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613 Rules

Updated: May 9

She says, “Love. It is a flower.” God’s grace? It is a Christmas present. Literally.




A simple question. Which of the following does Jesus specifically describe as “work”?


a) Baptism

b) Belief

c) Confession

d) Repentance


Jesus provided the answer when the crowds following him asked,


“What must we do to do the works God requires?” (John 6: 28)


And the answer that Jesus gave was certainly on point.


The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6: 29)


Now, at least superficially, this can create quite the conundrum. After all, in the Bible's most famous verse - also taken from John – Jesus says,


“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3: 16)

But Paul also writes quite clearly


For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – and not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2: 8-9)

So, putting all this together, John writes that we need to believe to be saved. But John also records Jesus as saying that belief is a “work”. And then we have Paul (as well as others) stating that we cannot be saved by “works”. Normally, to resolve this seemingly circular inconsistency we would need to look closely at the precise definition of “work”, but fortunately this is not necessary here. We need only to understand the context behind the question.



To understand the backdrop underlying Jesus’ response, we must recognize the burden imposed by the Pharisees and Jewish leaders of that period. The Jewish tradition at that time listed 613 commandments in God’s law. The negative commandments numbered 365 which equates to the number of days in a year, and the positive commandments numbered 248 which some link to the number of bones and main organs in the human body.


The context of Jesus’ response was not that belief is a work – in fact the opposite. Jesus responded with irony. His followers expected – just as the Jewish leaders and Pharisees demanded – a long list of religious rules and regulations.


But that is not what Jesus asked from his followers. In fact, Jesus was telling his followers, “all you need to do is believe.” That is all the “work” you need to do. It is that simple. You do not need to memorize 613 laws and regulations. You do not need to count your steps on the Sabbath. If you are hungry it is ok to make yourself something to eat – even if it is the Sabbath. No more “endless sacrifice”. (Hebrews 10:1)



So . . . belief itself is not work in any sense of the word. But what of repentance? What of confession? What of baptism? Is it reasonable to consider these as any more “work” than belief itself? Perhaps stated differently, are these any less essential?


Unfortunately, exactly what constitutes “work” is a major sticking point among Christians everywhere. Why? Let’s look at a few verses.


For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – and not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2: 8-9)


So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11: 5-6)


But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of the righteous things we have done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

(Titus 3: 4-7)


Most would agree that we are completely saved by God’s grace, and we cannot do anything to deserve God’s forgiveness. No level of giving to the poor or providing shelter to the homeless or taking care of the orphans will earn a place in heaven. If we give all we have to the poor and devote our life to caring for others, we deserve nothing as far as God is concerned. The Bible is quite clear. We cannot earn God’s grace.


But we must also understand the context behind the statements in the Bible that we cannot “earn” God’s grace. The context is that – as Christians – we are no longer bound by the Jewish laws and regulations which – up until that time – had been necessary to “stay in God’s good grace.” The Pharisees with their 613 rules will no longer hold sway over our salvation. Several passages provide greater clarity on exactly this point.


We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ . . . because by observing the law no one will be justified.

(Galatians 2: 15-16)


But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3: 21-24)


For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Romans 3: 28)


God’s grace removes the burden of following the old law. God’s grace makes it possible to have hope (as well as certainty) even though we fall short. God’s grace is available to us no matter what we do or fail to do as long as our heart is to follow him. But does God’s grace remove our obligation to follow his commands? In other words, is belief in God not only necessary but also sufficient to receive salvation? Perhaps the book of James addresses this point most directly.


“Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” (James 2: 18-19)


The meaning of belief had been twisted by many of the earliest Christians as justification to not do anything. To not give to the poor or to help those in need. And the meaning of belief is still often misunderstood today. Many genuinely feel that believing in a Creator is all that is necessary. We do not need to make major changes in how we live and interact with others. We need only live “good lives”. Is it not ironic to subscribe to “belief is all that is necessary without works” and also feel that doing good works – and living a “good life” is the ticket to heaven? God’s grace is available to all, but the belief He demands is far different from the superficial belief that many feel toward their Creator.


James is quite clear that an intellectual belief lacking contrition or submission is not enough. Just as repentance can be shallow, belief can be superficial. The belief that John mentions 98 times in his gospel is not a shallow or superficial belief. It is life changing. If we truly believe that Jesus is the physical representation of the Creator, then without question we will naturally follow all of God’s commands. Even though John does not mention the word “repent” even once in his gospel, we will repent. This is only natural with deep belief.



The Greek word for “repent” in the Bible is “metanoia” which means to “turn around”. Unlike the emotional response we often associate with the word “repent”, the Biblical meaning of the term is to change our life, to turn from sin and follow Jesus. This is not “work” in any sense of the word. And John did not feel the need to mention the word once in his gospel because everyone who truly believes in Jesus and his teaching will naturally turn their life around. They will repent.



But what of confession and baptism? Are these works in any sense? Without doing an exhaustive survey, these are treated quite similarly to repentance in the Bible. In fact, the acts of submission are often intermingled.


Belief and Confession


That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. (Romans 10: 9-10)


Belief and Repentance


“The time has come,” Jesus said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1: 15)


Belief and Baptism


Jesus said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16: 15-16)


Repentance and Baptism


Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins." (Acts 2:38)


Baptism and Confession


And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.

(Acts 22: 16)


Repentance is a command


In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.

(Acts 17: 30)


Baptism is available to us because of God’s grace, not our works


But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we have done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

(Titus 3: 4-7)


Paul - who best communicated God's grace - also preached baptism


Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6: 3-4)



Given the totality of the Bible’s instruction on how to turn to God, we should be careful not to elevate one form of submission above any other. Each is equally important – and necessary – to turn to Christ. Just as belief is not work, neither are any of the other acts of submission. All of these are freely available due to God’s grace and our act of obedience in submission does not make us deserving or God’s grace any less freely given.


She says, “Love. It is a flower.” God’s grace? It is a Christmas present. Literally. Opening does not make earned or any less freely given. Just believing our gift is inside the box is not enough. We have to open the box. And it is our choice to accept it. God just wants us to open the box and say “yes”.



Perhaps Jesus says it best.


“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11: 28-30)





And now to close the loop.