Q. Many times I’ve heard sermons and read that we are not saved by our works but by grace. However, in reading some passages in the New Testament, I’m not sure that is true according to Jesus. Matthew, particularly, has several of Jesus’ sermons that make me think it does matter how we live and what we do and that we can’t just ask for forgiveness and start over each day. Can you point me to passages that will bring clarity to this?
I think the simplest way to summarize the New Testament position on this subject is to explain that while it doesn’t teach we are saved by works, it does teach we are saved for works. That is, God has saved us so that we will be able to live in the way He has designed.
Paul writes in Ephesians, for example, that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Paul argues long and hard, particularly in Romans and Galatians, against the idea that people who are saved by grace can then live in any way they want, and just ask forgiveness for the sins they keep committing. “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” he asks. Paul’s opponents are legalists who are arguing that people have to be bound by rules in order to keep them from going astray. He responds that the law cannot give people the power to do what it commands; however, those who “walk by the Spirit” are able, by the Spirit’s power, to live in the way that God wants and expects.
James, for his part, argues that those who say they are saved by faith can only demonstrate this fact through their works. He challenges those who would say otherwise, “Show me your faith apart from your works.” The implication is, they can’t. James then counters, “I will show you my faith by my works.” But he’s not saying that we are saved by doing works; rather, he’s saying that if our faith does not issue in the kind of works that God has prepared for us, then it’s not saving faith.
And so it’s a parody of the gospel to say that because salvation is by grace, it doesn’t matter how we live once we become followers of Jesus; we can just keep asking for forgiveness for the sins we keep committing. It certainly does matter to God how we live after we accept his gracious offer of salvation, and God has given us the Holy Spirit to live inside us and transform us into people whose lives will consistently and increasingly reflect the righteous character of our Savior Jesus Christ.
[Also see this earlier post: “Are we saved simply by believing, or are there works we need to demonstrate?]
Q. How old was Jesus when his parents brought him back from Egypt?
In my post entitled “How long did Jesus live in Egypt?” I suggest that his family went to that country “no more than two years after Jesus was born” and that all told “the journey to Egypt lasted no more than two years, and perhaps as little as a few weeks or months.” So Jesus would have been between two and four years old when his parents brought him back from Egypt.
In my post in response a reader’s question, “Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wrestling match?” I suggested, among other things, that the “man” Jacob wrestles with (he’s actually a representative of God, like the “angel of the Lord” elsewhere in the Old Testament) was probably “giving Jacob an opportunity to demonstrate, in a dramatic way on a single occasion, the tenacity and endurance God had seen him develop throughout twenty difficult years in exile. Those years had transformed Jacob from a conniving and grasping young man to the mature leader of a large clan who was now willing to face the brother he’d cheated and make things right with him.” I noted that Jonathan Edwards had written in The End for Which God Created the World that when things are “in themselves excellent,” it is also “an excellent thing” for them to become known. And so this wrestling match was a chance for Jacob’s acquired excellent qualities to be demonstrated. A reader of that post commented, “I would love to hear more of your thoughts about the Edwards book. It’s tough sledding.” So here is an overview of the argument that Edwards makes, which I hope will be helpful.
Today we might express the question as, “Why did God create the world?” (I’m sure many of us have wondered this.) But Edwards puts it this way: “To what end did God create the world?” That is, what “end” or purpose was God pursuing through the creation?
Edwards begins his treatise by explaining what kind of “end” he’s talking about. He notes that a person might pursue one end as a means to another. For example, someone might go on a journey to get some medicine to heal a sickness. The ultimate end being pursued is healing. Getting the medicine is a subordinate end to that purpose, and going on the journey is a subordinate end to getting the medicine. (Even if we took a walk just for the pleasure of it, the pleasure would be the ultimate end, and taking the walk would be a subordinate end towards that goal.)
Edwards explains that he wants to explore what God’s ultimate end was in creating the world. That is, God might have made the world in pursuit of a number of purposes, but some of them might have been means to other ends. So what was the “bottom line,” as we would say today?
Edwards also specifies that he’s looking for God’s original ultimate end, that is, the one that God began with before the creation existed. This distinction is necessary because it’s possible that once the world had come into being, some other ultimate end might have been recognized that creating the world was also an appropriate means of reaching.
For example, a man and a woman might get married because they feel called together into a lifetime partnership. But after they got married, they might have children, and they might realize that they now actually value being a family even more than they valued being a couple—their original ultimate end. In such a case, Edwards would say that becoming a family turned out to be their chief end, that is, the one they valued most highly. But it would still not be their original ultimate end.
In the same way, it might turn out that God considered the relationship with his creatures to be the most valuable thing that had come out of the creation. But that would be after the fact; what purpose did God begin with? Edwards leaves off this line of the argument there; he doesn’t follow up on the question of God’s chief end in creating the world, since his task is to explore God’s original ultimate end.
Edwards approaches this question from two angles. He asks first what reason suggests the answer would be, and he then seeks to confirm this from Scripture. We today might approach things in the reverse order. We would first ask what the Bible teaches, and then we would try to make sure that we had understood the Bible correctly by asking whether our answer was reasonable.
But Edwards was living right in the middle of the Enlightenment period, when Western societies had great confidence in reason as a gift that God had redeemed. “The revelation which God has given to men,” he wrote, “has been the occasion of great improvement of their faculties” and it has “taught men how to use their reason.” Edward acknowledges that “it would be relying too much on reason” to try to use it to answer the question at hand “without being . . . principally guided by divine revelation.” But since, he says, some have offered objections to a proper Scriptural understanding of the question “from the pretended dictates of reason,” he will begin by explaining “what seems rational to be supposed concerning this affair,” and then turn to the Scriptures to “consider what light divine revelation gives us in it.”
Edwards then observes that it would not be “agreeable to reason” to think that God created the world because he needed something from the creatures he would make. Rather, God must have had himself in view as the ultimate end of the creation. “God esteems, values, and has respect to things according to their nature and proportions,” and so “he must necessarily have the greatest respect to himself.” Specifically, Edwards says, God created the world with his own glory in view as its ultimate end.
“It seems to be in itself a thing fit and desirable,” he continues, that the glorious attributes of God should be exerted, that they should be known, and that once seen and known, that they should be “valued and esteemed, loved and delighted in,” in a way suitable to their dignity. All of this was accomplished by the creation of a world whose “rational, intelligent creatures” could witness and value God’s glory. (However, Edwards specifies, we should not conclude that God’s desire to “communicate himself to the creature” led him to create the world. Rather, “a disposition of God, as an original property of his nature, to an emanation of his own infinite fullness, was what excited him to create the world.”)
After addressing at length various questions and objections that his argument to this point may have raised, Edwards then concludes his treatise by offering an extensive demonstration that “the Scriptures represent God as making himself his own last end in the creation of the world.” I will not even try to summarize Edwards’ elaborate and comprehensive Scriptural argument here. It is certainly not a matter of a handful of proof-texts that could be taken to say, “God created the world for his own glory.” Rather, it is an exegetically grounded case that reaches throughout the whole Bible to establish this point. So I will commend it to the reader of The End for Which God Created the World, trusting that I have at least helped thereader get to this point in the treatise, that is, onto what should be more familiar ground for us today.
Q. Could it have been in the land of Goshen, where the descendants of Joseph and the sons of Jacob settled?
I argue in that other post that Joseph, Mary and Jesus most likely settled in the city of Alexandria when they fled to Egypt to escape from King Herod. That city was founded by Alexander the Great many centuries after Moses, but it actually lies within the territory that is traditionally associated with the land of Goshen, in the Nile delta. So you’re suggesting a very interesting connection!
Q. The non-believer goes to various secular sources for help in areas like drugs and alcohol, anger management, eating disorders, etc. The believer goes to the Lord trusting the Holy Spirit for power to help because he’s powerless. My question is, “What is the advantage for the believer?” He sees the non-believer progressing in these areas without the Spirit’s help, doesn’t he? Are there some domains of sin where the believer can say, “I received victory in these areas only by the power of God?”
I think it’s actually inaccurate to draw a contrast between non-believers getting help from community resources without God and believers getting help from God all on their own.
On the one hand, classic Christian theology holds that those who have not yet benefited from the “special grace” of God that leads us to salvation in Jesus Christ nevertheless still benefit from the “common grace” of God that is in the world because it is God’s good creation and because God is actively exerting a redemptive influence throughout the earth. So the non-believer is not necessarily making progress in finding freedom from destructive patterns of life “without the Spirit’s help.” This is particularly true if he or she is participating in a group whose members are all working together to overcome a common problem. Human community, when it is cooperative and directed towards a positive end, reflects the character of God and can be a powerful channel of common grace.
On the other hand, the biblical portrayal of salvation is not that we are saved in isolation and need to work out our sanctification (progress towards Christ-like character and life) all alone, just between ourselves and God. Paul writes to the Corinthians, for example, regarding our entrance into the Christian life, that “we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit.” We are saved into community, not into individual self-reliance. (That’s the American individualistic version of “salvation” instead.)
So it’s not a matter of vindicating the need for faith by identifying certain areas of life where destructive patterns can only be overcome by the Holy Spirit’s help. Rather, it’s a matter of recognizing that we live out the model of life that God intended for us humans when the take part in a community whose members offer one another mutual support and encouragement. This is so powerful that it can have many beneficial effects for members even when the community is not built on a shared faith commitment. (Although many “secular” groups actually do talk about the need to rely on a “higher power.”) But I honestly believe that when followers of Jesus form close communities in which members can share their struggles honestly and receive help from people who do not judge them, but rather support and help them, even more powerful things can and do happen. That’s the kind of community I wish for you and for all of my readers.
Q. What is “noble character”? How is formulated? How can we recognize it? What are a few virtues within character—the heavy hitters, let’s say. Thank you.
There are some masterful descriptions in the New Testament of the components of mature, Christ-like character. One of the best known is Paul’s description in Galatians of the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness and self-control.”
Another description of the qualities of noble character is Peter’s account of how we should progress into maturity: “Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge;and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness;and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Anyone would do well to meditate on these qualities and aspire to the ideal that these New Testament passages hold up for us of mature character in Christ. This may be enough to answer your question. However, let me also describe one more aspect of noble character that’s identified by that specific term in the Old Testament.
At a key point in the story of Ruth, Boaz says to her, “All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character.” He has already explained, a little earlier in the story, why she has this reputation: “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before.”
It seems to me that Ruth is considered a woman of noble character (literally a “woman of valor,” chayil) because she has honored the implicit obligations of her relationship to Naomi. At great cost and danger to herself, she has worked hard to ensure that her mother-in-law will be provided for.
Every relationship brings with it certain responsibilities towards another person. These may be things that we promise explicitly to honor when we enter the relationship (as, for example, in wedding vows), or they may be things that are implicit: When you bring a child into the world, for example, you’re accepting an implicit obligation to feed, clothe, shelter, and raise that child.
The word chayil is used most often in the Old Testament to describe men who go out to war to protect their homes and families when these are threatened by enemies. It often has the sense of being brave in battle, but I think there’s also an overtone of fulfilling an obligation. Someone who could fight to protect loved ones but didn’t do this wouldn’t be considered a person of noble character.
But there are a couple of other interesting places in the Old Testament where chayil is applied to women, as it is to Ruth, apart from the context of fighting against invading enemies. One of Solomon’s proverbs says, “A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, but a wife who causes shame is like rottenness in his bones.” We’re not told specifically in what way the second kind of wife might cause shame, but in the cultural context of Proverbs, I believe it would have more to do with failing in relational obligations than with going off and doing some scandalous thing. Another proverb says, for example, “He who hurts his father and puts his mother out of the house is a son who causes much shame.” (By contrast, the one specific example that Jesus gave of what it meant to “honor father and mother” was to care for them as they got older.) The idea is that the community is looking on and that it’s aware of who is faithfully helping their family and friends (like Ruth) and who isn’t.
The other place where chayil is used to describe a woman is at the end of Proverbs:
A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.
This passage then goes on to describe how this woman faithfully and busily carries out all of her responsibilities, so that “the affairs of her household” are well-managed. She fulfills her obligations not only to her husband, but also to her children and servants, and to her neighbors in the community: “She opens her arms to the poorand extends her hands to the needy.” (She would not have had to ask Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” as the teacher of the law did whom Jesus then told the parable of the Good Samaritan!)
It seems to me, then, that the starting point for becoming a person of noble character is to honor and fulfill such relational obligations consistently. Unfortunately some people do not do this, and they fail those they should be protecting and providing for.
This might not sound like being a “heavy hitter,” just being faithful day by day in fundamental tasks. But that’s actually what baseball teams always start with in spring training: the fundamentals. Those who practice them well become the heavy hitters of the later season.
A reader of another of my blogs, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, has asked how the interpretation offered there of the Genesis creation account compares with the one in John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One. In response, I have offered a review of Walton’s book in a series of posts that begins here. I’d like to invite readers of this blog to read the review as well, since it deals with many “good questions” about the Bible.