A COMPARISON OF SALVATION BY WORKS VERSUS FAITH
Dear Friends in Christ,
In 1850 the United States census form asked people to identify the religion that they practiced. The government reported that the population of the United States adhered to 18 principal denominations. By 1890 there were 145. In 1956 the Congress of the United States made a law that the religion question would no longer be asked. Other sources keep track of those things these days. Pew Research says that there are now 233 principal religions in the United States. You are probably saying, Is that all? This is the catch. Among Lutherans there are about twelve different synods. They don’t count them. According to Pew research Lutheran is Lutheran even though there are pretty wide gaps from ELCA to WELS. Last I checked there are twenty eight kinds of Baptists. PEW counts them only as Baptists. So it is with all other denominations even though there are divisions among them.
Denominationalism is a reason why so many are turning away from the church today. People bring up the question if there is one God and one Bible why so many religions? So they ask, “Who are we to believe?” Many choose no one.
You know what? There are really only two religions – “Salvation by Works or Salvation by Faith in Jesus.” Today Paul leads us in a comparison.
As I look forward to retirement I have been privileged to have served three congregations. I think the greatest heartbreak that I could experience would be that any one of the churches would either dissolve or decide to ditch Jesus and not be faithful to him. Yet that’s what the Apostle Paul was dealing with and the reason he wrote the churches in Galatia this letter.
Paul’s first missionary journey took him to the province of Galatia. There were several churches established. It was exciting work. He had an exciting message. He went to the local synagogues because the Jews obviously were familiar with the Old Testament and the prophecies about Messiah coming. When Paul went from city to city Paul built on that. He preached that Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment.
Jesus’ preaching and teaching was powerful and effective. It was confirmed by the miracles he did. But there was so much more. He came to save. Paul pointed out the holy mission to save revealed through the prophets. Jesus provided the holy life needed as Jesus lived vicariously or as our substitute. Isaiah and Jeremiah said that Messiah would provide righteousness all people get credited for. Yet Paul pointed out that Messiah, Jesus, would accept the blame of all sin ever committed as the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. Jesus died to be the atoning sacrifice for everyone. But it didn’t stop there. Isaiah and Psalms said the death couldn’t hold him. He rose again on the third day just like the psalms and Isaiah predicted. Mission accomplished. The sins of all had been taken away.
Repent of your sins, Paul exhorted. Turn to Jesus in faith who saves. He brings you peace and pardon. He brings salvation full and free and forever.
Many Jews were overjoyed. What God had promised had come to pass. And I wish I could say the people in Galatia really lived happily ever after in that peace.
But that wasn’t the case. A good share of these folks began to have second thoughts. Salvation free and full and forever? Nothing we can do? What about the laws of Moses to obey? You know the ones, the ones about kosher food and holy days and sacrifices. Give them up. They are part of our DNA. Besides, don’t they help to gain God’s favor? These people were called Judaizers who wanted to mix Judaism with Christianity. Mixing works and faith together to earn salvation is not Christianity. It is not the truth.
How devastated Paul was! Read chapter one of Galatians! But Paul, the teacher, does a comparison of salvation by works versus salvation by faith. He shows how works comes up way short versus faith. He uses an allegory with Sarah and her son, Isaac with Hagar and her son, Ishmael.
Allow me to sidetrack for a moment to teach a very important lesson about Scripture and allegory. An allegory is a story or poem or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning. An example – Aesop’s Fables are allegories. You know the one about the Hare and the Tortoise. Bottom line is that perseverance wins out over talented but lazy people every time.
When it comes to Scripture we must be careful when we talk about allegory. People try to allegorize the Bible all the time as if there is some deeper profound lesson. People have asked me, “Who do Adam and Eve really represent?” What did the ark represent in the Noah and flood story? You can see where they are coming from. They don’t believe in creation. They don’t believe in the universal flood. They think there is some different deeper meaning. They are shocked when I say that that Adam and Eve represent Adam and Eve, your first mother and father, Bud. The ark was the ark. When understanding the Bible, follow this principle: Take the Bible literally unless the Bible says otherwise.
Sarah and Hagar and their children were real people, but Paul turns their real life story to explain the difference between salvation by works versus salvation by faith alone in Jesus Christ. Paul writes, “These things are being taken figuratively.” It could be translated “allegorically.”
Do you know the story of Hagar and Sarah? He says,“The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.
Hagar represented God’s law – Sinai, the Jews, who loved their law, the Law of Moses.She represents all who try to get to heaven by following the Law. Paul was calling out these Judaizers and implying that she represented them.They loved Mount Sinai and what it represented. Sarah and her son represented the Gospel and the promise of Christ and salvation through faith in him alone.
Let’s put a little more meat on the story. Hagar was Sarah’s servant.God told Abraham and Sarah from them would come a mighty nation who would bring blessing to all nations.The nation was the Hebrew nation from whom Christ would come. God made that promise to Abraham when he was seventy five, Sarah was sixty five. But they reasoned that the biological clock was running out. Yet God remained silent for another twenty five years.
Abraham and Sarah felt compelled to devise a plan to help the Lord out. Abraham could father a child with Hagar, Sarah’s servant. That was the plan and sure enough a child was conceived.
He makes the first comparison. Remember that Hagar represents salvation by works, Sarah salvation by faith in Jesus. Paul says it like this, “His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.” Sarah’s son born when she was at the ripe old age of 90 (Abraham was 100), was, and is, the work of God, a miracle. Hagar’s son was the result of a people plan. That begs the question: Whose plan do you trust? A people plan or a God plan? Salvation by works which is a people plan or salvation by God’s grace, a plan – even a miracle from God? I pray that is a rhetorical question!
Think about this aspect. Abraham, Sarah and Hagar were trying to help God out. Really? That’s really what salvation by works is. We try to help God out. Since when does God need help?
Just think if that were true that we need to help God out just like the Judaizers believed. How much help does God need? Is there a percentage he needs from us? What is that percentage? How would we know when we get there? Thank you, Lord, salvation is your work, and yours alone!
There is another point of comparison. Ishmael was born but was still a slave. Even if we could get to heaven by what we do, what pressure we would face! Because of 9/11 George Bush said the US government could never be wrong in the fight against terrorism again. The government must be right 100 % of the time and find the bad guys time. That’s pressure. That’s the way it is with salvation by works. Never once can you fail. That’s pressure. That’s slavery.
How meaningful it is when Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Jesus promises us freedom from our failures. He has set us free. From the pressure to save ourselves, the Lord says, “It is by grace you have been saved.” We are saved by works, but it was the work of Jesus. From the accusations that we sin again and again and again, God reassures us “There is now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” We even have freedom from death, “He who believes in me will live even though he dies.” Thanks to Jesus he bore our burden.
There is more to compare. “At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now.” When Hagar had her child, the Abraham camp was not a happy home with the pitter patter of tiny feet. In Genesis chapter 16 it is reported, “Abraham slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she (Hagar) knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.” Hagar made Sarah’s life absolutely miserable. Hagar rubbed it in Sarah’s face that she was pregnant and Sarah could never get pregnant.
That is the way it has been between the folks who believe in works as the way to heaven. There is persecution. The Jewish leaders hated Jesus. There was an ultimate example of people who believed in works challenging the Savior of all. All of Jesus’ followers should expect the same persecution. Jesus warned, “A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”
What was the Reformation all about? Luther rediscovered the Gospel and had to fight for it because Rome church went down the path of works. In Luther’s time, the Roman Catholic Church often killed those who disagreed with its doctrines such as John Huss and Wycliffe. It is estimated that the papacy killed nearly 50 million people because of different beliefs.
There is a final point of comparison between works and faith. ”But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” The slave woman remained a slave and never became part of the family. There was never an inclusion in the inheritance.
Those Judaizers in Galatia needed to be sent away from the faithful Galatians too. They were dangerous. Just as Hagar was also sent away. Don’t let present day Judaizers, people who think they can save themselves, influence you to believe the same. You are turning your back on Jesus if you do. You are losing the certainty of your salvation that belongs only to Jesus. It is in and remains in God’s hands.