We are righteous by what we do, not by what we believe. Christianity is the religion of the creed, Judaism the religion of the deed
The New Testament clearly teaches that faith without works is dead. But it also teaches that without faith there can be no meaningful works, and the first thing God wants from us is our total trust and dependence. That is called faith, and it is foundational to the Hebrew Scriptures as well. Our forefathers died in the wilderness because of their unbelief, and being pronounced righteous by God begins with absolute faith in him. So right living is the result of right believing. As a Jew, you should also remember that “the creed” is important in traditional Judaism too.
Believing in the Lord and keeping the commandments of the Lord are interrelated. True faith is marked by godly acts, and godly acts are the result of true faith. Does anyone seek to carefully follow the commandments of God without first believing that he exists and that he has, in fact, given us these instructions for life? And can anyone truly put his trust in the Lord without taking on his lordship in his life? The two go hand in hand.89 As Jacob (James) wrote in the New Testament almost two thousand years ago:
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.
The importance of good works was also emphasized numerous times by Paul, even in contexts when he was careful to point out that we are not saved by our works. Rather, God has had mercy on us and redeemed us from our sins so that we might give ourselves to good works:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in [Messiah] Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus [the Messiah] our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.
The problem is that we cannot become righteous in God’s sight simply by doing good—we are not good enough!—and this is what makes faith so fundamentally important. We all fall short of the mark continually (see 3.20 for more on this). So the first thing God is looking for is our trust and dependence. He wants us to look to him, to believe what he says about himself. After all, he is our Savior and Deliverer, and without his help, we are doomed. We look to his goodness before we try to be good ourselves. That’s where the relationship starts. And having truly put our faith in him—to help us, to guide us, to change us, to forgive us, to save us, to keep us—we live obedient lives as his children.
In that sense, as Paul so often emphasized, we are pronounced righteous before God (i.e., “not guilty,” acquitted of all charges, in right standing) by faith and not by any amount of good works we could possibly do. It’s all because of his mercy! Then, as God’s forgiven and accepted people, we give ourselves to him heart and soul, mind and strength, demonstrating our faith by our works.
Scripture makes this plain with regard to our father Abraham. In a well-known passage, it is recorded that when the Lord promised Abraham (then known as Abram) that he would have a son in his old age, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness [tsedaqah]” (Gen. 15:6). When Abram took God at his word, believing that he would be faithful to accomplish the impossible thing he promised, God credited it to Abram’s account as righteousness.91 It’s as if the Lord said, “That man is righteous! He trusts my word explicitly.” Our relationship with God begins by faith, and every righteous person in the Bible has been a believer first and a doer second.
This is how the Lord dealt with our people as a whole. He delivered our ancestors from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, making himself known as the only true God, and then he gave us his statutes and laws. In fact, the Ten Commandments do not begin with a prohibition against idolatry but rather with a statement of who our God is: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exod. 20:2). In light of this, he then said, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). First, know me; then, serve me. First, believe me; then, obey me.
“But what about Deuteronomy 6:25?” you ask. “Doesn’t that verse state clearly that we are righteous by what we do, without any reference to the concept of faith?” Let’s look at this verse in context:
In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our eyes the Lord sent miraculous signs and wonders—great and terrible—upon Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land that he promised on oath to our forefathers. The Lord commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the Lord our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today. And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness.”
Once again, the pattern is the same: The response we are told to give to our children begins with a statement of the great and mighty things our God did in rescuing us from Egypt, and based on this fact, explains why we do what we do. In other words, the God of the law precedes the law of God.92
We must also remember that the law of God included the entire atonement system for Israel, part of the very heart of the Five Books of Moses.93 It would be unthinkable for an Israelite to say to himself, “The Lord will accept me as righteous if I keep some of the commandments, even though I refuse to enter into the sacrificial rites or participate in the Day of Atonement.” Nonsense! That would be like saying, “I’m sure God will accept me as righteous if I offer sacrifices and pray, even though I’m a thief and I don’t honor my parents.” Rather, both atonement for sins (i.e., a means for forgiveness, a way to become righteous before God) and directives for life (i.e., a path for obedience, a way to live righteously before God) are included in the Torah. The special emphasis in the New Covenant is this: Because our people failed miserably when it came to keeping the law, continually breaking the commandments and living unrighteous lives, the Messiah has come and paid for our sins, taking away our guilt and pronouncing us clean by faith—so that from here on, we can do the will of God.
This is what Paul explained when writing to the Romans:
For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.
It is little wonder, then, that Christianity has been known as the religion of good works—feeding the poor, building hospitals, founding schools—all because of our faith (see also vol. 1, 2.5, and 3.25).
You see, throughout biblical history, it was our unbelief that opened the door for a deluge of other sins, leading to judgment and disaster. For example, it was because of our unbelief that we made the golden calf right at the foot of Mount Sinai, failing to trust the Lord and his servant Moses (see Exod. 32). And it was because of our unbelief in God’s ability to bring us into the Promised Land that one entire generation died in the wilderness (see Numbers 13–14). But the people who truly believed were the ones who loyally obeyed (see, e.g., the example of Joshua and Caleb in Numbers 13–14). Again, belief and obedience, just like unbelief and disobedience, go hand in hand. In fact, it was unbelief that kept Moses and Aaron out of the land of Canaan: “And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them’ ” (Num. 20:12 RSV; for Talmudic comments on this sin bringing about the death of Moses before his time, see b. Yoma 87a; b. Shabbat 55b). This is no light matter! 94
And this leads us to one last classic text in the Hebrew Bible dealing with faith, namely, Habakkuk 2:4, a verse quoted twice in the New Testament (see Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11) as well as in an important discussion in the Talmud (see Makkot 23b–24a). The Talmudic passage has to do with the number of commandments that God gave the Jewish people. First is the famous remark of Rabbi Simlai, setting the number at 613—365 negative commandments (365 “You shall not” commands, one for each day of the year) and 248 positive commandments (in other words, 248 “You shall” commands, one for each of the bones of the body).95 I’ll translate for you the discussion that continues:
David came and established the number [of commandments] at eleven, as it is written, “A psalm of David. Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on his fellowman, who despises a vile man but honors those who fear the Lord, who keeps his oath even when it hurts, who lends his money without usury and does not accept a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken” (Ps. 15:1–6).
Isaiah then came and established the number [of commandments] at six, as it is written, “He who walks righteously and speaks what is right, who rejects gain from extortion and keeps his hand from accepting bribes, who stops his ears against plots of murder and shuts his eyes against contemplating evil” (Isa. 33:14). Micah then came and established the number [of commandments] at three, as it is written, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8). Amos then came and established the number [of commandments] at one, as it is written, “Seek the Lord and live” (Amos 5:6a).
But the Talmudic discussion is not quite over. Rav Nachman bar Yitzhaq took exception to this citation from Amos, claiming that the divine command to “seek me” runs throughout the entire Torah. Rather, it is Habakkuk who came and established the number [of commandments] at one, as it is written, “The righteous will live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4). Shades of the writing of Paul in the New Testament! This is what he explained to the believers in Jesus living in Rome: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’ ” (Rom. 1:16–17).96
Yes, Paul points to this verse from the Hebrew Scriptures as an important text in his argument that both Jew and Gentile are pronounced righteous before God by faith, while the Talmud cites this very same verse as the summary of all the other commandments of the Torah. It seems that faith, righteousness, and obedience to the Torah go hand in hand!
And what is the context for this verse in Habakkuk? This prophetic book begins with the words, “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” (v. 2). The prophet wondered how long God would look at Judah’s sin without doing anything about it. His faith—and the faith of the righteous Jews in general—was being challenged. But the divine answer was even harder to accept: God would send the Babylonians to bring judgment on Judah, but the atrocities they would commit would be far worse than the sins that had been committed by the Jewish people. Now what? It is in this context—patient, expectant waiting for a divine answer in the midst of apparent injustice—that the Lord speaks to his prophet:
Then the Lord replied:
“Write down the revelation
and make it plain on tablets
so that a herald may run with it.
For the revelation awaits an appointed time;
it speaks of the end
and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it;
it will certainly come and will not delay.
See, he is puffed up;
his desires are not upright—
but the righteous will live by his faith.”
Now, there are some translations that understand the word faith here to mean “faithfulness,” while others even understand “faithfulness” to refer to God’s faithfulness (i.e., the righteous will live by the Lord’s faithfulness).97 But all these concepts completely overlap: We are faithful because of our faith (that’s how we “keep on keeping on”), and our faith is in his faithfulness. That is how we live: by faith. In any case, the passage as a whole is clear. God is saying to all his righteous people, “I am trustworthy! What I said I will do. When everything seems unjust, trust my justice still. Put your faith in me and don’t waver. That’s how my righteous ones live.”
The simple truth is that it is the creed that leads to the deed, and it is the combination of faith and works that produces a life that pleases God.98 Of course, because Christianity emphasizes believing, it can produce empty professions of faith without accompanying deeds if it becomes a dead religion. But Judaism, with its emphasis on the commandments, can produce hypocritical works devoid of living faith if it becomes a dead religion. Both extremes are to be avoided, and the biblical pattern should be adhered to: True faith will be followed by good works. That’s how you can live a righteous life in God’s sight.
I should also remind you of the fact that Judaism has placed importance on credal confessions, although not to the point that the church did throughout history.99 That’s why traditional Jews have been martyred with the Shema, the fundamental creed of Judaism, on their lips as they died.100 (In similar fashion, many Christians throughout the ages have been martyred with the confession of Jesus as Messiah on their lips.) And for hundreds of years now, the creed of Maimonides, articulating the Thirteen Principles of faith, has been recited in prayer by traditional Jews on a daily basis.101 So it is clearly an overstatement to deny any importance to the creed in Judaism, just as it is a mistake to deny the great importance attached to good works in Christianity.
Interestingly, many observant Messianic Jews find themselves in a catch-22 situation with the traditional Jewish community with regard to these issues. First they are told, “If Jesus is really the Jewish Messiah then why have you departed from following the Torah?” In reply, these Messianic Jews say, “We haven’t departed from the Torah. We find that following Yeshua has actually strengthened our desire to live Torah-observant lives in accordance with what is written in our Scriptures.” And then the traditional community says to us, “You’re just a bunch of hypocrites and deceivers. All this Torah-observance stuff is just an outward performance to lure unsuspecting and innocent Jews into Christianity.”102 Not at all! On the contrary, the New Testament explicitly teaches that faith does not nullify the law; it upholds it (see Rom. 3:31).103
It is also worth remembering that Judaism has always recognized the importance of grace and mercy, never relying completely on justification by works. As stated in the Midrash to Psalm 119:123–24:
“My eyes long for your salvation and for your righteous word” (v. 123): [The verse refers] to this word which you spoke to Israel, “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned …” (Isa. 43:2). Why? “Because I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isa. 43:3), and it is written, “And I will save my flock …” (Ezek. 34:22). Save us, as you have spoken, “for my eyes fail [in waiting for my God]” (Ps. 69:4). Although you delight in our good works, if there is neither merit nor [good] works among us, then act towards us with grace [hesed], as it is said, “Act towards your servant with grace” (v. 124). The former generations whom you redeemed, you did not redeem according to their works, but you acted towards them with grace and redeemed them. And thus [the scripture] says, “You led by your grace [the people whom you redeemed]” (Exod. 15:13). As you acted towards the former generations, so act towards us! Thus [the scripture] says, “Act towards your servant with grace.”104
Without grace, where would we be? Actually, the Torah addresses that question, telling us that it is because of his grace and mercy—totally undeserved by us—that he called our people to himself. In light of that grace, he calls us to obedience:
The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him. Therefore, take care to follow the commands, decrees and laws I give you today. If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your forefathers.
It is therefore right to say that Christianity and Judaism are religions of both grace and good works, faith and law, the former emphasizing grace and faith without minimizing the importance of good works and law, the latter emphasizing good works and law without minimizing the importance of grace and faith. But given the state of the human race, the track record of our people Israel, and the corruption of each of our hearts, it makes a great deal of sense to put our hope in the grace of God more than in our works, no matter how righteously we may live.
All of us would do well to echo both the petitions and the sentiments of our forefathers as expressed in the psalms:
O Lord, hear my prayer,
listen to my cry for mercy;
in your faithfulness and righteousness
come to my relief.
Do not bring your servant into judgment,
for no one living is righteous before you.
O Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.
If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness;
therefore you are feared.
Do you really want to seek justification before God based primarily on your works? I strongly recommend that you trust the Messiah first as your Savior and Deliverer, and then, by his help and grace, seek to live a life that pleases the Lord. Then and only then can you be fully acceptable in his sight.
89 For Messianic Jewish reflections on Romans 10:9–10, see Joseph Shulam with Hilary Le Cornu, A Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Romans (Baltimore: Messianic Jewish Publishers, 1998), 350–51. According to David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary (Baltimore: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992), 401, “To acknowledge … that Yeshua is Adon [Hebrew for Lord] implies committing oneself to obeying him (1:5); this is the meaning of ‘kurios’ [Greek for Lord] at Mt 7:21–23.”
90 For similar teachings throughout the New Testament, see, e.g., Matt. 5:13–16; 25:31–46; Acts 20:35; Heb. 13:16. Note that even the fine linen with which believers will be clothed in the heavenly city is described in Revelation 19:8 as representing “their righteousnesses” (meaning, their righteous acts).
91 Although some Jewish traditions, as reflected in the NJPSV, translate the Hebrew word tsedaqah as “merit” or “credit” (see also Deut. 6:25 in the NJPSV), there are valid reasons for rejecting this rendering in favor of the more common translation of the word, namely, “righteousness.” For the meaning and usage of tsedaqah, see A. Ho, Sedeq and Sedaqah in the Hebrew Bible, American University Studies, series 7, Theology and Religion 78 (New York: Lang, 1991). Note, however, that both the basic meaning and the complementary nature of verses such as Genesis 15:6 and Deuteronomy 6:25 remain the same, whether one translates with “righteousness” or “merit.” Cf. also Rashi, who uses both the words merit (zekhut) and righteousness (tsedaqah) in explaining how God regarded Abraham’s faith.
92 According to a well-known—but striking—statement in the Jerusalem Talmud (Hagigah 1:7), God is depicted as saying, “Would that my people abandoned me but kept my Torah,” the rationale being that if they kept the Torah, the leaven in the Torah would bring them back to God in the end. From another perspective, Reform Jewish scholar Eugene B. Borowitz, Liberal Judaism (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1984), 129, actually raises the question, “Must a Good Jew Believe in God?” He states that his assertion, namely, that there is “nothing more fundamental to being a good Jew than belief in God,” is “the most controversial one I shall make.” To explain his point, he asks, “Shall we indeed say that Israelis who have risked their lives for their people but are atheists are not good Jews? Shall we demean the Jewish status of many who, though unbelievers, have worked devotedly to upbuild Jewish life here and overseas? By what right do I assert that such people are not good Jews? Surely there are other views of a good Jew which do not involve believing in God or, if they do, do not make it the basis of everything else in Jewish life.” From a biblical perspective, I heartily affirm the assertion of Borowitz that “nothing [is] more fundamental to being a good Jew than belief in God,” and find it in no way “controversial.”
93 See 3.9 for documentation regarding how much of the Torah deals with sacrifices.
94 Based on this verse, Rashi notes tellingly that according to the Torah, this one sin was the reason that Moses and Aaron could not enter the Promised Land. How serious it is when we fail to trust the Lord! Nachmanides (Ramban) points out that the sin of Moses and Aaron is elsewhere described by the Lord in the strongest possible terms: “but you acted treacherously against me” (Deut. 32:51); “you rebelled against my command” (Num. 27:12). Note, however, that his possible suggestion to change the meaning of loʾ heʾemantem bi to “you didn’t strengthen the Israelites to sanctify me” is both forced and unnecessary. His longer explanation is more to the point: They were guilty of failing to believe in the name of the Lord, and it is through faith that the miracle is performed.
95 There is an extensive body of traditional Jewish literature that has been built on the 613 comandments (Hebrew, taryag mitzvot); for a convenient summary, see Noah Aminoah and Yosef Nitzan, Torah: The Oral Tradition, trans. Haim Schacter and Larry Moscovitz (n.p.: World Zionist Organization, n.d.), 47–52 (with reference to Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, Sefer Mitzvot Katan, and Sefer Hachinuch, some of which are now available in English). More recently, see Abraham Chill, The Mitzvot: The Commandments and Their Rationale (Jerusalem: Keter Books, 1974), and note The Concise Book of Mitzvoth: The Commandments Which Can Be Observed Today, compiled by The Chafetz Chayim, adaptation and notes by Charles Wengrov (New York: Feldheim, 1990).
96 Paul also cites Habakkuk 2:4 in Galatians 3:11: “Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ ” For a discussion of this verse in context, see the commentaries of Ronald K. Y. Fung, Richard Longenecker, Hans Dieter Betz, and J. Louis Martyn; cf. also Ben Witherington, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
97 Note, however, that such a translation would make little or no sense in the Talmudic discourse just cited in Makkot, and it is therefore with good reason that most English translations of Makkot translate Habakkuk 2:4 as, “The righteous will live by his faith.” As noted by Shulam and Le Cornu, Romans, 359, n. 15, with specific reference to b. Makkot 24a and b. Sanhedrin 43b, “Inheriting ‘life’ is therefore based not only on the righteousness of observing the commandments but on faithfulness.”
98 Note also that Hebrews 11, the great “faith” chapter in the New Testament, contains a litany of heroic acts of obedience. People of faith act!
99 For the main creeds, see the standard work of Philip Schaff, ed., The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996); note that there is no record of major creeds in the church until the fourth century, therefore, almost three hundred years after the death and resurrection of Yeshua.
100 For our discussion of the Shema, see above, 3.1, and note also the reference to Urbach, The Sages, above, n. 20.
101 For background to Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith, see, concisely, ODJR, 691–92. For an explanation of Judaism based on the Thirteen Principles, see Louis Jacobs, We Have Reason to Believe: Some Aspects of Jewish Theology Examined in the Light of Jewish Thought (London: Valentin, Mitchell, 1965); Mosheh Max, I Believe: An Exposition of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith and Their Implementation in Jewish Life (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1973).
102 See vol. 1, 1.5.
103 On this passage, see C. Thomas Rhyne, Faith Establishes the Law (Chico, Calif.: Scholars, 1981), and see the bibliography to 5.29 in vol. 3.
104 See Midrash Tehillim, Perek 119, Siman 64, my translation.