Sunday, 22 April 2012

Faith and Works 2


To pick up from last week a much debated chapter is James 2, where the big question that has frequently loomed is ‘do we need works in order to be saved?’ Is it faith alone or is it faith and works? And if faith and works, how much faith, how much works, and what kind of works?

Some believe that James was counter-balancing Paul’s doctrine of free grace, but that can’t be the case as, one, James wrote before Paul, and two, it denies the unity of inspired Scripture, setting one part at odds with another.

When studying the Scriptures we need to watch out that we don’t bring our own preconceived ideas, prejudices and external data, into the text. For example words in Greek can have different shades of meaning, as in our own language, therefore we cannot simply use a lexicon (a kind of Greek dictionary) and say this is what it means, when in actual fact one writer might use a word in a different way to another.

Context is always the key, we must not isolate this passage from who James is talking to and why, or isolate it from the rest of what he is saying, otherwise we can make it say something quite different! This is how cults work the Scriptures to their own end and can make them say all sorts of things. 

We need to let James speak for himself, but first we need to rehearse and remind ourselves of the Good News, that way it will help us to hear what James is NOT saying, and what he IS saying.

John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him, should not perish but have eternal life.” Notice, believes, not works.

Acts 16:3 says, Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved,..” Notice, believe not work.

Romans 3:24-28 provides us with a theological summary of the Gospel, saying that we, “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

Notice the words, ‘grace’, ‘gift’, ‘received by faith’, ‘justified by faith apart from works’. You can’t get much clearer than that!

But probably no text of Holy Scripture tells it quite as well as Romans 4:5: “And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,”

The old acrostic — Forsaking All I Trust Him is theologically perfectly accurate.

Ephesians 2:8,9 says,“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Romans 5:1, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And Romans 11:6 makes it abundantly clear when it says, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”

Now we recognise that the bible does speak of works regarding the Christian, but these are not saving works, or works done to make our salvation ‘more sure,’ they are simply the product and purpose of a new life. They are not the basis of salvation but the fruit of it. We have been saved for good works (Ephesians 2:10). At the same time we don’t do good works to prove we are saved, we do them because we are.  One of the biggest dangers for the Christian is doing works to prove we are.

William Barclay says “We are not saved by deeds; we are saved for deeds; these are the twin truths of the Christian life. And Paul’s whole emphasis is on the first truth, and James’s whole emphasis is on the second truth.”

R. T. Kendall has some very startling words, “What startles me is the number of people who insist that one must have works to show he is saved but who themselves have virtually nothing of the very works James has in mind! They wish to use James as a basis of “assurance by works” but not the kind of works James has in mind—caring for the poor. I have yet to meet the first person who holds (or preaches) that giving another “those things which are needful to the body” must follow faith to show that it is saving faith indeed. We prefer to be selective in our use of James.”

Two questions need to be asked, who is James addressing? And, why is he addressing them?

James is writing to Christians, to people who have a real faith.  All the way through this letter James recognises and affirms their faith.  In chapter 1:18 he spoke of them being ‘brought forth by the word of truth,’ a reference to the new birth.  In chapter 2:1 he talks about them ‘holding the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.’  He doesn’t for one moment suggest that their treatment of the poor and favouritism towards the rich suggested that they weren’t saved, and throughout he makes constant reference to them as ‘brothers and sisters’ ‘my brothers and sisters,’ ‘my beloved brothers and sisters.’

Because they were developing an inward, personal, self-serving Christianity.  They were backing off from life as God’s people in this present world resulting in immaturity and inconsistency.

There was inconsistency and immaturity in their,
  1. Private lives
  2. Fellowship together
  3. Witness
The CALL is to maturity, to lives that are consistent with the faith they profess.  We can say three things about their faith:
  1. Its real enough – James affirms their faith.
  2. In some way their faith is lacking.  There’s a missing dimension, not that they need more of it.
  3. They need to do something about it.
In order to understand what James is saying here it’s best to regard James 1:21-2:26 as a single large section in the development of his letter, with James 1:21 setting out the theme, and the rest building on and working it out.

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (2:14).  

Hang on a minute you say, what about ‘save or saved’ aren’t they to do with salvation?
First, we need to ask what James means by ‘save’ here?  Saved from what?

Save comes from the Greek: Sozo and is a big word and can be interpreted as save, deliver, heal, protect, make whole, rescue from peril, keep alive.  “To save the soul” (=“life”) is to preserve the physical life from an untimely death due to sin. James uses the word ‘save’ five times in his letter in 1:21; 4;12; 5:15; 5:20 and here in 2: 14.  Remember context is key, and in the first four references it would appear to refer to some form of deliverance in the present, and not to eternal salvation from hell.

So what is James saying here? James has just made reference to the possibility of Christians transgressing the law of liberty (vs 9-13) and the question arises as to whether they can escape the consequences, and James’s answer is NO. Or to put it another way, can the fact that a man holds correct beliefs and is orthodox ‘save’ him from the deadly consequences of sin? Of course not!   If this had been a salvation issue we would have expected a clear definition of the Gospel but not so. In fact James goes on to illustrate his argument with a reference to the brother or sister who is poorly clothed and lacking in food (v.15).  So we could paraphrase the verse in this way “So of what advantage or benefit is it to anyone, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has holds the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ but does not have actions that correspond to  it? Can faith in Jesus save him from judgment, and its consequences?”(Note 2:12). That is present judgment and consequences.

What about ‘FAITH’?
First we should note that,That,’ is not in the original, but the translators have put it in as a qualifier in attempt to give what they believe is the sense.  But there is reference to only one kind of faith in this chapter, that is, true faith. The reference cannot be translated ‘that kind of faith’ as some versions do, as if it were another kind of faith to real faith, either ‘false’ faith or ‘spurious’ faith or ‘head’ faith as some writers would suggest.  It refers to ‘the’ faith, and we have already affirmed that anyone possessing the ‘faith’ is truly saved.

Note the last verse (v.26) “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” The body corresponds to faith, and the spirit to works. Where you have a body there is or has been life. So faith is there but its dead.

James concern is not whether they have faith, but the state of their faith, (vs 15,16,17 20,22, 26). Notice the references to ‘worthless’, ‘what good’, ‘dead’, and ‘useless’ in vs.1:26; 2:14,17,20 all saying much the same thing in different ways. The issue then is one of personal belief without corresponding actions, the uselessness of their faith apart from works not the absence or genuineness of faith because they are without works.

  1. The brother or sister who is poorly clothed and lacking in food – faith needs to be worked out in action
  2. Abraham – at this point he was already justified, this was an outworking of that.  His actions demonstrated his faith to the world.
  3. Rahab.  Again her actions demonstrated her faith to the world.
“If any of us fails to meet the needs of believers around us, then at that moment our faith is unprofitable, dead, and lifeless. We have failed to enliven our faith. Our orthodoxy has lost its vitality and has become cold and dead. The illustration does not concern the whole of one’s life. So, a believer whose spiritual life is dead (i.e., his faith is not combined with works) needs to get to work. The problem is not that he needs to believe something different. Notice that nowhere in his epistle does James call for faith in some other object. James is concerned that his readers need to look around them and start meeting needs.”
  • Witness: the number of young people who grow in faith when they have been on a mission.
Robert Wilkin (Editor , Grace Evangelical Society Journal) puts it, “Far from being an epistle of straw, James is an epistle of steel.  And James 2:14-26 is one of the most powerful passages in the entire Bible. It is a call to action. Get to work. Don’t just talk the talk; walk the walk. Look around you, find needs, and meet those needs. If you do, your life will be enriched now and forever. If you don’t, you are on a deadly course that leads to pain and ultimately to premature death.”

James B. Adamson says: “The force of the statement seems to be that faith is fulfilled, strengthened, and matured by exercise.” The Epistle of James, NIC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), p. 130.

Good works are not necessary to keep us from going to hell, faith in the finished work of Christ does that, however good works do keep us from coming under God’s disciplinary judgement, that could result in sickness, or premature death. (1 Corinthians 11: 28-32).

“Not only is the mature Christian patient and persevering in testing (James 1), but he also practices the truth. This is the theme of James 2. Immature people talk about their beliefs, but the mature person lives his faith. Hearing God’s Word (James 1:22-25) and talking about God’s Word can never substitute for doing God’s Word.” Warren Wiersbe.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Faith and Works

One of the big questions we often encounter in our Christian life is the one of faith and works – is believing in Jesus enough or is there something I should do? This isn’t a new one – it has dogged the church from the beginning, and ensnared many a Christian. It’s what we might call Jesus plus.
In the book of Galatians we find that the churches that Paul had started in Galatia were struggling with the same question as a result of false teachers. For them the question was, should Gentile Christians become Jews by submitting to certain external things like circumcision and the law in order to become full members of God’s family?

Paul started the churches in Galatia on his first missionary journey about 47-48AD, and writes this letter to them barely 1-2 years later out of great concern. Why? The churches in Galatia were in danger of losing the plot, and were turning to a different gospel (1:6). They were moving from Jesus only to Jesus plus. As a result they were getting bogged down in legalism, and the elementary principles of this world (4:9), and had lost the blessing they once knew (4:15). What’s more they claimed Paul had changed the message, and that it was incomplete!

Now Paul makes it quite clear in that there is no other gospel and that the gospel he shared with them was not man’s gospel (1:11), for he received it by revelation (1:12), and had explained it to them in all its glorious fullness (3:1).

Bewitched is not normally the way you would refer to Christians! But this is exactly what Paul does in Galatians 3:1, he says, “Who has bewitched you?” – who has put youunder a spell?

Jesus plus is just as much an issue today, and it is extremely bewitching. The devil doesn’t like the gospel of free grace – Jesus only. Today there is a lot emphasis on me and my faith. It constantly calls me up, to make a new commitment, to try again, try harder, when the reality is the Bible starts and finishes somewhere else – with Christ.

When the emphasis falls on me, on my faith and commitment, my holiness, my performance and perseverance we are headed the same way as the Galatians. Have you been bewitched? Led astray from the pure gospel? Lost your joy in believing? Lost your liberty?

We need to be reminded again and again, good works do not merit grace, neither do good works done from grace merit anything! It is all of grace!

Jesus plus creeps in in a variety of ways:

Jesus plus in salvation: some have used the illustration of a drowning person clinging desperately to a life belt and being hauled in as an illustration of being saved, and when they finally get him or her in the boat he or she is finally saved. That’s Jesus plus your strength to hold on. That’s faith and works. That is not a Bible picture. We are not trying to hang on to Jesus, he has got hold of us!

Jesus plus in worship: Some of our modern hymns and songs don’t help us, e.g. “I’m coming up the mountain Lord ….” Musing on this recently I found myself thinking, is this right? After all a mountain is not easy to climb, and anyway didn’t Jesus come down it for us? Another, “I really want to see you …” and so we try to see him, when in fact do we not behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ as Paul says? We could go on, but the result is self effort, a striving to know God and get into his presence, to worship etc.. Jesus plus.

Jesus plus in Christian living/assurance: You may have heard of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, which teaches that God’s people are eternally saved and will persevere to the end, but I have heard it preached and taught in such a way that it undermines the very gospel and the faith of the believer, and pushes them over into works. It’s borne out in the question I have heard more than once (from people who have believed in it), “have I done enough?” Which equals, Jesus plus. To which my answer has always been its not and never has been about what you have done, but what Jesus has done, has he done enough? And the Bible’s answer to that question is a resounding YES!
That kind of Christianity is more about striving than believing, more about getting than receiving, more about works than faith, more about me than Christ.

The perennial danger facing the Christian and therefore the church is mixing law and grace; works and faith. Galatians is all about that. Now there’s an even subtler version of it, faith in our faith – when we place all the emphasis on my faith we are in danger of turning that faith into a kind of work, and so it all becomes subjective (inward looking and feeling oriented) rather than objective (looking away from ourselves to another, and his word to us). Faith is not trying to believe, not trying to hang on in there – you either believe or you don’t.
• The Righteousness of the law = legal dutiful obedience = do and you shall live
• The Righteousness of the gospel = faith/faithfulness of another = believe and live!

Paul is his opening up of the gospel in Romans begins by saying that it is “from faith to/for faith.” (Rom. 1:17). What does he mean by that? He means that it starts somewhere else – with Jesus, it is from the faith of Jesus to ours. Now in most of our modern bibles that would not be obvious because they always translate it as if every reference is to our faith in him, and if we do that only one understanding is allowed.

Now the bible does speak of our faith for example:
“Whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received BY FAITH.” (Romans 3:25)
“For we hold that one is justified BY FAITH apart from/without the works/deeds of the law.” (Romans 3:28). See also: Romans 4:5; Gal. 3:26; Col. 1:4.

In the King James/Authorised Version and the NET Bible (a new translation) it also speaks of the faith of Jesus (I can’t deal with questions of translation here):
“We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by THE FAITH/FAITHFULNESS OF JESUS CHRIST, even we HAVE BELIEVED IN JESUS CHRIST, that we might be justified by THE
FAITH/FAITHFULLNESS OF CHRIST, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. … I live by the FAITH/FAITHFULNESS of the Son of God” (Gal. 2:15 16). See also in the KJV or on the NET Bible (online): Romans 3:21, 22; Gal. 3:22; Phil. 3:9; Ephesians 3:11, 12. I would encourage you to read all these verses in their context and notice the difference ‘the faith of Jesus Christ’ makes.

What does this mean? Humanity was meant to live by faith in God, it has failed miserably. We call it the Fall. BUT God in his love has sent Jesus in flesh just like our own to live the life that we should have lived of faith/faithfulness before God. John Henry Newman captures it well in his hymn ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’:

O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
a second Adam to the fight
and to the rescue came.
O wisest love! that flesh and blood,
which did in Adam fail,
should strive afresh against the foe,
should strive, and should prevail;
and that a higher gift than grace
should flesh and blood refine:
God’s presence and his very self,
and essence all-divine.
O generous love! that he who smote
in man for man the foe,
the double agony in Man
for man should undergo.

Jesus lived out a life of faith in real flesh, the stuff we are made of – remember, “the unassumed is the unredeemed.” He assumes our flesh and so redeems not only our will, but thoughts and emotions – our whole estrangement and humanity! Hallelujah!

Day in and day out, month in and month out, year after year, Jesus was tempted and tried in every way but through faith in the Father overcame and offered to God the life that we should have lived and having done so gave him-self on our behalf, as an at-onement for our sins.

We find it expressed in these words from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer: “By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and Circumcision; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, Good Lord, deliver us. By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat; by thy Cross and Passion; by thy precious Death and Burial; by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension, and by the coming of the Holy Ghost, …”

Our faith then is a derived faith, it comes as a result of the faith/faithfulness of Jesus, and therefore our justification is conditioned upon Christ’s faith not on ours – our faith itself does not justify us, but Christ in whom we have placed our faith. It is therefore Christ-centred rather than believer-centred.

It’s not about techniques, rules, law keeping, disciplines etc. but a PERSON, Christ. The only victorious life there is and you need is Christ! We overcome by recognising and participating in his victory, not getting another one!

Marcus Barth in The Faith of The Messiah says, “The faith of Christ is the means, and the faith of men and women in Christ is the purpose and response.” Our faith then is a derived faith, derived from the faith/faithfulness of Jesus Christ – his faith-filled obedience. As the writer to the Hebrews says Jesus is the Author and Finisher of faith, or the Captain and Object of faith (Hebrews 12:1,2), and in the words of T. F. Torrance, “In the New Testament gospel Christ’s faith, his obedience, his knowledge are the foundation of my faith, obedience and knowledge, so that my faith, obedience and knowledge are objectively controlled by his.” T. F. Torrance, Incarnation. So “the life I/we now live in the flesh I/we live by the faith of the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us!” Galatians 2:20.

Here is peace and joy and liberty and relationship and power and hope!