Jesus and “Salvation by Works”

In contradistinction to the extreme Protestant/fundamentalist-evangelical standard of “salvation by faith alone, [not works],” it is important to realize that the NT is ambiguous on the sources of salvation, because it is made up of different strata reflecting different stages in historical, christological and theological development, and the earliest strata suggest a Torah-faithful Jesus whose salvation-teaching was Torahide and works-centered.

1) In certain NT texts, salvation is claimed to derive from sources other than Jesus’ “atoning death on the cross.”

Matt 5:12 Endurance of persecution is rewarded in heaven
5:20  Perfect righteousness permits entry into the Kingdom
25:31-46  At the final judgment, kind works will be rewarded; while unkind works will be punished.
(Note: This is pure Torah teaching. The coming Son of Man will judge by the Torah’s standard of works, not Paul’s standard of grace.)

Mark 10:17-22  Eternal life comes from observing the Mosaic commandments;
giving to the poor;
taking up one’s “cross”;
following Jesus

Luke 7:30-48  An excess of selfless human love calls forth God’s forgiveness

9:23-24  Following Jesus means the action, the procedure and/or the course of “losing one’s life to save it” and it is thought to be a “daily” process. The Lukan description is paralleled in:

John 12:24-25  The act of losing one’s life in this world will “keep it unto life eternal”

John 5:25-29   At the final judgment, resurrection “into life” is granted to those who have done good; and resurrection “into damnation” is given to those who have done bad

Romans 2:5-7  God’s righteous judgment “will render to every one according to his deeds

2:13  “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law will be justified.”

8:24  “For we are saved by hope

2 Timothy 4:14  God will reward (Paul’s enemy, Alexander) “according to his works.”

Revelation 15:13   The blessed dead are rewarded with “rest”  in heaven because “their
works do follow them.”

Even more NT descriptions of salvation without reference to Jesus’ “atoning” death could be adduced, but these suffice to establish the basic fact that not all NT soteriology references Jesus’ “atoning” death. The existence of one white crow suffices to invalidate the claim that all crows are black. Similarly, one example of NT non-atonement soteriology suffices to invalidate the claim that all NT soteriology is centered on the atonement. For that reason, therefore, I have seen fit to provide not one, but several such examples – and as a bulwark against virulent but mistaken fundamentalist claims to the contrary.

That these examples abound is not surprising, since as an apparently Torah-faithful Jew, Jesus realized that Torah is forever, not to be supplanted by any kind of (Torah-prohibited!) human sacrifice – and the earliest Gospel strata as well as the historical situation support the image of a Torah-faithful, Jewish Jesus, for whom in religious matters the pre-existent and eternal Word of God sufficed.

It was only after his unexpected murder that Jesus’ followers tried to salvage some dregs of meaning from this unheard-of and un-prophesied death of their Messiah. This is why later strata increasingly show Jesus making prophecies about his own death, and why the four Evangelists and Paul so desperately seek to project onto the earlier image of the Torah-faithful Jesus their own explanations for Jesus’ otherwise meaningless death.

Simply put: Jesus was crucified – everything else is interpretation.

“Crossianity” emerged out of early Christians’ insistence that, because Jesus (so loved by God), was shockingly murdered by “unclean” minions of darkness, this must have been divinely intended to have happened; it must have been foreordained, even prophesied. So they rummaged through the Hebrew Bible (in a process known as “oracle-hunting”) to locate texts that they could apply like bandages to the gaping wound of Jesus’ sudden, inexplicable death. The further we go from the Torah-faithful Jesus who found his own center and salvation in Torah, the closer we come to the secondary “atoning death” interpretations of his later followers.


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