God Saves by Grace

I was questioned recently about my assertion in a Sunday morning class that “God always saves by grace.” This statement troubles some people because they have heard that the only way for Israelites to be saved was by obeying the whole Law. However, the door into a covenant relationship with God (salvation) for a Jew is not the Law but circumcision. I paraphrased in the class John Ziesler who summarizes what all current Pauline scholarship now affirms, “However, there is no authority in Jewish texts that taught God’s approval was to be earned, nor that salvation was by human merit. Salvation is always divine grace and well understood in Jesus’ day even by the Pharisees.”[1]

To support my view, I asked the class a few weeks back to recall when we studied Deuteronomy. One of the key passages in that study was,

Deut 30:11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14 No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. (NRSV)

Deuteronomy teaches that the Law was doable. And more importantly in this conservation is that the Law was given to people already saved. The Law was not an entrance requirement but a guide (an articulation of a way of life) given to people already in God’s family (already in covenant relationship with God). One of the hallmark texts articulating the doctrine of salvation for Israelites is,

Exodus 19:3 And Moses went up unto God, and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel; Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel. (KJV)

Salvation is prior to commandment. In essence Exodus 19 teaches, “Because you are saved, you obey.” The Ten Commandments in the next chapter begin the same way. Prior to any of the commandments, there is a statement of grace. Rescue by God precedes commandment.

Exodus 20:1 And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

After the statement of grace, the Ten Commandments are given. Exodus 20:3 “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

Paul knows these doctrines when he writes Galatians. He not only accepts these doctrinal understandings, he also affirms them. How is a person saved? Paul insists you are saved by faith. He reminds his readers that Abraham was saved by faith (Gen 12) prior to circumcision (Gen 17).

So, what is the issue in Galatians?

  1. The Jewish Missionaries taught, “To be saved as a Gentile, you are going to have to become a Jew. In order to enter into a covenant relationship with God, you are going to need circumcision. In order to control your flesh, you are going to have to submit to the Law. In order to stay in a relationship with God, you need to follow Jewish customs including food laws and special days.” Paul summarizes their teachings with the catchphrase “works of the Law” or “Law.” Paul does not oppose the Law for Jewish Christians. Paul opposes the idea that Gentile Christians must first submit to the Law before the cross has value.
  2. Paul taught, “You are saved by the faithfulness of Jesus who died on the cross for you.” Re-read Gal 1:1-4 and Paul’s summary of the Gospel. Once you are saved by God, love is the fulfillment of the Law. Once you are saved by God, the Spirit helps us control the flesh. In order to stay in a relationship with God, you must keep in step with the Spirit.

[1] John Ziesler, The Epistle to the Galatians (London: Epworth Press, 1992), xv.