For many people, the debate between faith and works will most likely never be solved. Driven by what they have been told most of their life – that salvation comes as a result of belief and nothing more – simply suggesting the idea of doing something alongside that is anathema. “There is nothing you can do!” they scream from the rooftops. “Nothing!” And while that much is true, the very idea that salvation comes through literally zero effort of our own is a concept foreign to the Bible. After all, we understand that the Israelites did not merit their exodus out of Egypt, but had they simply chose to ignore Moses’ warnings considering the blood on the doorposts, they would have been slaughtered alongside the Egyptians. Rahab certainly did not earn her redemption out of Jericho, but if she had cowered in fear with the rest of the town, she would’ve suffered the same fate (Josh. 2:8-11; James 2:25). Whereas the belief in both situations that God could act was there, justification only came when they acted on that belief.

Consider also the example of the bronze serpent in Numbers 21. The story is probably well known to many, with a bevy of snakes having been unleashed on the Israelites for their transgressions, and the only cure coming via intercession by Moses and the placing of a serpent statue at the end of the camp, with explicit instructions that one must look on it in order to live. By contrast, it is implied that if you do not look at the snake, you will die (Mark 16:16).

It seems like such a trivial thing though, doesn’t it? Like baptism, simply looking upon the statue doesn’t appear to be enough to gain salvation – but therein lies the problem! It is true that by simply looking upon the snake, the children of Israel hadn’t merited anything; after all, how does one weigh glancing at a statue with saving a life? The two don’t compare, and to say that the former earned the latter is to look at it through a false lens. The children of Israel didn’t earn their health then by looking at a statue any more than christians today earned salvation by being dunked in a pool of water.

But there is no denying that both of those things are necessary for the desired end result. “Silly” as it may be, the designation of the snake (Num. 21:8) and the commandment for baptism (1 Pet. 3:21) – and the washing of Naaman in the Jordan too, for that matter (2 Kings 5:10-14) – were absolutely necessary for their respective salvations, and to deny that on grounds of “frivolousness” is to use human wisdom to deny God’s truth. How “silly” would it have been for someone to be holed up in their tent, refusing to gaze upon the statue per the conditions for forgiveness, under the argument that “looking at a statue is a work”? That person would have died in their ignorance, denying the power of God because of a faulty and foolish technicality. 

Works and faith are not mutually exclusive, despite your local charlatan wanting you to believe so. Rather, you act because you believe, and if you don’t believe, you don’t act. The two are so entwined that in Hebrews 3:18-19, in describing Israel’s failure in the wilderness, the speaker mentions that they did not enter their rest because of their “disobedience,” while in the next breath, says that they did not enter because of their “unbelief.” So which one is it? Is the Hebrew writer mistaken in saying that disobedience caused their fall, or could they possibly be connected?

Imagine the folly of the one in the tent who refuses to look at the snake because it’s a “work,” while his friends plead with him to move from his cot. Increasingly legalistic, that one will staunchly deny the salvation of his friend who chose to obey, claiming that all God really wanted us to do with the serpent is believe on it. And that one will die in his tent, arguing to the end about how right he is, when his obedient friend will continue to live on.

Last modified: January 22, 2019