Part of Faith Alone
Does faith and faith alone justify us in God’s sight, or must we also do good works if we are to be saved?
The Pauline Epistle to the Romans takes the former position, and defends it by citing the story of the Old Testament patriarch, Abraham, whom God asked to sacrifice his son Isaac as a proof of his faithfulness:
“If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’…. It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.”
—Romans 4:2,3,13 (NIV)
However, somewhat amusingly, the Epistle of James cites the same story in defense of its own position, but draws the exact opposite lesson from it!
“Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”
—James 2:21-24 (NIV)
In the New Testament, good works are often considered to be synonymous with following the Jewish law, and in the early days of Christianity, fierce debates often raged over whether that law still needed to be followed. The Pauline letters generally held that the Old Testament law had been abolished (see Galatians 2:16, 3:11-12); but in another amusing Biblical self-contradiction, one which raises the specter of interpolation, the book of Romans cannot agree even with itself on this issue.
“Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin…. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”
—Romans 3:20,28 (NIV, emphasis added)
“All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.”
—Romans 2:12,13 (NIV, emphasis added)
A starker contradiction could scarcely be imagined. Romans 3 says that no one who obeys the Jewish law will be declared righteous, but that a man is justified by faith without observing the law. Romans 2 says the polar opposite, that those who obey the law will be declared righteous, and that a man who merely hears the law without following it (i.e., someone who tries to justify themself through faith alone) will be duly punished.
The gospels contain one more contradiction on the issue of faith vs. good works. This one is due to Jesus Christ himself, and centers around the matter of a glaring inconsistency between Jesus’ words and his deeds.
In Matthew 19, a young man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do that he may be granted eternal life in Heaven. Jesus lists five of the Ten Commandments and tells him to make sure to keep them. The young man replies that he has done so, and asks if there is anything else he must do.
“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.’”
—Matthew 19:21 (NIV)
This endorsement of good works as a means to attain Heaven raises some difficulties for those who would argue that faith alone is sufficient for salvation. But leave that issue aside for the moment. Keeping in mind Jesus’ advice here, skip ahead to two days before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Mark chapter 14 relates a very unusual incident at this point in his life:
“While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, ‘Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.’ And they rebuked her harshly.
‘Leave her alone,’ said Jesus. ‘Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.’”
—Mark 14:3-9 (NIV)
“Do as I say, not as I do” does not seem to have been included among the Son of Man’s teachings, and so the disciples’ puzzled and angry reaction to this incident is fully understandable. When a woman anointed Jesus with lavishly expensive perfume, the disciples doubtless thought they were only following his teachings when they chastised her for this waste of money that could otherwise have been spent on more worthy causes. But then Jesus leaps to the woman’s defense, rebuking the disciples as though they had done something wrong by pointing this out, and rather selfishly saying he should get to enjoy it since he would be gone soon anyway. (In line with the theory that Mark’s was the first gospel and that later writers took it upon themselves to “correct” his theologically difficult passages, John 12 portrays Judas as saying this because he wanted to steal the money for himself. This does not alter the underlying moral, however, nor does it solve the inconsistency.)
No apologist source that I am aware of addresses the apparent discrepancy between the strict rules Jesus enjoined others to follow and this wasteful indulgence he granted himself. Like many others in the Bible, this contradiction must be marked as unresolved.