In our study of the Eternal Judgment, we discussed how neither good works nor bad works contribute to our salvation. A bad work condemns us. A good work cannot erase the condemnation incurred. Therefore, both are dead works. But there is more to learn about the concept of a dead work. Specifically, there was a unique tension felt by the first Jewish Christians regarding this topic, and it is helpful to us to understand it, so that we do not repeat errors of the past.
For over a millennium, God’s people had as their rule of faith the Law of Moses. Within the Law were numerous divine commands, such as male circumcision and temple sacrifices. When Christ came and inaugurated the New Covenant, circumcision and temple sacrifices were no longer needed. But the Old Covenant mindset of some of the Jewish Christians did not change overnight, and there was tension caused by those who believed that the Law of Moses still had to be kept, if not in whole, then in part. This issue was dealt with by the Jerusalem council.
These Jewish Christians wanted to take what was formerly a good work in the Mosaic Covenant and add it to the New Covenant. In their mind the salvation equation was
Christ + Circumcision = Righteousness Before God
The Jerusalem council, specifically Peter and James, responded to the matter based on their authority as apostles of Jesus, and their intricate knowledge of His gospel. Peter said:
God does not require New Covenant members, Jew or Gentile, to circumcise their males for entry into the covenant. This work, required as part of the Old Covenant, is no longer necessary. But it was hard for the early Jewish converts to let go of things that used to be good, evidenced not only by the need for a discussion in Jerusalem, but by a need for Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which also dealt directly with people who wanted to add circumcision to the gospel.
Paul here reinforces the gospel-law binary. Man is either saved through faith in Jesus Christ alone, or by keeping the law alone. Man cannot be saved through a combination of faith in Christ and performing circumcision. Circumcision is but one tenet of the Mosaic Law, and if one wanted to add circumcision to the gospel, Paul argued one would necessarily have to add the entire law to the gospel. But if the law is added to the gospel, it is no longer the gospel.
We should always keep in mind the ruling of the Jerusalem council and the words of Paul to Galatia. Although we may not be tempted to add Old Covenant rites like circumcision to the gospel, we undoubtedly, whether personally in our own hearts or in the church through formal teaching, are tempted to add “good” works to the gospel. We must stand strong and resist the temptation, for as we discussed in the examination of the Eternal Judgment, as well as here and now, good works are dead works. And if a good work is a dead work, it saves no one. And if it does not have the power to save, it cannot be the gospel of Jesus Christ.