More often than not, when we Christians discuss biblical law our discussions invariably construct a dialectic between ethical behavior and faith. Only faith, we insist, is salvific. Good works((Also known as “works righteousness“)) does not. To make this explicit, Christians (and especially Protestants) teach that the Judaism of Jesus’ day was legalistic and that Jesus preached that salvation depended on their faith in Him, not on their success in meeting Judaism’s legal standards.
But was the Judaism of Jesus’ day as legalistic as we are often led to believe? Did the Jews of Jesus’ day really believe that to earn a place in the afterlife they must meet the obedience requirements of the Law down to every jot and tiddle?
Not at all, writes George W. E. Nickelsburg, Lutheran theologian and Professor Emeritus at the University of Iowa((Nickelsburg, George W. E., “Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins“, Augsburg Fortress Press, 2003)). He writes,
…we should not presume that Judaism was characterized by a “works-righteousness” that excluded the grace integral to the structure of biblical covenantal theology. [In fact] the evidence points in the opposite direction.
Nickelsburg quotes from the Dead Sea scrolls (1QS 3-4) a passage that he says Paul may have had in mind when he wrote Rom 7:14-25;
The mercies of God shall be my salvation alwaysAnd if I fall in the sin of the flesh…He will free my soul from the pitand make my steps steady on the path:He will draw me near in his mercies,and by kindnesses set in motion my judgment…and his plentiful goodness [will] always atone for my sins;
Is this Legalistic? Do these words lack Grace? Hardly. In fact, the Qumran community responsible for this particular scroll was arguably the strictest of the Judaic sects of Jesus’ day. The idea that the Old Testament demands”works righteousness” is largely a conceit of the original reformers — an anachronistic reflection of Luther’s critique of medieval Catholicism — which, unlike the Judaism of Jesus’s day, was manifestly oriented towards works-righteousness.
God’s central demand of human beings is to be a good person as Micah 6:8 teaches;
He has showed you, O man, what is good. So what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God
The context here is important: In the preceding verses, God scolds the Israelites and describes how He has redeemed the Israelites at every turn. For their part, the Israelites are confused by this. In verses 6 and 7 they ask what, then, must they do to merit salvation. What do want if not worship and sacrifices what they do you require of us? God answers as above: sacrifices and worship are insufficient for redemption. What is required is that God’s people be a just, kind, and humble people according to His will((The figurative meaning of “walk with your LORD“)).
|Related: Faithfulness – The Path to Holiness and Salvation|
In the Hebrew Bible, scholars have enumerated 613 commandments (“mitzvot”), among which are the ten commandments. Of these, 365 are negative (“Thou shall not…“) and 248 are positive (“Thou shall…“). In secular cultures laws are negative (“thou shall not break the speed limit”), not positive. To illustrate this, think about the following hypothetical story:
An Olympic athlete, a multiple gold-medal winner, was lounging in the sun near the shallow end of a public swimming pool. A two-year old toddler walks over to edge of the pool, falls in, and drowns while the athlete looks on. The athlete sees all this, but does nothing to save the child!