Thursday, January 22, 2009

We are justified by works and not by faith alone (Part 1)

Some people will be very upset at the title of this post. It will be tantamount to heresy to them. "You can't say that! Everyone knows we're saved by faith in Christ! None of us can earn salvation by our works!"

But of course these aren't my words, they're God's. Its a direct quote from the New Testament:

"You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (Jas 2:24).

Of course the objectors aren't entirely wrong either. Yes, we are saved by faith in Christ and no, we can't "earn" salvation by our works. The following from Paul's letter to the church at Ephesus makes this pretty clear:

"By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not as a result of works that no-one may boast" (Eph2:8,9)

The problem is that a long time ago influential people such as Martin Luther were unable to reconcile these two truths, chose to latch on to the latter and a whole new false teaching eventually arose (and has become almost all-pervasive today) that salvation has NOTHING to do with works at all. It is widely taught now that we ARE "justified by faith alone" even though Jas2:24 says categorically that we're NOT! They have in effect taken a pair of scissors to the scripture and cut out the bit they don't want!

So, what's going on here? What is the situation regarding faith and works?

Before we get on to that I want to back track for a minute and consider an important underlying principle here.

When we come across instances in the scriptures where two writers are apparently saying contradictory things we can conclude one of three things:

1. The bible is in error, its therefore not the word of God and must be thrown out

2. One of the two writers is in error and must be thrown out of the bible (this is basically what Luther decided - initially anyway)

3. It is our understanding that is in error and requires further development

What's curious is that we deal with this sort of thing in everyday life all the time and don't give it a second thought.

For example:

(a) Its a long way from the earth to the moon

(b) The moon is quite close to the earth

On the face of it these two statements seem to contradict each other. But we very quickly see that there is a sense in which both are true depending on your frame of reference.

So, lets look at our "problem" again:

James: We are justified by works not by faith alone (Jas2:24)

Paul: We are justified by faith apart from works of law (Rom3:28)

For a start the word "alone" in James should give us a hint that something different might be going on here. Secondly we can entertain the possibility that each writer just might be using "works" in a different sense. Suddenly the need for necessary contradiction starts to dissipate.

Principle: we can either panic when we run into "problems" in the scriptures or we can learn to trust God's word and recognize that we still have something to learn. After we've been Christians for many years we get used to seeing these "problems" all the time and then seeing them resolve as we persevere in our study and deepen our understanding. "Curiosity" instead of "panic" becomes our default setting.

Anyway, I digress. Back to our question: what's the answer to the "works versus faith" thing?

Sorry, out of space. Please go to Part 2!