So, it turns out legalism wasn’t really the it thing in first century Judaism. As a result, it seems that Luther’s basis for declaring Judaism a works-based religion has been displaced. The question still remains, What does that have to do with us in the 21st century?
It has been in vogue among evangelicals to tout Christianity as unique (and therefore superior) among religions because it is fundamentally grace-based. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph 2:8-9, NASB). We shout it from the rooftops: Our salvation is a gift from God; we could have done nothing so good as to deserve it! And rightfully so.
Those wanting to communicate the essence of Christianity often begin right here. We endeavor to convince those outside the fold that they can never be good enough to warrant entrance into the family of God. The chasm is too wide, the path too narrow, the way too steep. I’ve got a brief little volume from the pastor of America’s largest church on my desk meant for those curious about the faith: Andy Stanley’s How Good Is Good Enough? Our evangelistic messages often begin right here.
That’s been our method. Convince folks they’ll never be good enough to get in, then share the good news that God has done the work for them through Christ. Why? Because it’s all about grace, and no other religion can hold a candle to grace.
Except that now we’re learning that Judaism has, all along, been about grace. The Israelites were no dummies. (At least, no dumber than we are.) They knew that God was holy and that they, well, weren’t. For us Christians, Paul’s words elicit deep gratitude: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). The ancient Hebrews could very well have recited a similar refrain, mutatis mutandis: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, He delivered us from Egypt.”
Can we continue to say that Christianity is (and has been) the only grace-based religion in the world? I suppose not. The advent of Christ was not about the Creator introducing a grace-based method of salvation over against His earlier legalistic system. It was about fulfilling earlier stages of the same gracious covenant He held with His people. It was about establishing a means by which God could pour His Spirit upon all flesh, Jew and Gentile.
The Gospel certainly was a new thing that God was doing, but it was a new thing inasmuch as it was the fulfillment of what the Lord had already been up to for centuries. The Gospel was new in that it began a bright new chapter in an already epic book.