“Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him.” (Heb.10:38, KJV)
The writer of Hebrews states this as part of his argument for standing strong in faith in the face of growing persecution and uncertainty. He is quoting Habakkuk, and this is a rabbinic use of the verse. The passage in Habakkuk reads like this:
“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith…”(Hab.2:4, Koren Jerusalem Bible)
The common perception in Christian theology is that “faith” is the opposite of “works”. By extent, then, “grace” becomes the antithesis of “Law”. This false dichotomy is the unfortunate result of the reductionist manner in which the gospel has been been proclaimed since the days of the Reformation generally, and the Great Awakening more particularly. (Of course, all of this has its roots in the Roman Catholic Church’s theological beat-down of Jewish practice in its developing doctrines of the early centuries, but that is the topic of a different conversation to be had at another time).
It is a firing-line style of preaching the message of salvation which places people upon an imaginary precipice, forcing the trembling sinner to choose between the engulfing flames of God’s wrath or the waiting, gentle arms of Jesus. A romantic notion, no doubt, but nowhere near the actual gospel of Jesus and the apostles.
One of the results of this approach to the gospel message has been its increasing anti-semitic tone. You see, the Law was given to the Jews, but most Christians think that through his death and resurrection that Jesus has “fulfilled” the Law, thereby “cancelling” it. Many Christians are sophisticated enough in the scriptures to at least recognize that the Law has not been cancelled, but nonetheless persist in believing that since Jesus “fulfilled” it, that it in effect has no power over the believer. Subsequently, the Christian, in most Christian expressions, is taught to walk in the “spirit” of the Law, by obeying the Law of Love, taking Jesus’ exhortation to “love your neighbor” as the replacement commandment for all the minutia of Old Testament Law.
This theological position creates a great many problems for the church. For one thing, it makes discipleship very difficult. How are we to teach people ethical instructions in how to love God and others when this “love” cannot be defined as God defines it, which is through the commandments? Consider this conversation:
Man: “I love you.”
Woman: “How do you love me?”
Man: “I just do.”
Woman: “But how do you show it? What are you doing that tells me that you love me?”
Man: “I just told you I love you. That’s how you can know that I love you.”
Woman: (after a long silence) “I knew you didn’t love me.”
The above is a clear case of a man who does not understand how to love a woman. Talk is important when it is backed up by action. But talk without action is more hurtful than if you never said anything at all. In the same way, by assuming that Jesus did not want his followers to strive after righteousness and obedience to God through His Word, but merely to embrace a “sentiment” (which can be subjectively molded and reinterpreted depending upon one’s perspective), then we create a scenario in which we have millions of false, or at best, partial converts to the gospel. People who are partially converted (I would define this as “foot in the bucket people”: Folks who believe in Jesus and assent to the message mentally, but whom never allow him to become the Lord and Shepherd of their lives), invariably cannot tolerate sound doctrine or teaching, because they have never made the decision to become obedient.
God wants us to be faithful to Him. He promises to be faithful to us.
The leaders of God’s people will be held to account for this problem, since they have not presented a gospel that requires obedience, only belief. Yet Jesus never proclaimed that we would be judged for our belief, but for our actions. Consider these passages:
“Whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt.12:50)
“Not every who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and in your name cast out demons, and in your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.'”(Matt.7:21-23)
“…the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, for the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Rom.2:6-10)
“Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.” (1 Cor.7:19)
“Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” (Js.2:17)
So, why is this emphasis lacking in our pulpits across America? Why do the most successful and well-supported ministries refuse to preach on sin? The answer is obvious, and was prophetically declared by the apostle Paul:
“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth…“(2 Tim.4:3-4)
It’s simple….false converts flock to false teachers. But the Lord knows who are his, and his sheep hear his voice.
The point of all this, is to establish the point of the gospel itself. Is the gospel getting as many people to confess Jesus as possible? Or is it, rather, to make disciples? I think, in reading the words of the Great Commission, that it is the latter. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find the modern gospel on the lips of Jesus or his disciples at all. This is because they were all Jewish, and had a very Jewish understanding of God and of righteousness.
To these men, and to our Lord, the idea of “faith” cannot be divorced from the idea of “deeds”, or “works”.
This is one of the great deceptions of the Christian faith in its modern expression. The thinking in normative church theology is that the Jewish people trusted in the works of the Law for salvation, but that through grace in Jesus, a Christian is someone who understands that the only purpose of the Law was to “show us that we couldn’t keep it”, and to trust in Jesus. Yet, this shows colossal ignorance of not only the testimony of scripture, as evidenced above, but also of Jewish faith and of the reasons why God gave the Torah to them.
Jesus and his disciples did not grow up in a religious system which taught that salvation was assured through keeping Law. The keeping of Law was considered the actions of godly people. The wicked run after sin. The godly pursue righteousness. They are all judged according to their deeds, and rewarded and punished accordingly. This is the teaching of the Old Testament, the New Testament, Jesus, the Jewish sages and the Oral Traditions. It is also the teaching of the Talmud. But “measure-for-measure” is not without grace. No, in fact, the grace of God is inherent in the life and faith of a Jew or Gentile who seeks to love and serve God. This is what Peter proclaims in Acts:
“I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.” (Acts 10:34-35)
What is valued in Jewish thought is not perfection in obedience (which is acknowledged as impossible) but the pursuit of repentance, rendered in Hebrew as “teshuvah“, or “turning back to God”. This idea is well-illustrated in the following passage from the Talmud:
“Every chapter that was dear to David, he began with ‘happy is’…’Happy are those who take refuge in Him.'(Ps.2:12)…David did not say ‘Hallelujah’ until he saw the downfall of the wicked, the Gemara relates: There were these hooligans in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood who caused him a great deal of anguish. Rabbi Meir prayed for God to have mercy on them, that they should die. Rabbi Meir’s wife, Berurya, said to him: What is your thinking? On what basis do you pray for the death of these hooligans? Do you base yourself on the verse, as it is written: ‘Let sins cease from the land'(Ps.104:35), which you interpret to mean that the world would be better off if the wicked were destroyed? But is it written, let sinners cease? Let sins cease, it is written. One should pray for the end of their transgressions, not for the demise of the transgressors themselves. Moreover, go to the end of the verse, where it says: ‘And the wicked will be no more.’ If, as you suggest, ‘transgressions shall cease’ refers to the demise of the evildoers, how is it possible that the wicked will be no more, i.e., that they will no longer be evil? Rather, pray for God to have mercy on them, that they should repent, as if they repent, then the wicked will be no more, as they will have repented.” (Berakhot,10a, Noe Edition, Koren Publishing)
You see (and this is very typical of Talmudic thought) how the verses in Psalms are wrestled with to show a compassionate view of people’s potential for repentance, rather than to use the verses to declare divine judgment upon them, as Calvin does in his wretched theology which so influences evangelical thought.
In Talmudic logic, grace is the overarching principle in the application of Law. The rabbis sought always to consider all angles before establishing a practice, or halakha, and the intention was to represent the spirit of the Law, not the letter, and to build a “fence around the Torah.”
We see this at work in the teachings of Jesus and also the writings of the apostles. So, contrary to forming a false dichotomy between Law and Grace, the New Testament comfortably marries the two ideas together into a collective, which forms the true nature of biblical faith.
It is difficult to determine, in fact, where grace ends and Law begins, and vice-versa. And this is how it is meant to be. We are not supposed to reduce personal salvation into a formula, such as the church has done. Even in one of the most popular verses of the Bible quoted by many grace-preachers today, we see this healthy tension between the two ideas:
“For grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Eph.2:9-10)
The question then, is not whether faith and works are opposed to each other, since clearly they are not. The question is one of definition. How do we define “faith” and how do we define “works”?
When Paul speaks of faith, he uses the Greek word “pistus”, which is an action word. As D.Thomas Lancaster, of First Fruits of Zion explains in his book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians, this Greek word does not mean “faith” in a passive sense (as in “belief”), but rather “faithfulness”, as in active loyalty. He explains that the passage in Galatians 2 in which Paul tells us we are saved by “faith in Christ” is better translated (by proper application of Greek interpretive principles) as the “faithfulness of Christ”. (pg.93)
In other words, our salvation is not a formula or creed that we adopt, but a relationship we enter into, and which requires active work to maintain.
But don’t be alarmed into thinking that this means we must be “perfect” in order to maintain our status. This is the reason for the knee-jerk reaction of many believers who recoil at the notion of having to obey the Law. It goes like this:
Me: “We are supposed to obey God as a condition of our salvation.”
Other person: “But we aren’t under the Law. Haven’t you read Galatians?”
Me: “No, of course not. Didn’t know there was such a book. Thanks for correcting me.”
At this point, rather than choke the person (which would be sin), I smile. The other person, of course, is shaking their head at me for being SO STUPID as to think that anyone could obey the Law. (Then, they drive away and stop at red lights.The irony, of course, escapes them. But I digress…..)
It’s like this: I am expected to be faithful to God and to actively pursue obedience and continual growth personally in my devotion. But I fall short constantly. Thankfully, Jesus NEVER falls short, and thanks to his surpassing righteousness, he is able to remain faithful to me even when I am temporarily unfaithful to him. This is why we are saved by the “faithfulness of Christ”. This is GRACE. But my part is to walk in daily repentance and to seek out the works that he would have me to walk in, which God has already prepared for me. (Eph.2).
It’s a relationship. In Jesus’ day, when he was asked to narrow down the most important commandments, he quoted two: Love God and love your neighbor. These didn’t summarize the commandments, thereby replacing them. No, they formed the “hooks” upon which all the other commandments “hung.” This was a common teaching which may not have been originated by Jesus, since it appears in rabbinic writings from the period. Apparently this idea was in the Oral Traditions.
The same idea is at work in the verse quoted from Habakkuk by the writer of Hebrews:
“Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him.” (Heb.10:38, KJV)
There are 613 codified commandments in the Bible. The sages knew that it was virtually impossible for anyone to keep track of all of them at one time. Many did not apply except in special circumstances if you weren’t a priest, or didn’t live in Israel, etc. So, ultimately, by process of reduction, the sages ruled that the principle idea which summarized the 613 commandments was found in Hab.2:4, which was “the just shall live by their faith.”
This meant living with the intent of remaining faithful to do one’s duty to God and his fellow man. God is pleased and credits righteousness to us if we live in this manner, but if we draw back from living in obedience to God and pursue our own way, He “has no pleasure in us.”
But what about “works of the Law”? Paul seems to make a big deal about the fact that no one is justified by them. Well, even though I’ve already answered that question, for those who are a little slow (wake up, sleeper!), lets realize that this phrase is used by Paul in his epistles to denote Jewish “identity”. He certainly isn’t teaching that we should not pursue obedience to God’s commandments, because this would mean he was a teacher of “lawlessness” and would qualify him as a false teacher, like Joseph Prince or Joel Osteen. No, it also would contradict what he said in Corinthians, which was quoted above.
Instead, he is speaking of someone who seeks favor with God through Jewish religious and cultural identity. Jewish practice does not save a person, but repentance and obedience to God. For a Gentile, which is anyone not Jewish, the only way to participate in the covenant promises of God is through the King of the Jews, Jesus Christ. Paul says that we are not to boast against the root (meaning the Jews) since they are the root which supports us, and not the other way around. (Rom.11). In spite of the temporary hardening of Israel and Her long exile, this does not mean that a Jew should become a Christian. No, they are to remain faithful to the covenant that God has established for them, since this is what they are commanded to do in the Bible. Make no mistake, at the time appointed, the Lord will reveal himself to his brothers. But as a Gentile, we have nothing in God apart from Jesus, which means we have nothing apart from the faith of the Jewish people, as expressed through history. Jesus was Jewish. He is Jewish. He’ll be Jewish when he returns.
The point of the gospel is to repent and obey God, not to get an “insurance card” to take away the fear of death.
The gospel is not about going to heaven when you die. It is about living for heaven while you’re alive.
The imperative is daily repentance and the pursuit of holiness, through the power of the spirit of God, given to us as a seal of redemption. But the only way we will be able to succeed in this ideal is if we stop viewing the Law as the enemy of grace, and see it for what it is. As Paul says:
“Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.” (Rom.3:31)
By proclaiming a message of Law vs. Grace, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We are supposed to be making disciples by teaching people to observe the commandments of God. How can we fulfill the Great Commission if we think these commandments no longer apply?
In conclusion, and to answer the original question posed in the title of this post, “What is the goal of the gospel?” Believe it or not, the goal of the gospel was not the cross. In spite of what many have told you, the cross is not, actually, the central event of the Bible. No, the central theme of the Bible is redemption. This is the theme of the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. The cross is an important part of this, but not the end. Nor does the cross represent the cessation of Israel’s purpose.
The goal of the gospel is the redemption of mankind and the advent of the kingdom of God. We are ambassadors for a coming King. We should walk as though he is already on the throne, not as though he has given us a park pass for a free ride on the hedonism train to nowhere.
As James has told us, in his cryptic, sparse fashion: “….show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (Js.2:18)
Or Jesus, in his:
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love; just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” (Jn.15:10)
Notice that God loves you? Jesus is not providing us a “shield” from the wrath of God. He portrays his Father in heaven much different than this. He tells Nicodemus that God “so loved the world that He gave His only Son.”
God understands the deal. So does Jesus. Jesus lived a sinless life of righteousness, and yes, he was tempted. He was fully human. He was not God zipped up in human skin like the giant bug in Men In Black.
No, he was human, with the spirit of the Divine Presence dwelling richly within him. The same Divine Presence that is given to us, albeit in not the same measure exactly, but still the same spirit. Jesus calls us his brothers, even as he acknowledges that he is our Master and Lord. We are to follow after him in a life of “teshuvah” and in the pursuit of good works. As ambassadors. That is the point of the gospel. To become little Christs who emulate his works and exemplify his teachings, making disciples. And we are going to be rewarded for our efforts when he sets up his kingdom on earth.
“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”(Matt.25:23)