Earning Your Salvation

Dispelling a fundamental misunderstanding of first century Judaism.

One of our goals at Emet HaTorah is to restore the Jewish Jesus.  While this may seem like a self-evident truth and an unnecessary objective, there are many aspects of this truth which remain hidden from the majority of Believers… even those acutely aware that Jesus was Jewish.  Many of the interpretations and concepts we impose on the Scriptures, particularly the Apostolic Scriptures (the “New Testament”), claim to find their origin within the Scriptures themselves, or at least within the historical record of the biblical narrative.  While these interpretations may not ever seem to be problematic to many Believers, there are many times these interpretations actually undermine the authority of the biblical canon and compromise the immutability of the Almighty.  In our attempt to explain Scripture, particularly the Apostolic Scriptures, we need to verify that our interpretation does not compromise the basic revelation found within the sacred text.  Unfortunately, this is more often the case than not when theologians find themselves caught between the Jewish Jesus and Christian dogma.  So, let’s take a look at one particular expression of this way of thinking.

With or without malicious intent, Believers often try and point to a situation in which Jesus and the disciples (particularly Paul) are battling against the concept of the Jewish people attempting to “earn their salvation.”  For one reason or another, we somehow think this is a first-century polemic between Jesus and his disciples and the Jews as a whole.  The argument goes like this: Up until the time of Yeshua, the Jews had fallen into a mindset which taught them they had to “earn” their salvation.  Yeshua taught against this and Paul’s primary ministry was aimed at correcting this fallacy.  Paul’s epistles to both the Romans and to the Galatians particularly are aimed at this with his emphasis on contrasting faith to the “works of the law.”  Whereas the Jews had previously been “saved” by the Law, now they are saved by grace through faith.  To try and be obedient to the Law is not only futile, but contrary to the Spirit of Christ, especially since there is nothing we could ever do to merit salvation.  After all, our righteousness is as “filthy rags.”

But this type of reasoning should make us ask a plethora of questions.  First, is this really what Yeshua came to do?  Was the purpose of his coming to overthrow the previous way of his Father?Was the method of the Jewish person entering into the Kingdom different in the “Old Testament” than the “New Testament”?  Was the Law (the Torah) an imperfect revelation of the Almighty?  If so, was no one ever deemed righteous prior to the coming of Yeshua?  If they were, why did the means by which one was deemed as righteous need changing?  The list of questions could be endless.

But these types of problems could be avoided by a proper understanding of the Jewish context of the ministry of Yeshua and the apostles, particularly Paul.  Ignorance of these things has us creating straw man arguments and, instead of truly wrestling with the issues expressed within the Apostolic Scriptures and striving to understand and apply the teachings of the Master and his Apostles, everything becomes a salvation issue and never moves beyond this point.  We are appalled at the thought of Jewish people who would attempt to have a righteousness based on obedience to God’s Law, rather than a righteousness based on the free grace of Jesus.  Although it is too lengthy to address the foundations of this in the present article, let us suffice to say that all of these problems began as a result of our not having a solid foundation in understanding Judaism, the religion of the Bible.  Rather than viewing the Apostolic Scriptures, the ministry of Yeshua and the instructions of the Apostles through the lens of the biblical faith, we have been disconnected from the Jewish soil which ours sprang.

It is easy to see this when we begin looking at traditional interpretations of encounters and teachings within the Apostolic Scriptures.  As expressed earlier, this attitude towards Judaism is based on a misunderstanding of first century Jewish belief and practice.  Let’s take a look at one encounter within the Gospels which will help us to recognize our tendency to force this polemic on the text, and then attempt to better understand the context from a proper frame of reference.

The Rich Young Man

In Mark 10, we read of the time in which Yeshua has an encounter with a rich young man.  The passage begins when a man runs up to Yeshua and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Reading the story through twentieth century Protestant lenses we would expect the Master to respond by saying with the obvious answer: “To inherit eternal life you must do three things: 1) Admit that you’re a sinner and in need of God’s free grace. 2) Believe in your heart that I [Yeshua] am the Savior of the world and the only means by which you can have a relationship with the Father. 3) Confess me as God and believe that I will one day die for your sins.  But as is obvious, this is an anachronistic approach to this encounter. Yet this is how we continue to teach and preach this message.  But this is not how the story transpired.  Yeshua responded quite differently than how we would.

First, Yeshua responds by saying, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone.”  Although he is the incarnate, Divine Logos, he distances himself from equality with his Father. This is consistent with Paul’s reminder in Philippians 2:6–7, describing Yeshua’s earthly existence.  Of him he says, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”  Yeshua did not ever “play the God card” as he tabernacled among mortals.  He took on humanity fully in order to be tempted, to suffer and to experience the life of earthlings fully.

…the Pharisees often supported Yeshua and warned him of impending danger.  The Pharisees were also self-critical.  They realized they were not immune to hypocrisy.

Yeshua’s next response was, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” Unfortunately, most people (theologians included) interpret this in a way which portrays Yeshua’s response as being disingenuous as a minimum and sarcastic in the extreme.  However, we should not project our attitudes and biases into the words of our Master.  Yeshua was sincere in his response.  He was evaluating where this young man stood in his faith and practice.  Should he start with the basics of following the commandments or was he ready for a greater challenge?  We find Yeshua’s prescription for him momentarily.

From his approach of the Master, we can safely assume this young man was in alignment with the party of the Pharisees, who at least respected Yeshua’s ministry if not being in full agreement with it.  Unlike the Sadducees who merely attempted to debunk and destroy his ministry, the Pharisees often supported Yeshua and warned him of impending danger.  The Pharisees were also self-critical.  They realized they were not immune to hypocrisy.  Of course, this is the primary issue Yeshua addresses when speaking to the Pharisees.  But Yeshua was not the only one to address these issues.  The Talmud records that there were seven types of Pharisees, of which all but one was insincere.  One of these is described as follows:

The Pharisee [who constantly exclaims] ‘What is my duty that I may perform it?’ — but that is a virtue! — Nay, what he says is, ‘What further duty is for me that I may perform it?’ 1

This example represents the one who would ask the question, “What more can I do?”  This is an obvious example of false humility in which the person asking the question inwardly believes they have fulfilled their religious obligation and there is nothing further to do.  This seems to  represent this rich young man.  When Yeshua explains to him the importance of faithfully keeping the mitzvot (the commandments), he replies, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth” (vs. 20).  It sounds very similar to what we hear expressed in the Talmud.  He has fulfilled every obligation, therefore he need not do anything more.  But is this really what this man is saying?  Rather than reading it in the light of the hypocritical Pharisee, we should read his words in a different light.  He doesn’t respond with “Great! I’ve done that!” but with a sincere question of how he can go further.  In other words, “I am a devout Jew.  I take seriously the covenant made with our forefathers.  I am observant and faithful.  I’m beyond the basics.  However you instruct me I am well-equipped to handle.”  Unfortunately, this sounds more similar to the typical evangelical response, “What more can I do?  He’s already done it for me.”

When we read this account of the rich young man who approaches Jesus, we have the tendency to gloss over one little statement.  After responding to Jesus that he had been diligent in keeping the mitzvot — the commandments — throughout his life, it says that Jesus “loved him.”  He “loved him” because he knew that this young man was sincere in his service to the Lord. He “loved him” in that he was faithful in walking in obedience to the God of Israel.  However, he also “loved him” enough to speak to him with the gut-level truth when he told him the one thing he still lacked: to be radically sold out to his would-be Rabbi.23

Pharisees were known to be sincere and genuinely pious.  Unfortunately, a few bad apples always give the rest of the barrel a bad name.  But again, we have recorded for us in the Talmud a situation in which true Pharisees are lauded, whereas hypocrites are shunned.  According to the Talmud, King Jannai, who staunchly opposed and waged war against the Pharisees, gives advice to his wife on how to deal with Pharisees on his death bed.  He said,

‘Fear not the Pharisees and the non-Pharisees but the hypocrites who ape the Pharisees; because their deeds are the deeds of Zimri but they expect a reward like Phineas’.45

King Jannai feared hypocrites who wore the guise of Pharisees, not the Pharisees themselves.  This is the problem with belief which is not coupled with faith.  It becomes a mask behind which we can hide.  It is only our actions which can show the fruit of belief.  Yet many believe that actually obeying the instructions of God is an attempt to earn one’s good standing with the Almighty.  But how can obedience be earning?  Yeshua answers this by telling the parable of a father asking his two sons to work in the vineyard for him. He said,

“What do you think?  A man had two sons.  And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’  And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went.  And he went to the other son and said the same.  And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go.  Which of the two did the will of his father?”  They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.  For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.  And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.” (Matthew 21:28–32)

In this parable, Yeshua makes it explicit that “believing” equates to “following and obeying.”  This is why Paul can speak of “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:8).  As we have shared in previous articles, the Gospel of Yeshua is more than a belief for salvation.  There is obedience involved.  Acceptance of the Gospel will push us beyond belief to obedience.  Was the rich young man trying to “earn” his salvation by following the commandments?  Was Yeshua coming against his “self-righteousness”?  Was he trying to say that the Jews were wrong by their faithful obedience to the commandments of his Father?  Of course not!  These are later interpretations which attempt to retroject a theology foreign to Yeshua and his disciples onto the biblical text.  This young man was faithfully and sincerely serving the God of his forefathers and Yeshua praised him for it, while challenging him at the same time.  There was no attempt on behalf of this young man of “earning.”  As Dallas Willard said,

“Currently we are not only saved by grace; we are paralyzed by it.  There is deep confusion.  We find it hard to see that grace is not opposed to effort, but is opposed to earning.  Earning and effort are not the same thing.  Earning is an attitude, and grace is definitely opposed to that.  But it is not opposed to effort.  When you see a person who has been caught on fire by grace, you are apt to see some of the most astonishing efforts you can imagine (1 Corinthians l5:10).” 6

If you want to “earn” your salvation, merely take the easy road and fulfill the requirements, say the sinner’s prayer and “believe” in Jesus.  Follow a formula for salvation and then live your life as you please.  If you want to be a disciple, however, repent from your sins and become obedient to the instructions found within the Holy Scriptures, living each moment as if the Kingdom of Heaven were being established on this earth in your lifetime.  Or as our Master said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”

  • 1. b.Sotah, 22b.
  • 2. Darren
  • 3. N. Huckey, The Four Responsibilities of a Disciple (Emet HaTorah, 2013-09-03), 28.
  • 4. b.Sotah
  • 5. , 22b.
  • 6. Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (HarperOne, 2006- 06-13), 166.