Why the Apostles Would Have Flunked Out of Protestant Seminary

‘Let your light so shine before men,’ says Our Lord, ‘that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’

Jacob Jordaens, “Christ Instructing Nicodemus,” ca. 1615-1635
Jacob Jordaens, “Christ Instructing Nicodemus,” ca. 1615-1635 (photo: Public Domain)

A Protestant with whom I was debating claimed that Jesus never mentioned meritorious good works in relation to salvation, but only faith. But this is simply false, and rather spectacularly so. In his discourse at the Last Supper, Jesus spoke the following words to his disciples, who were presumably saved (excepting Judas):

  • “He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.” (John 14:12)
  • “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)
  • “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (John 14:21) — Here, the questions of who loves Jesus, and even the indwelling (cf. 16:7, 13) are dependent upon not just faith, but on whether one keeps the commandments.
  • “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. ... By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.” (John 15:4-6, 8) — “Fruit” is, of course, good works.
  • “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love ... [note the conditional, implying a state of affairs where they could cease abiding in his love, and being justified and eschatologically saved. Judas was, in fact, an example of this happening.” (John 15:10; see 17:12) — Jesus alluded to such a possibility also when he said, “I have said all this to you to keep you from falling away.” (16:1)
  • “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)
  • “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:14)
  • “This I command you, to love one another.” (John 15:17)
  • To be sure, in the same discourse, Jesus also said “believe also in me” (14:1; cf. 16:27, 30-31; 17:8), but 11 verses later, he coupled this belief with inexorable good works: “he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father” (14:12). Moreover, Jesus, in praying to the Father at the Last Supper, says, “they have kept thy word” (17:6).

My well-intentioned but mistaken Protestant debate opponent also misinterpreted the exchange Jesus had with the rich young ruler, claiming that Jesus was rebuking the notion that good works could play a key role in salvation. This is the very opposite of what the passage teaches. Asked by the rich young ruler how he could attain eternal life — a question precisely relevant to the Catholic-Protestant debate on soteriology — Jesus’ answer was two kinds of works: one should keep the commandments (Matthew 19:17) and in his particular case, he was required to give all his money to the poor (Matthew 19:21). Jesus said not a word about faith, let alone “faith alone.” This was how he would be saved; it’s clear as day!

It’s fascinating, in light of what I have just shown from the Last Supper Discourse, that Jesus says the same thing to his disciples, in his last major teaching to them (i.e., that we know of) before he was crucified. They had already given up “everything” to follow him (Matthew 19:27), so he didn’t need to mention that. But he told them no less than six times (14:15, 21; 15:10, 12, 14, 17) to keep his commandments. Repetition is a good teacher, after all. This demonstrated that he taught the same thing to both non-believers and believers/followers. He also said to the masses (who basically represent every follower of Christ, or Christian) in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14-20):

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

On the other hand, he never mentions belief in him during the Sermon, or faith, excepting his statement, “O men of little faith” (6:30). But there are all kinds of works mentioned and urged. Furthermore, at the Final Judgment in Matthew 25 Jesus spoke only about works and never about faith in him, in a context of specifically teaching how one enters into heaven. As I’ve observed many times, Jesus (and the Apostles) would have flunked out of any Protestant seminary, with the worst grades achieved in classes on soteriology.