Christians are sometimes found saying that in the Old Testament, we see works, while in the New Testament, we see grace. In this way, the Jews were saved by the works of the Law that they performed. On this view, when Jesus came on the scene, he undid the Law, hence, also undoing the need for works of the Law. So now, a person is saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Of course, I agree that this is the formula for salvation. But the question is, is that the Jews’ formula for salvation? Were the Jews saved by works or by faith alone?
Now I am not denying that many Jews believed that they were saved by their works. People believe heretical things all of the time. There are contemporary heretics who say that one is saved by works rather than faith alone. So there were certainly sects of Judaism, or perhaps even mainstream orthodoxy, who maintained that one is saved by the works of the Law. With that being the case, the message of Paul must have been quite radical. But the message of Paul was not an adjustment of the message of salvation. The alternation was only that the Messiah had come. God in human flesh came, died on the cross for the sins of the world, and three days later he rose from the dead. But the way that a person is saved remains the same. Were the Jews saved by works or by faith alone? I maintain that they were saved by faith alone.
The Law and the Prophets witness to faith alone. Romans 3:21-22 reads, “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ…” Paul’s task was not to abolish the Law (Romans 3:31) but rather to offer a teaching about it. He was not saying that the Law is being destroyed, and that grace was replacing it. Rather, Paul was expounding upon what the Law already teaches. Paul argues here that the Law and the Prophets were witnesses to the doctrine of faith alone apart from the Law.
At this juncture, the heretic may rejoin, “Where? Where do the Law and the Prophets teach that?” But if Paul says that they teach it, and we regard Paul’s letters as Scripture, then the objection instantly vanishes. Although, in the next section, I will briefly expound upon a few examples of Old Testament saints who taught and were saved by faith alone. But for the Christian who believes in the New Testament, it is enough to indicate what Paul had to say about the Law and the Prophets. Were the Jews saved by works or by faith alone? Paul seems to argue that the Law and the Prophets testify to the doctrine of faith alone.
Abraham and David were saved by faith alone. One proof-text that Paul frequently appealed to was Genesis 15:6, which reads that Abraham “he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” So the moment that Abraham put his trust in the Lord, his faith was credited as righteousness. In Romans 4:2-3, Paul says of Abraham, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.‘ First Paul denies that Abraham was justified by works, and then says that his faith was credited as righteousness.
Paul makes the same exposition of David’s teachings. Paul argues here that David taught the doctrine of faith alone. He writes in Romans 4:6, “just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: ‘BLESSED ARE THOSE WHOSE LAWLESS DEEDS HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN, AND WHOSE SINS HAVE BEEN COVERED. BLESSED IS THE MAN WHOSE SIN THE LORD WILL NOT TAKE INTO ACCOUNT.'” First Paul offers his interpretation, that David believed that those of whom David spoke were justified by faith alone (for their faith was credited as righteousness), and then he cites the passage. Were the Jews justified by works or by faith? Both Abraham and David were justified by faith alone and taught that others would be justified by faith alone.
Israel did not attain righteousness, because they sought it as though it were works. In Romans 9:31-32, Paul writes, “Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works.” The reason that orthodoxy strayed off was not that their traditions were wrong. It is not that they did not keep the passover nor that they neglected circumcision. It was not that they fell into idolatry. It was not that they denied the Scripture. Orthodoxy had a long history of falling into idolatry and being corrected. Their sin that kept them from righteousness was not that they kept idols.
What kept Israel from righteousness was that they were pursuing righteousness as though it were works. They were putting their trust in themselves. They were putting their trust in their own ability to keep the Law, so Paul says. But if they pursued righteousness by faith, they would have found it, so Paul argues. Their faith would have been credited as righteousness. Were the Jews saved by works or by faith alone? Paul’s argument seems to be that the Jews tried to be saved by works, but they failed. They needed to pursue righteousness by faith.
Were the Jews saved by works or by faith alone? God has never accepted a salvation of works. Anybody who has ever put their trust in themselves would have fallen short. As Isaiah 64:6 says our works are like filthy rags. The only mechanism for salvation, throughout the history of God’s people, has been grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
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