An OT View Of Works

The other day I briefly mentioned how some Bible scholars have drawn attention to the differences in how Paul and James view “works” in terms of faith. In reading an article on a completely different topic yesterday morning, I came across Isaiah 1:10-20, containing a similar viewpoint to what I believe both Paul and James are trying to emphasize.

In this scripture, Isaiah has a disturbing vision of the Lord’s reaction to Israel’s empty, ritualistic faith. The Lord even refers to them as “rulers of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrah” to describe the ways they’ve approached him in worship.  “The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord. (v.11)

“If the people of Israel think they are immune from judgment because they are God’s chosen people, they must think again. If their behavior is no different from that of the world, their fate will be no different either. But the Israelites think they are entitled to favorable treatment because they have God’s revealed way of doing offerings.” If they just keep slaughtering more lambs and goats, and burning more incense, surely God will bless them! (Dr. John Oswalt, NIV Commentary on Isaiah)

13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.

15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.

But apparently the Israelites have gotten it all wrong. Worship isn’t simply about ritual that seeks self-benefit. True worship is reflected in everyday life through our transformed relationships. “The covenant in which the sacrificial laws appear is the same covenant where ethical treatment of one’s neighbors is required. It is not possible to have the one and not the other.” (Oswalt, 77)

17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.

“What God wants is right and just behavior, especially toward those who are helpless to demand such behavior on their own behalf…. Here is the true evidence that a person knows the Lord. Anyone can perform rituals, but the person who acts like God… that is the person who has entered into a life-changing relationship with him, and that is clearly what God wants.” (Oswalt, 78)

Similarly, in Philippians 2:3-4, Paul writes: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

And in the letter of James, the brother of Christ points to Abraham, writing, “Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” (2:21-22)

Faith and actions working together. I believe that’s something Isaiah, Paul, and James all agree on.


May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Cor. 13:14)

Check it Out

Today’s read is Offer Yourselves To God by Gordon Fee.

From Amazon: Renowned New Testament scholar Gordon Fee explores the meaning of Christian witness and service in every area of life. Focusing on the implications of every Christian’s calling to belong to Christ, Fee reframes our contemporary quest for a more seamless, integrated faith. His careful examination of the context and message of Paul’s letters sheds light on how a Christian identity is lived out in home, workplace, and church.

About the author: Gordon Fee is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Regent College, Vancouver, BC. He is a leading authority on the writings of the Apostle Paul. His books include numerous biblical commentaries and books such as God’s Empowering Presence; Paul, the Spirit and the People of God; and How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (with Douglas Stuart).

Between Friends

In Psalm 44, the Old Testament writer laments Israel’s defeat in battles and interprets their hardships as the absence of God, leveling some pretty ugly accusations against the Lord. And yet, the psalmist turns to him in the assurance that God still – no matter what – steadfastly loves them. 

Psalm 44:10-11; 23-26

10 You made us turn back from the foe,
          and our enemies have gotten spoil.
11 You have made us like sheep for slaughter,
          and have scattered us among the nations.

23 Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
          Awake, do not cast us off forever!
24 Why do you hide your face?
          Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25 For we sink down to the dust;
          our bodies cling to the ground.
26 Rise up, come to our help.
          Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.


In the New Testament, Paul admits in his letter to the Romans that we don’t always know how to pray, and he quotes a line from Psalm 44.  Hard times often lead to harsh emotions and words, even to our Lord. But Paul comes to the same conclusion as the psalmist:  “Suffering does not separate us from the love of God.” (Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms). And neither will our blunt and bold prayers. As Dr. Kalas comments in Chapter 2, God is the one friend we can always speak to in full candor.

Romans 8:26-27; 35-39

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”