When I was a physical education teacher in the Escondido School District, one day I visited our school’s administrative assistant who had just had a cancerous tumor removed from her brain. She was still at risk of dying. As I drove down her street I prayed for God’s help because I knew I didn’t have the gift of mercy. What would I say?
After learning more about her surgery, I asked her if she had a system of support and she told me how her wonderful family was meeting her needs. I then asked her if she had thought about spiritual support. She proceeded to tell me she used to attend the Catholic Church but had lost touch over the years. However, due to the situation she had thought a lot about spiritual issues and was reading her Catholic Bible to seek out answers. I then asked, if she passed away today, why God would let her into heaven? She said God would let her into heaven because she was a good person and always tried to live a good life. She was dependent on her good works to please God.
I once asked a similar question to a Muslim taxi driver and he told me Allah would let him into heaven if his good works outweighed his bad. A Christian Chaplin friend, whose job was to talk to people on the verge of death, told me when he offers the free gift of eternal life through Jesus the vast majority of people about die tell him they don’t need Jesus; they are good enough to get into heaven.
It seems the common answer to the question, why would God let you into heaven, is always the same. God will let me in because I am a good person and have lived a good life. God weighs the good and the bad and a person with more good goes to heaven. Not one has said they are headed for hell.
Other times I’ve asked people, what does the Bible teach concerning how you get to heaven? Most say the Bible teaches heaven is earned by doing good works. I follow with, where in the Scriptures do you find this? I have yet to get an answer.
What does the Bible teach? Are we saved by faith or are we saved by works? In a letter to the editor in a local newspaper a writer wrote that salvation by faith alone was an invention of the Apostle Paul’s. He said the writers of the Old Testament, Jesus, and others in the New Testament taught heaven was earned by doing good works. He writes, “After Paul invented his bizarre doctrine [Faith alone], Jesus’ brother, James, wrote a rebuttal directly contradicting justification by faith without works (James 2:17-26).”
Does the Bible teach we get to heaven by our good works? Is justification by faith alone a bizarre doctrine? Was the Apostle Paul the inventor of this crazy teaching? Do Paul and James contradict?
I think the best way to solve this mystery is by looking at the controversy that surrounds Paul and James. Both use the Old Testament to make their case and by solving this supposed contradiction it will help us grasp what the Bible teaches.
My objective in this short series is to demonstrate that the writings of these two great men are not contradictory but complementary and that the Bible teaches we are saved by grace through faith alone and not by works.