be “declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” (Rom 3:20), but there are three main possibilities. First, “the works of the law” may refer to a narrow group of laws that defined what it was to be a Jew—Sabbath, circumcision, and food laws—so keeping these made you into an Israelite, and all such Israelites would be saved.

       Second, “the law” may refer to the whole legal system of the Torah—the books of Moses or Law, including all the festivals, Day of Atonement, and so on—so Paul was warning them against putting their trust in this system, rather than in Jesus.

       The third possibility (which I favor) is that Paul was talking about a group of Jews who really did rely on their own obedience of the law for their personal salvation. It is likely that the Jews living in the Dead Sea community believed this, because they excluded anyone who didn’t keep all the rules according to their particular interpretations, and they regarded themselves as the “true Israel” who would be saved. Presumably other groups thought in a similar way, and there is evidence in the New Testament that one such group existed right inside the early church.

       Paul referred to them as “the circumcision group” because they taught that Gentile Christians had to keep Jewish laws and even be circumcised in order to be saved (Gal 2:12-14). In Acts we find them present at two major meetings of the Jerusalem church leadership, where they are very vocal (Acts 11:2; 15:5). In the letter to the Galatians, Paul was especially concerned about the influence they might have on the believers: “Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good” (4:17); “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves … be circumcised” (5:1-2); “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (5:12). As we can see from his intemperate language, Paul was extremely concerned and antagonized by this group.

       It may seem strange that we are still puzzling about what the Jews really believed about salvation by works after so many centuries. The problem is that the Jewish world of the first century was almost as varied as the church of our century, but only a few of those factions left any writings to tell us what they believed. So we know what some groups believed, but many we know little about. It seems that this small group who joined the church may have had a very loud voice and that their teaching was something that Paul was really up against. When some of them became Christians, they were certainly influential in the church, in a bad way. So Paul’s teaching against salvation by works was directed against this group’s persistent campaigning within the church and not against Judaism in general.

       Jesus’ longest recorded prayer is for the unity of believers (John 17:11, 21), perhaps because he knew what would soon happen and continue to happen. At the earliest opportunity, people tried to carve out their own little empire and sphere of influence within the church, and this continues to our day. Just as Paul was vigilant in his mission not to let a powerful pressure group undermine the incredible doctrine of justification by faith, we need to be on guard not just against the influence of the outside world, but the potential for even very small groups within the church to lead us astray from the truths of the gospel.

1^ Catechism of the Catholic Church 1996 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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