Monday, December 11, 2006

James and the Gospel

I have recently begun studying (and teaching) through Galatians and it has already been well worth it. A few weeks ago we opened our study with a look at Paul’s pronouncement of anathema (condemnation) upon anyone who preaches a gospel contrary to what he had been preaching. “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!.” (Galatians 1:8-9)

The question that we looked at in that lesson was, basically, what is the gospel message that Paul preached? The answer from Galatians is that we are saved by faith in Christ. The English word “Faith” is found 228 in the New Testament and 161 of those times in the writings of Paul (19 of times in Galatians).

“nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)

“The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU.’” (Galatians 3:8)

“But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:22-26)

Because I know that objections will arise, allow me quickly to deal with the epistle written by James.1 First of all, I must say that I affirm and firmly believe what is written in James. We must understand what he is saying in context. The next question that may come up is, “what is the context of this passage?” to which I reply with something similar to the words of a blogging opponent of mine, “The context is the context of Scripture as a whole. The entire New Testament must be considered when establishing doctrine. One verse cannot be elevated above all the others that appear to contradict it….”2 With that correct statement of the interpretation of scripture, we must look at the rest of Scripture to ascertain what the correct meaning of James’ words here are. Without going into an extended argument from scripture about the fact that it is faith and faith alone that God has chosen to unite the sinner with the righteousness of Christ, and therefore it is the vehicle of faith that justifies the unbeliever, we can look at the book of James and see that the direct context of James’ faith and works argument is in relation to showing partiality inside of the congregation. It is very important to note that he is addressing the hypocritical actions of members of the church in relating to different classes (rich or poor) of believers.

James makes the case that true faith impacts or effects the actions of the believer. First, he gives a negative example of how someone can have good theology without the fruit of works which indicates that they are not saved by saying, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” (James 2:19) He then gives examples of both Abraham and Rahab where their true faith was perfected by their works.

The most difficult passage in this text is James 2:24, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” James uses “justified” three times in his epistle, and all of them within 5 verses of each other (James 2:21-25). The first time that it is used is in relation to Abraham when he was going to sacrifice Isaac on the alter. Did this happen before or after God had credited Abraham’s faith as righteousness (as James referenced later in the same chapter)? It was in Genesis 15:6 when the declaration about Abraham’s faith was made. This did not happen at a random or unimportant part of his life. The statement was made directly after God had promised that his son (that he did not have yet), not Eliezer, would be his heir. It was not a simple thing for Abraham to believe this statement since he was very old, and his wife was beyond child bearing years. In fact, it was not until many years later, following the birth of Ishmael and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, that Isaac was born. More than that, it was not until Isaac was a young boy that Abraham was tested by God when he was told to offer his son as a sacrifice.

So, Abraham’s faith was tested when God told him to sacrifice Isaac who was the miraculous fulfillment to God’s promise of an heir and the way that Abraham would be the father of nations (through him). Anyone would be hard pressed to hold on to faith in God when He seems to promise and demand two contradictory things. But, Abraham’s faith was proven true in that he was willing to sacrifice his son. Why? As we find out elsewhere, “He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead” (Hebrews 11:19) and so he did not fear to follow the Lord’s command.

All of that to say this: Abraham was already justified because of his faith prior to the offering of Isaac, but it was the truth and the genuineness of his faith that was proven by his action (his willingness to kill his only son). This links us back to the beginning of the book of James where he says, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4).

Another question that is helpful is to ask this: who is the proof of the faith for? Is the proof for God’s benefit or the believer’s? God already knows (whether you’re Calvinist or Arminian) if your faith is genuine before you do anything. Abraham was not proving his faith to God when he followed His command. It was God who was showing Abraham how solid and steadfast his faith is. Moreover, it was also statement of the degree of Abraham’s faith to the rest Abraham’s family as well as to everyone who has come after him.

In conclusion, James was not writing to those Christians who felt that they were obligated to keep the Mosaic Law in order to attain salvation (so many of Paul’s letters were combating this false teaching). James was addressing the anti-nomianists who try to make faith in Christ simply a mental action or doctrinal confession but that causes no change in life.

“He is worried about people who were confining faith to a verbal profession (v. 19) or to empty, insincere good wishes (vv. 15-16). This faith is dead (vv. 17, 26) and barren (v. 20) and will be of no avail the day of judgment (v. 14).”3

I will say again that I firmly believe the teachings in the book of James. If someone claims to have faith in Christ, but their actions betray that claim, then they have no more of a saving faith than the demons. I have never, and I will never, advocate for such a cheap counterfeit of the grace of God in salvation by saying that all that is necessary for one to be saved is to pray a prayer, sign a card, walk an aisle, or confess true doctrine. True faith will include some of these (i.e. true prayer to God and the confession of true doctrine), but it is not confined to either of them.

Likewise, I will not ever advocate a cheap counterfeit of the grace of God in salvation by saying that my good works are anything other than the fruit of a right relationship with Christ. They are important, and if I do not have the works that follow my faith, my faith is worthless. However, the works do not make me or keep me saved. They provide proof, both to me and to others, of the genuineness of my profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

1 People like to try and use James 2 as a bludgeon to say that people are justified by works (i.e. the works assist in the attaining of salvation).

2 This comment was made in reference to an eternal security debate, but the statement is no less true there (even though I disagree with his overall conclusion,) than it is here.

3 Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'James, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.

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