Home » Faith Vs. Works: Salvation According to the Hebrew Scriptures

Faith Vs. Works: Salvation According to the Hebrew Scriptures

by Dr. Eitan Bar
15 minutes read

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

When discussing sin (What is sin?) and our eternal destiny, we indirectly participate in the debate of Faith vs. Works. This ancient debate is about how someone avoids eternal separation from God and forever returns to ‘Heaven’.[1] Some say getting to heaven is by what you do and how hard you try. Others say it has to do with your faith, which can even be as tiny as a mustard seed. Ironically, millions of people killed one another in the Wars of Religion[2] over this very debate. I say it is ironic because if you associate your works with your salvation, why on earth would you go about murdering other people? Will this not only decrease your chances of being saved? I guess these wars are proof that legalism doesn’t really work after all. But why was it such a crucial subject for people to go to war over?

You’ve probably heard about Abraham Harold Maslow, a psychologist best known for creating the “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” A theory of psychological health predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in priority, culminating in self-actualization. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, our most profound need is to feel safe and secure. I believe this need also drives us when we meditate about the afterlife and why we want to make it into Heaven. We want to be safe forever. As we all slowly die, this is what we long for the most and our greatest hope.

We consider heaven because we hope for better future safety and security in the long run. Unfortunately, protection is only partially possible in this world. Rich people live in gated communities, others buy weapons, and some even hire personal bodyguards. But regardless of how well we can hide, “We’re all going to die, all of us; what a circus![i]

In the protestant world, this debate is especially active. It became a serious wrestle between two schools of thought. On the one end, most members of Arminianism allegedly teach that you are justified (go to heaven) by faith alone. I used “allegedly” because according to Arminianism- if you don’t live holy, keep the rules, produce bucketloads of fruit, avoid sin, endure unto the end, etc. You lose your salvation (will be eternally separated from God). On the other end, most members of Calvinism also allegedly teach that you are justified by faith alone. Calvinists would often use the term “once saved, always saved.” But Calvinism, too, teaches that if you don’t live holy, keep the rules, produce bucketloads of fruit, avoid sin, endure unto the end, etc. Then that proves you were never really saved, to begin with. You only imagined it, but your faith was fake.

At the end of the day, much like many traditional churches, most members of Arminianism and Calvinism teach the same thing: if you don’t prove yourself through works (for too long), God will denounce and kick you out of His house. The only difference is that Arminianism front-loads works into the finished work of Christ, while Calvinism back-loads works into the finished work of Christ. Both schools of thought allusively teach salvation mixed with works, rather than real justification by faith alone. In other words, both worldviews see a connection between what you do and your salvation. In both cases, you are not saved if you live imperfectly for too long. Therefore, salvation is not a truly free gift but essentially something you earn or maintain by your deeds. Essentially, most of Christianity involves faith with works in one way or another. (Perhaps the Catholic vs. Protestant war wasn’t needed all along.[3])

Works-based parenthood

Imagine two children raised in two different homes: one in the Calvinium family, and the other in the Arminius family. When the children misbehave, their parents warn them about their bad behavior. In the Calvinium family, the child is warned by his parents that if he misbehaves for too long, it will prove that he was never really their child to begin with, and as a result, he will have to leave the house. In the Arminius family, the child is warned by his parents that they will no longer want to be his parents if he misbehaves for too long, and he, too, will be kicked out of the house.

Nobody wants such parents, yet many people think that their Father in heaven is like that. Can a child who fears that his father will kill him for misbehaving grow up emotionally healthy? Will a Christian who fears that his Father will kill him for misbehaving grow up healthy? RTS (Religious trauma syndrome) proves the answer is no. Salvation mixed with works is what religion is about, and religion is what turns people fearful and legalistic.

In religion, you must prove yourself worthy by works to either earn or maintain your Father’s love. In that case, you have no real confidence or assurance about your eternal future. You go to sleep every night not knowing 100% if you are actually saved or not. So, on the one hand, you find yourself reassuring your children that you’ll love them forever, no matter what, because you understand they need to know that to grow up emotionally and mentally healthy. And yet, you don’t even believe that about your own Father in heaven. The children of God are no different from any other children. Our souls long for assurance, security, and confidence now and forever.

Most Christians, however, live not knowing if they will eventually make it or not. They are left with trying hard, really, really hard, every day, hoping for the best result at the end. They keep on trying, but their soul can never really rest. You see, the opposite of work is rest. When you sleep at night, you don’t do anything but rest. When you go on vacation, they take care of everything for you. You just rest. This is why Jesus said, “I will give you rest” and “You will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-30). We can’t rest in our works, but we can find peace in the words of Jesus. 

But if children live in a constant state of fear that maybe tomorrow they will do something stupid enough for their father (earthly or heavenly) to denounce and kick them out, they will never feel safe and secure in their father’s love for them. This goes against basic psychological principles and the mental and emotional needs that God created us with.

Salvation in the Hebrew Scriptures

As a Jewish person who first came to know Jesus within the realm of evangelical Christianity, I struggled to trace the two schools of thought, Arminianism and Calvinism, back to the Hebrew Scriptures. The problem I found with both views is that they require you to separate the narratives of the Old and New Testaments. If you view the entire Bible as a one-story narrative, where the doctrine of salvation never changed, you will not be able to agree with any view of salvation that links works and salvation together into a single melting pot.

Earlier, we discussed that the Law was meant to establish a new community and serve as the constitution for the nation of Israel, regardless of individual beliefs. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God never saved anyone from the children of Israel based on their works. In fact, not only were they spiritually saved regardless of their deeds, but we read about God choosing the worst of sinners to lead his nation (and later, his kingdom). The primary issue with Israel’s giants of the faith who misbehaved was that they did not act as if they had faith in God and trusted that he would fulfill his promises. Did any of them lose their salvation because of this? Not for a moment. However, they faced severe consequences and lost privileges due to their poor decisions. Our sins do have consequences. For example, Moses was denied entry into the promised land, the dream he had worked for his entire life. People’s works were (and are) essential, but they had nothing to do with their salvation.

King David, much like Moses, was a murderer. Yet, God did not revoke his salvation. He didn’t even remove David from office after he murdered and committed adultery. Instead, David continued to lead God’s chosen people and even wrote words that would turn to God’s Word. Imagine that! God took the words of a murderer and adulterer who abused his power and put them in his own Bestseller!

Faith is the instrument by which God saves us, regardless of how well we behave. This has not changed in thousands of years. No one in Old Testament times enjoyed a relationship with God or “got saved” because they were good enough for long enough or tried hard enough. Instead, they enjoyed a relationship with God solely based on their faith in him. In fact, those who maintained the strongest relationship with God were often the greatest sinners of all!

Let’s further develop King David’s case, as he is perhaps the most outstanding example. God declared David “a man after His own heart” because of his faith, even though God knew he would soon become an adulterer and murderer. David abused his power, exploited his authority, and, contrary to popular ideas, David did not repent but tried to sweep his sins under the carpet for a very long time.[4] And even though David did not repent, God kept courting and pursuing David by sending him the prophet Nathan until he finally admitted his guilt. David repented only because of the list of punishments he received while confronted by Nathan the prophet (2 Samuel 12). However, that had nothing to do with David’s eternal spiritual salvation. It had only to do with natural and earthly consequences (verses 10-12), which God graciously agreed to reduce due to David’s admission of guilt (verse 13). King David’s salvation was never in question. God, Nathan, or David himself never pondered if David’s salvation was somehow canceled (or proven to never exist). However, as the story of David proves, our sins have a lot to do with the quality of our lives. David suffered because of his sins. He was rebuked and suffered loss, shame, grief, and so on.[5]

And yet, if not for his great sins, David would not have written songs of worship about God’s grace and forgiveness. We can hear a thousand theoretical explanations of forgiveness, but unless we feel and experience it, we will never fully understand its depth and power. In fact, it may be difficult for some to accept, but just as King David could never have written entire passages in the Psalms glorifying God for his grace, compassion, and forgiveness if it had not been for his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah the Hittite, so too can we only truly comprehend grace by first experiencing God’s forgiveness. Because David was forgiven so much, he learned firsthand how deep God’s forgiveness and grace truly are, and could write Psalms about it. Your past sins should drive you to sing songs of praise about God’s grace!

Paradoxically, without sin, neither David nor us would ever really understand how deep the love, grace, compassion, and forgiveness of God can go. Ironically, it is through our experience of sin that we come to the knowledge of God. Without sin in our lives, we would never fully comprehend the gospel. Although it brings sadness and pain, sin is a necessary and integral part of our journey towards spiritual growth. We cannot escape it, but we can learn from it and grow.

The greater our mistakes, the more forgiven we are, and the more grounds we have to forgive others who sin against us.[6] The more we experience brokenness, the deeper our insights into life become. Like King Solomon, only someone who has experienced disillusionment from life (and in some cases, from church) can truly understand the meaning of life. It also seems that the more broken a person is, the more grace they have towards others. However, the more religious and legalistic a person is, the less empathy they feel towards others. It’s impossible to sympathize with sinners if you think you’re not one, living in your spiritual ivory tower.

The Bible emphasizes the sins of its human heroes to give glory to God

The Bible often emphasizes the sins of its heroes to make a point we tend to miss: all of them (but Jesus) were sinners. Their sins, however, hurt and damaged them, not God. Any biblical character whose sins were recorded, such as Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, King David, Jonah the prophet, or anyone else you may choose, was going to spend eternity with God because of their faith in him, not because they were able to stop sinning. So, in contrast with some modern Christian views on soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), in the Old Testament, salvation was a gift of grace given by God to sinners due to faith alone. It was salvation by faith alone, not faith plus works, not faith that works, just faith. And I don’t believe this changed when Jesus arrived.

In Judaism, we say that Abraham is our great patriarch. In Genesis chapter 16, just after receiving a promise through a covenant from God, Abram got involved in manipulation, scheming, unbelief, and sexual immorality. Yet throughout that entire time, the covenant remained. God saw him as righteous not because of what he did or did not do, but because of his faith:

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6).

In his commentary on Genesis, theologian and a Jewish believer in Jesus, Arnold Fruchtenbaum, explains that Abraham’s obedience to God’s commandment to circumcise immediately after the making of the covenant had nothing to do with God’s promise to fulfill his side of the covenant:

This is not conditional: God does not say that if Abraham fails to do this, then God will not fulfill what He said in verses 1-8. God will fulfill verses 1-8 regardless of Abraham’s response. Nevertheless, in light of God’s blessings for Abraham, He expects Abraham to fulfill certain conditions. But God’s fulfillments of His promises remains unconditional. However, the principle is that unconditional promises set up the expectation of a response. God will do what He said He will would do no matter what; in response, Abraham should do something. It is the same principle in salvation. Salvation is by grace through faith, not based on works. Once saved, believers retain salvation unconditionally; but in response to God’s love for them, believers are expected to keep His commandments. However, whether believers keep them or do not keep them, their salvation is secure.[ii]

If the promise of salvation made through the New Covenant is also unconditional, then the way men are saved today is the same as Abraham, Moses, David, and any other Israelite were saved – by faith alone. While some Christians are finally waking up to this reality, this was something already known, thought, believed, and widely accepted in the times of the Bible. Even rabbis of ancient Judaism, as messed up as it was, acknowledged this truth:

All of the Jewish people, even sinners and those who are liable to be executed with a court-imposed death penalty, have a share in the World-to-Come. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1).

Not that I consider Jewish rabbis my spiritual authority,[7] but it is helpful to understand how they viewed salvation in the Hebrew Scriptures. For them, being Jewish (meaning, believing in the God of Israel) was enough for salvation. Even today, Jewish people often recite, “All Israel have a share in the World to Come.” Of course, we as Christians disagree with Judaism on the single most important doctrine – the messiahship of Jesus. However, when Christians share with Jews the false idea of “salvation from a hateful and angry God through works,” which unfortunately is what most churches and ministries in Israel do, we make it easier for them to reject the gospel. Israel needs the gospel, not some heresy about an angry god who hates everyone and beats up his child. This will only turn them away from the truth.

I can see why some in the church are somewhat reluctant to teach security and assurance of salvation. They are afraid people will live in wicked ways. Supposedly, if eternal flames are no longer a threat, everyone will run back to the flesh. So many churches prefer Christians to be fearful, timid, and legalistic as long as they don’t misbehave. Besides, it’s a lot easier to control people’s minds when they are fearful.

But if we know that fear doesn’t work well for the well-being of children, why would we think it would work with the children of God? Evidently, legalistic doctrines only drive people out of the church, not keep them in. Apparently, not only does preaching fear not work, but churches are getting emptier by the minute. Legalism results in the very thing it sets out to fight against. Churches should seek to be cities of refuge for sinners, a place where people hear that they are loved by God no matter what, a place to heal and grow.

Why modern doctrines of salvation are often so different from that of the Hebrew Scriptures?

I believe that Christianity complicated several doctrines in the past two millennia. Anyone who reads the Old Testament will notice that salvation was simple; it was a matter of the heart. One striking example is the story of the Israelites walking through the Negev desert. In Israel, the Negev area is known for its venomous snakes. In Numbers 21, the Israelites were grumbling and complaining too loudly, which disturbed the rest of some local poisonous snakes who began biting them, killing many. Then, Israel sent Moses to negotiate with God, who ordered Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Bronze shines brightly. Anyone who was bitten had to look at the shiny bronze snake and would be saved from dying. For them to look up at the shiny bronze snake meant one thing: they had to accept in faith and believe what was offered. They weren’t asked to do anything, just to believe what God said and be cured. I assume that some of the Israelites found this ridiculous and rejected the offer, dying in their sin. Regardless, it was their free choice to believe (and be cured) or not. In the New Testament, Jesus says:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. (John 3:14-16)

So, we too only have to believe. But what do we see when we look up at the cross? We see human sins: we see complaining, we see distrust, we see betrayal, we see false judgment, we see hypocrisy, we see desertion, we see crime, we see lies, we see manipulation, we see abuse of power, we see mockery, we see emotional torment, and we see physical torture. But ultimately, we see death. The cross is the ultimate expression of our reality. It portrays what humanity has become. It shows us how dark our hearts can become. This is perhaps why we see images of Christ hanging dead on a cross in traditional churches. It is a reminder of what we have done. And yet, we can’t stop there. We need to look deeper, look harder, and look further because there is another side to the cross.

While we took Life and hung it on a tree, God turned it into the tree that gives life. Now, at least in some sense, we have access once again to the tree of life, which is Jesus. Just as with the Israelites who looked at the snake and were saved, whoever looks at the cross, acknowledges it, and believes in it will see life, resurrection, and experience it themselves. Yes, the cross shows us the dark reality of the human soul, but we look at it because it shines bright, and we are drawn to the light. So, now we look at the cross and see the source of light and life. Ultimately, the cross is about God’s love for us.

And from there, we jump back to the modern debate of faith versus works, where it’s no longer just about whom you believe but the things you must do to actually make it. So, Christians live in distress, never fully knowing what awaits them in the afterlife. How did we come to believe that our angry boss loving Father would want us, his children, to live in constant distress about our eternal future?

I honestly believe that this is a sad side-effect of the historical boycotting of Jewish followers of Christ from theological discussions in the church. One example is the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, a council of Christian bishops that influenced the Church significantly. The Council was called by the Roman Emperor Constantine I. However, none of the Jewish bishops was allowed to join the council,[iii] which rejected anything and everything Jewish. The Council changed the celebration of the Resurrection from the Jewish Feast of First Fruits to Easter in an attempt to disassociate it from Jewish feasts. The Council stated: “For it is unbecoming beyond measure that on this holiest of festivals, we should follow the customs of the Jews. Henceforth, let us have nothing in common with these odious people…”[iv]

Another decision was made to replace Passover with Easter and to replace the Saturday Sabbath with a Sunday Sabbath.[v] Emperor Constantine is quoted as saying, “Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Savior a different way.”[vi]

The council also prohibited Christians from sharing a meal with a Jew, marrying a Jew, blessing a Jew, or observing the Sabbath. As time progressed, circumcision became illegal, the violation of which would result in the death penalty. Many Jewish believers in Christ were forced to change their names and denounce their families. Eventually, Jewish people were barred from holding public office or serving as military officers.[vii] Later, restrictions were put on where the Jewish people could live, with whom they could do business, and where they could travel.[viii] I believe this cutting-off of Jewish minds from the Church also led to some serious doctrinal errors, many of which we are discussing in this book.

[1] Gan Eden (“Garden of Eden”) is the Hebrew for “heaven.”

[2] The wars of religion were a series of wars waged in Europe during the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries between Catholics and Protestants.

[3] A believer in Jesus that jokes on both Protestants and Catholics? You must be wondering what Christian denomination I am part of. Truth be told, I like them all. But like a good Jew, I also have issues with them all.

[4] Probably for a year, see 2nd Samuel 11:27.

[5] In the world to come: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2nd Corinthians 5:10). Some of us will be called “least in the Kingdom of Heaven”, while others “great” (Matthew 5:19). That, in contrast to our salvation, does have to do with our good works, with how caring we are for others and how great of sacrifices we make for the sake of the kingdom of God.

[6] Some might object “isn’t it making life easy and cheapen grace?” But I believe it’s the opposite. If God forgives us eternally, then we also must forgive others continuously (Matthew 18:21-22). To forgive is anything but easy. It’s hard, especially when the sins committed against us are great.

[7] More on that in my other book: “Rabbinic Judaism Debunked: Debunking the myth of Rabbinic Oral Law.”

[i] Charles Bukowski, “Criminal Minds” Season 14 Episode 11: Night Lights.

[ii] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, “Ariel’s Bible Commentary: The Book Of Genesis” (Ariel, 2009), p 299.

[iii] Bagatti Bellarmino, The Church from the Circumcision: History and Archaeology of the Judeo-Christians (Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 1971), 93.

[iv] Gene Shaparenko, The Resurgence of ‘Christian’ Anti-Semitism,” www.aquatechnology.net/RESURGENCE.html, accessed on May 28, 2007

[v] Dr. Louis Goldberg, God, Torah, Messiah (San Francisco: Purple Pomegranate Productions, 2009), 128.

[vi] Vita Constantine 3.18, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/25023.html.

[vii] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2617027/jewish/Overview-of-Christian-Antisemitism.html.

[viii] G. Sujin, “The Protestant Reformers and the Jews: Excavating Contexts, Unearthing Logic,” ed. Christopher Metress, MDPI, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, April 20, 2017, www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/8/4/72/html.

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist