How Good do you Have to Be to Be Saved?

Romans 4

1Abraham was, humanly speaking, the founder of our Jewish nation. What were his experiences concerning this question of being saved by faith? 2Was it because of his good deeds that God accepted him? If so, he would have had something to boast about. But from God’s point of view Abraham had no basis at all for pride. 3For the Scriptures tell us, “Abraham believed God, so God declared him to be righteous.”

4When people work, their wages are not a gift. Workers earn what they receive. 5But people are declared righteous because of their faith, not because of their work.

6King David spoke of this, describing the happiness of an undeserving sinner who is declared to be righteous:

7“Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sins are put out of sight.

8Yes, what joy for those whose sin is no longer counted against them by the Lord.”

9Now then, is this blessing only for the Jews, or is it for Gentiles, too? Well, what about Abraham? We have been saying he was declared righteous by God because of his faith. 10But how did his faith help him? Was he declared righteous only after he had been circumcised, or was it before he was circumcised? The answer is that God accepted him first, and then he was circumcised later!

11The circumcision ceremony was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised. So Abraham is the spiritual father of those who have faith but have not been circumcised. They are made right with God by faith. 12And Abraham is also the spiritual father of those who have been circumcised, but only if they have the same kind of faith Abraham had before he was circumcised.

13It is clear, then, that God’s promise to give the whole earth to Abraham and his descendants was not based on obedience to God’s law, but on the new relationship with God that comes by faith. 14So if you claim that God’s promise is for those who obey God’s law and think they are “good enough” in God’s sight, then you are saying that faith is useless. And in that case, the promise is also meaningless. 15But the law brings punishment on those who try to obey it. (The only way to avoid breaking the law is to have no law to break!)

(Romans 4:1-15, NLT)


The Daily DAVEotional

What is required to be saved? How good do you have to be? If you fail to live up to the law, does that disqualify you from going to heaven?

These are the kinds of questions Paul is answering in Romans 4 and he uses Abraham as his prime example to explain that faith is the key to being saved, NOT obedience to the law.

You might remember that in Acts 15, there was a pivotal moment in the early church where this issue of circumcision was debated. I wrote about this critical issue in a previous blog post here, but the summary is that some Pharisees who had been converted argued that Gentiles had to become circumcised AND adhere to the law in order to be saved. Faith in Jesus was not enough.

Paul and Barnabas argued against this view and it was brought before all of the early church leaders at what has come to be known as “the Council of Jerusalem.” Long story short, all of the church leaders agreed with Paul and Barnabas and it was determined that circumcision was not a requirement for salvation.

In this chapter of Romans, Paul makes the argument for his position. Though the details of the debate that took place at the Jerusalem Council are not revealed, Paul’s outline in this chapter could very well have been the centerpiece of his defense against circumcision as a requirement for salvation.

Paul’s argument is as follows:

    1. Abraham was justified (declared righteous) by God BEFORE he was circumcised. Circumcision was a sign that Abraham had faith and that God had accepted him.
    2. If Abraham was accepted by God before being circumcised, then the acceptance (justification) is not dependent on being circumcised. It is based on the faith that came before the circumcision.
    3. Hence, Gentiles, who are not circumcised, can also be accepted (justified) by God  based on their faith.
    4. Therefore, circumcision is not required for Gentiles to be accepted.
    5. In the same way, Jews are also accepted by God based on their faith in Jesus, not on their circumcision, since Abraham was declared righteous as a result of his faith, NOT based on his circumcision.

What does this mean for us today?

It’s not likely that many of us think about circumcision as a requirement for salvation, so what are we to make of this passage?

Though we may not be advocating for circumcision as a requirement for salvation, we have a tendency, as humans do, of adding all kinds of work-related requirements to the salvation “formula”.

We have a tendency to think that salvation is secured by placing our faith in Jesus but then it is maintained by keeping a set of religious rules, which may vary depending on your denominational or family upbringing. In this scenario, if you break one of the rules, your spirituality or even your standing in the God’s family may be questioned.

If you think about it, adding any kind of religious requirement to faith is no different than adding circumcision to faith as a requirement for acceptance.

Paul’s argument stands for circumcision or any other work you might be tempted to add. Just replace the word “circumcision” with your religious rule in the outline above and Paul’s argument still holds.

The bottom line is that faith alone justifies a person in God’s eyes, not adherence to the Old Testament law or any other modern day religious code that we might be tempted to concoct. The truth is that Jesus came to die for us precisely because we are incapable of living up to any religious code, ancient or modern.

So let’s dispel the myth that Christians must practice a, b or c rituals to become saved, or that Christians cannot participate in x, y, or z activities or they will lose their salvation. Faith in Jesus is the key, just as it has always been.

Reflection

What religious rules are you tempted to want to add as a requirement for salvation? What is the basis for emphasizing those rules (church you grew up in, family environment, general culture, etc.)?

What activities are on your “prohibited” list of things Christians shouldn’t do. For example, I grew up in a church that generally frowned upon drinking, dancing, rock music, etc. 

Why do you think we have this tendency to add requirements to the process of becoming saved or for keeping our salvation?

 

Photo by Joshua Miranda from Pexels

A Pivotal Council in the Early Church

While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the Christians: “Unless you keep the ancient Jewish custom of circumcision taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”  2Paul and Barnabas, disagreeing with them, argued forcefully and at length. Finally, Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem, accompanied by some local believers, to talk to the apostles and elders about this question.  3The church sent the delegates to Jerusalem, and they stopped along the way in Phoenicia and Samaria to visit the believers. They told them—much to everyone’s joy—that the Gentiles, too, were being converted.  4When they arrived in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas were welcomed by the whole church, including the apostles and elders. They reported on what God had been doing through their ministry.  5But then some of the men who had been Pharisees before their conversion stood up and declared that all Gentile converts must be circumcised and be required to follow the law of Moses.  6So the apostles and church elders got together to decide this question.  7At the meeting, after a long discussion, Peter stood and addressed them as follows: “Brothers, you all know that God chose me from among you some time ago to preach to the Gentiles so that they could hear the Good News and believe.  8God, who knows people’s hearts, confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he gave him to us.  9He made no distinction between us and them, for he also cleansed their hearts through faith.  10Why are you now questioning God’s way by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear?  11We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the special favor of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 15:1-11, NLT)


Acts 15 is perhaps the most important chapter in the entire book of Acts because it highlights an important dispute that arose in the early church.

The issue wasn’t just about the rite of circumcision. At issue was what was necessary to be saved. The dispute seemed to be led by some Pharisees who had been converted (see verse 5). These men believed that salvation was for the Jews and therefore, they believed that the only way a Gentile could become saved was to convert to Judaism. This meant adopting Jewish customs, including observance of the law.

Circumcision was really an outward representation that a person had converted to Judaism. So when these men from Judea began teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved, what they were really asserting was that Gentiles needed to become culturally Jewish before they could accept the Jewish Messiah.

So the question became: can Jesus save non-Jews, or do Gentiles need to adopt Jewish culture and become Jews before they can be saved by the Messiah?

Paul and Barnabas argued that Gentiles didn’t need to adopt Jewish customs, including circumcision, but only needed to receive Jesus by faith in order to be saved.

Peter also advocated for this position as he recalled his experience with Cornelius, the Roman centurion in Acts 10. Peter noted that Cornelius and his family, all Gentiles, had received the Holy Spirit just as the Jews had, on the basis of faith alone.

All of the church leaders agreed. The issue was settled, and from that point on, it was clear that the Jewish Messiah was not just for Jews but for all the peoples of the world. And more importantly, it was clear that the only requirement to receive the Jewish Messiah was faith. It was not necessary to become culturally Jewish.

There are important implications for us today as we seek to share Jesus with a dying world. The principle here is that we are to present Jesus to people and not our culture. Sometimes, it’s easy to conflate the two. People need Jesus. They don’t need my culturalized version of Jesus.

Reflection

In what ways has your culture influenced your view and understanding of Jesus? 

How can you ensure that when you share Jesus with others you are not taking a Pharisaical approach – injecting cultural requirements into the gospel message?