Self Effort

Why don’t the ethical teachings of Yeshua get more coverage? Perhaps the main reason is that they are so radical, so demanding, so much a reversal (to reflect my title) of the whole man-centered arrangement in which we live. But there’s another reason, which ranks right behind it, at least in the contemporary Protestant West. It’s the old theological misunderstanding that draws a hard line between “faith and works,” or “law and grace,” and considers the two completely incompatible. In this view, if we’re not careful we might get so intent on doing what Yeshua tells us to do that we forget that we’re saved by grace.

For example, the current issue of Christianity Today (January 2010, page 58)  includes a letter reporting “on a number of experiences in ministries that put less emphasis on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and more emphasis on what we need to do. . . . I’ve heard rousing exhortations to develop accountability relationships and spiritual disciplines, but far fewer exhortations to believe the gospel anew and cling to the completed work of Jesus.” Now the author may not intend this, but it sounds as if he sees believing in the finished work of Messiah as somehow distinct from doing anything about it. Discipleship and spiritual practice seem to compete with a focus on the death and resurrection of Yeshua. This is just one letter to the editor, but we’ve all heard the sort of teaching that warns against mixing in any sort of human effort (“works,” “law”) with the redemptive work of God in Messiah (“faith,” “grace”). I’ve seen folks get nervous as soon as you say anything positive about Torah or good deeds in general, and I’m sure it’s because of this imbalanced view.

Sure, there is a problem. We can become proud of outward religious adherence. We could reduce the message of Yeshua to a mere system of moral behavior, to which we respond with a hearty application of self-effort. But there’s the equally massive problem of imagining that what you do doesn’t matter all that much, as long as you believe the right things. I sat next to a gung-ho Christian on a recent flight and when he found out that I was a Jewish follower of Yeshua, he hit me with about a half-dozen theological test questions in a row. Not one of them had anything to do with how I behaved, how I treated other people, how I sought to obey the Scriptures, even though the Jesus that he was trying to make sure I believed in told him that he would know me by my fruit. This approach seems so afraid of self-effort that it ignores any kind of effort at all, and employs fancy interpretive footwork when Yeshua talks about fruit, or warns us that we’ll be judged by what we do, as he repeatedly does.

I tackle this question in Divine Reversal, critiquing two “common misinterpretations” of what it means to follow Yeshua. “First, we might see following Jesus as optional, a mere accessory to the central act of accepting him into our hearts and getting saved. . . . [But] the distinction between faith in Yeshua and obedience to Yeshua is a false distinction, and can only be made outside of a biblical frame of reference.

“The other misinterpretation takes Yeshua’s teachings seriously enough, but writes off the more mysterious and supernatural aspects of the besorah [gospel].” I go on to speak of one my hippie friends in the old days, who “felt that the Sermon on the Mount and the Book of James were all you needed in the entire Bible. Just live according to their teachings and you’ll be in good shape. Don’t worry about all the rest, including the cross, the resurrection, and our need for salvation. 

“According to this view, Yeshua is a great teacher, a rabbi, perhaps the greatest of our rabbis, but not the divine Messiah.”

I have a copy of “The Jefferson Bible” on my bookshelf. It’s a rather slim volume because Jefferson had produced a version of the gospels that left out everything miraculous or supernatural, claiming, “There will be remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Doubtless–but can man live by such a code apart from a miraculous and supernatural retooling? Jefferson’s life would suggest otherwise. Jefferson, like my hippie friend, didn’t seem to worry much about the pitfall of self-effort. This perspective looks at the ethical teaching of Yeshua, rubs its hands and says “let me have at it.” But of course Scripture as a whole makes it clear that we humans are going to need serious help if we are to follow this sublime code.

Sometimes the Messianic Jewish world reacts so much to the law-free, works-free gospel that we distort it in the opposite direction and think of Yeshua simply as the ultimate Jewish moralist. But the journey Yeshua has in mind when he says “follow me” leads us into good deeds, into a life of compassion and service . . . and into the discovery that to pursue this life requires his power. So law and grace, faith and works, are different categories and could be at odds, but in the good news of Messiah they come together to reveal and lead us into the transforming work of God.

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6 thoughts on “Self Effort”

  1. “… two ”common misinterpretations” of what it means to follow Yeshua. “First, we might see following Jesus as optional, a mere accessory to the central act of accepting him into our hearts and getting saved. . . . [But] the distinction between faith in Yeshua and obedience to Yeshua is a false distinction…”

    I’ve been grieved recently when I read a note on a social networking site from a person who laughed with another about how many times he had “asked the Lord into his heart.” The person used to be a faithful believer [who I am praying will be again in a deeper way after he “looks up to heaven”], but now he is living in open sin. Apparently he either does not believe at all any more and jokes about it– or he thinks he is completely safe because he “said the prayer” numerous times in the distant past. 😦

    The good news about the Messiah has become lop-sided when people think they don’t have to repent at all if they “believe” the right thing– and when some theology supports them. Yeshua said, “Follow Me” and (in a more hidden way) “Not by power, not by might, but by My Spirit.”

    The way many believers read G-d’s word is often lopsided because of the deceitfulness of sin and the illusion that we know what is best for us– that we are smarter than G-d. I call it “grocery cart religion.” We often take the things off the shelf (out of the Bible) that we like to eat and put what we like in our carts– and leave the balance and the nutrition far behind when we check out.

    How did the rest of the interview with the person on the plane go? Did he listen?

    1. Good phrase, Pam; “grocery cart religion.” Probably we all employ it unconsciously at times, but it’s a much bigger problem when it becomes normalized or even promoted, as in our 21st century religious consumerism. As for the guy on the plane, I didn’t talk much, so he didn’t listen much, but he had his own good qualities, which I could appreciate.

  2. Thank you for tackling this complex, important topic. As a Jewish believer who “has a foot” in both the Messianic Jewish world and in the Church world, I perceive a great need for balanced teaching about the “faith and works” issue.

    Especially so, when one realizes that Yeshua is the word made flesh. This word, is it not, the Torah itself? The church-at-large has been known to forget this. On the other hand, the emphasis on Torah which often manifests itself in Messianic circles swings the pendulum in the other direction, toward legalism. Nu, what to do? I hope to learn something from you, Rabbi Resnik

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