Faith and Works: Would I rather be a Jewish Sparrow or a Catholic Snail? Neither

One wouldn’t normally associate Orthopaedic surgeons with Orthodox rabbis except in so far as they are both “Ortho”: they’re in the business of Orthoring; straightening things out: the one, broken bones, the other, broken doxes (beliefs). Here is an Orthopaedic surgeon that doesn’t only look like a rabbi – believe me – but also wants to mend more than my broken bones; he wants to “Ortho” my “dox” as well. Unfortunately, he will have to remain anonymous, because he would wish it so. Here he is deboning “faith and works”:

“The notion of the supremacy of ‘faith’ above all else appears to trouble a number of good folk. The dogmatic statement of salvation by faith alone smacks of the age old entrapment and tacit blackmail strategy by covert groups into joining their select and exclusive clubs (usually under some threat of isolation and punishment). This practice also smacks of nationalism and dark hitlerism. The need to simply believe/ have faith rather than to attempt the far harder and inituitively more relevant state of being a person of simple good character and behaviour may be limited (and rewarded) by one’s credibility threshold. Over the ages the so-called ‘believers’ have not necessarily shown themselves to be consistently or typically better people (despite: ‘by their fruits ye shall know them’). One’s salvation is stated then to be a gift of grace, and does not depend on anything one undertakes of one’s own accord and powers – but strangely depends completely on the so-called momentous and all-important decision of (blindly) believing without preceding knowledge or inclination. A conscious work in itself.”

Although the doctor is not Jewish (he looks far more Jewish than me), he sounds very Jewish, with strong overtones of Catholicism (Hitler being excluded from our considerations). What I’d like to do is examine and compare some of the rabbinal and Catholic teaching on “faith and works” and contrast these teachings with the Protestant Reformed position, which I shall argue is the biblical position of both the Tanakh (Old Testament) and the New Testament.

Ed Blum, in his “Christianity through the centuries” (No. 3 “Age of the Fathers,” 36 minutes into the lecture) says:

“With regard to salvation, they (the Church Fathers) are becoming very fuzzy very quickly. And it is amazing that salvation by grace can be so clear in the Apostles. The book of Galatians of course, which you’ve studied, is extremely clear that a man is saved by faith alone not by works.”

Blum’s “saved by faith” means the same as justified by faith, with the understanding that “works” is the evidence of faith. So, in a sense, a believer works out his salvation, that is, he produces good works that indicate that he has been justified and made right (righteous) with God. THAT is the Reformed Christian position (“Reformed” – of the Protestant Reformation).

Blum continues:

“Yet when you get over into the Apostolic fathers, you get the idea that the person needs to work and the doctrine of works is coming in. Somebody said that the New Testament puts a great stress on belief in a Person whereas you have the stress coming in with the church fathers on believe “that,” believe this creed, believe this statement, and there is less of the personal element. I think that is true. One generalisation that would be helpful for us to remember about the Apostolic fathers is this: to them they are never really sure of the forgiveness of their sins. They always seem to be living towards the forgiveness of their sins. They seem to be living toward the cross rather than from it. They always seem to be seeing justification as ahead of them. They don’t have this tremendous sense of acceptance with God that you have in the New Testament writings that a man knows that he has been justified, that he stands right with God; there’s no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. Instead what you constantly get are moralisms: let’s do good, let’s be good, let’s try to work harder, let’s fast, let’s be this.”

Blum refers to Thomas Torrence’s The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers. Torrence says that the Gospel contains an “eternal indicative,” that is, it contains a statement of fact, namely, Christ died; we have been justified in Christ Jesus. The apostolic fathers, in contrast laboured under a “continual imperative”; do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that. Imperatives, that is, works, have, of course, an important place in the Christian faith. But when faith becomes all or mostly imperative, and no or little indicative, you change the face of New Testament Christianity; you do an about-face.

In this regard, rabbinical Judaism is very similar to the Christianity of the apostolic fathers, and very different, not only to New Testament Christianity, but also very different to the Abrahamic covenant as well as to the Mosaic covenant. In his blog on “works,” Yourphariseefriend,” Rabbi Yisroel Blumenthal, writes:

“Christianity teaches that no good works of men are counted as righteous before God. It is difficult to think of a concept that is more contrary to the Jewish scriptures. The Tabernacle and the Temple narratives, which take up so much of scripture, tell us how God favors the obedient works of men – Exodus 25:1-31:11, 35:4-40:38, Leviticus 8:1-9:24 Numbers 7:1-8:26, 1Kings 5:16-8:13, 2Chronicles 1:18-7:3. These narratives show us how important this concept is to God. The fact that the details of the people’s obedience are recounted and repeated demonstrates how significant these acts are in God’s eyes. The following scriptural references all demonstrate that the Christian teaching which denigrates the deeds of men has no basis in the words of the Living God.” (My italics).

Then follows an embarrassment of proof texts to show that works matter much to God. Blumenthal says that “ Christian teaching… denigrates the deeds of men” and therefore “ has no basis in the words of the Living God.”

The Rabbi, as with most Jews, misunderstands the Christian Gospel’s relationship between faith and works. I responded to the Rabbi:

“As you know the first followers of Yeshua were all Jewish and undoubtedly Torah observant, as much as you are today. They also had problems with the relationship between the Law and Faith. And the problem has never gone away for Jewish believers in Yeshua.”

“Yeshua said that faith in Him rather than works was central. There is a problem because the NT does seem to contradict – which you’ve pointed out – many of the verses you quote.”

When I say that “faith” is central, I mean that without faith no one can please God, no one can be righteous. Indeed, faith is counted as righteousness, as we learn from Abraham. What did Abraham have to DO for for God to forgive his sins and count him as righteous? Simply this: “He believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15:6). Everything that Abraham subsequently did was based on the foundation of faith. It is important to note that it was not his works, but his faith, that made him righteous. And works? What’s their point if it is faith that makes you righteous? The point is that we live in bodies and bodies do more than just doodoo; they’re constantly on the move – when they’re not asleep – doing this and doing that. And the most important thing in all this doing is – in Christian terminology – making your body a temple of the Holy Spirit. The ramifications of this doctrine is that believers need to spread their branches to make shade for one another, and to raise those branches up to heaven in praise and worship. Unless the branches are grafted into the Tree of life, they whither and die. That Tree of Life is the same for Abraham as well as for the Christian, indeed, for Moses and all the great men of biblical history: Faith in the Living God; the same Living God as Rabbi Blumenthal’s Living God. The great men of faith (Hebrews 11) were all nourished by the sap of faith, and they proved it – through their works. They proved through their deeds that they were righteous (right with) God. They grew in HOLINESS, which – wonderful as it is – is nothing more than the seed of faith blossoming forth. The Christian is reminded that he can boast of nothing, not even his works, for though we are commanded to “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” we must not ignore what follows: “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12b-13).

Consider the book of James on the issue of faith and works. Here’s a quote from James 2, verse 14 onwards, quoted by Joseph of the RoshPinaProject in his post, Yisroel Blumenthal and the Book of James”:

“My friends, what good is it to say you have faith, when you don’t do anything to show that you really do have faith? Can that kind of faith save you? If you know someone who doesn’t have any clothes or food, you shouldn’t just say, “I hope all goes well for you. I hope you will be warm and have plenty to eat.” What good is it to say this, unless you do something to help? Faith that doesn’t lead us to do good deeds is all alone and dead!”

This emphasis on “works” seems to contradict Rabbi Blumenthal’s statement (quoted earlier on) that “Christian teaching… denigrates the deeds of men” and therefore “ has no basis in the words of the Living God.”

The Rabbi may know that the Book of James is also used by Catholics to counter the Reformed Church’s (Luther, Calvin) “Justification by faith alone.” Here is the Council of Trent, which, could easily have come from a rabbinical council:


celebrated on the thirteenth day of January, 1547


Canon 24.  If anyone says that justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely fruits and signs of justification obtained, not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema.

This Canon shoots the Apostle Paul’s teaching in the foot, which says:

“Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Romans 4:4-5).

The upshot: good deeds do not justify at all. Only “him who does not work but believes” is seen as righteous by God. The Gospel teaches:

“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5).

What could be plainer? Anything contrary is the tradition of men. “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5);

God “has saved us and called us to a holy life not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace” (2 Tim. 1:8-9); “And if by grace, then it is no longer by works” (Romans 11:6).

The Catholic Church curses anyone who believes the above:

“If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, let him be anathema” (Canon 12, Council of Trent).

“If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out that no debt of temporal punishment remains…let him be anathema .

(Canon 30, Council of Trent).

“Faith gives evidence of its existence by righteous living. James is concerned for professing Christians who have dead faith which is idle, barren, and unfruitful (James 2:17). He is saying that dead faith does not justify and it is useless (James 2:20). Only genuine faith is alive and bears fruit.” (Mike Gendron).

Some Roman Catholic apologists point out that the verb form for justify is found in the aorist, present and future tenses in the New Testament. They maintain this proves that justification is not a completed work but an ongoing process which is dependent upon the human works of sanctification. However such assertions are laid to rest by Galatians 2:16 where all three verb tenses are found in relation to justification:

“Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified (present) by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified (aorist) by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified (future).”

It’s difficult to pin down what Catholics think on the “faith-works” issue.  Peter Kreeft, the Catholic philosopher, says (my emphasis):

“Faith is the root, the necessary beginning. Hope is the stem, the energy that makes the plant grow. Love is the fruit, the flower, the visible product, the bottom line. The plant of our new life in Christ is one; the life of God comes into us by faith, through us by hope, and out of us by the works of love. That is clearly the biblical view, and when Protestants and Catholics who know and believe the Bible discuss the issue sincerely, it is amazing how quickly and easily they come to understand and agree with each other on this, the fundamental divisive issue. Try it some time with your Protestant friend.”

Kreeft’s “love is the fruit” is actually the opposite of the ex cathedra (official) of Rome. To reiterate the Council of Trent:

Canon 24.  If anyone says that justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely fruits and signs of justification obtained, not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema.

Kreeft also says that the majority of Catholics are woefully ignorant about their faith. With regard to his suggestion that his Catholic readers should “Try it some time with your Protestant friend,” I would reply that many Protestants are, as are Catholics, ignorant of the doctrine of justification.

Here is a typical view by a Jew on Paul’s teaching on “works. This is not only a Jewish view but also very prevalent across religions including among Christians:

Why did Communism fail?

It’s not a difficult question. It’s quite obvious, actually. Communism failed because everyone knew that no matter how lazy they were, they would receive the same wage as everyone else. Why should they bother working very hard at all if there was a guaranteed paycheck in the mail? It is for this reason that ‘Spiritual Communism’ fails as well. What is ‘Spiritual Communism’? If your actions do not matter and the only thing you need to do to get into heaven for eternity is have a ‘belief’ in Jesus, then you are involved in Spiritual Communism!”

“Why should I bother being a good person? I believe in Jesus therefore I am going to heaven.” This is spiritual communism.”

As David Cook comments, this is a “real misunderstanding” of Paul. It’s difficult to engage seriously with those who have such a poor understanding of the texts under study. It’s perhaps easier to believe that parody rather than a struggle with paradox is the name of such a person’s game.

(See other comments  at MessianicJews).

Simon and Garfunkel wrote a song  whose first line is “I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail.”

At one time I sang “I’d rather be a Catholic than a Jew.” I’m no longer a Catholic, and for many Jews, I’m no longer a Jew. One thing I do know  is that when it comes to “faith and works,” I’d rather not be a Jewish Sparrow nor a Catholic Snail.