The doctrines that are the most fundamental and essential to the Christian faith will be the ones attacked the most. Among these doctrines, justification by faith alone is being molested on every side. What was once the gem of true freedom rediscovered in the Reformation has now become something of little value in the Christian world. Christians today would rather have “application” and “practical” knowledge that helps them with daily life. Apparently to many modern Christians, the gospel is no longer relevant.
Ask the average Christian what the gospel is and you will get multiple answers, many of which would not include any reference to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to pacify the wrath of God against our sin. Many would not talk about how God looks at us as perfect because through faith, we are covered by Christ’s righteousness. Say the word justification or propitiation in a conversation and you will receive quizzical looks.
In High School I spoke with an Eastern Orthodox priest who skeptically asked me, “Where in Scripture does it say that we are justified by faith alone?”
How I wish I had been more prepared with Bible in hand!
“And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”
“For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.”
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”
“Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
“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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…”
Despite these clear Biblical evidences, people generally have two problems with this doctrine. They say that the book of James teaches justification by faith and works, and they say that the doctrine of justification by faith alone leads to moral laxness on the part of the believer.
In my conversation with the Orthodox priest, he immediately brought up James, who seems to say something completely contrary to Paul:
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
One thing is for sure. If you believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, both Paul and James cannot be saying contradictory things, for that would make God a liar. And that is an impossibility (Hebrews 6:18).
Are we to side with Luther who believed that the epistle of James lacked apostolic authorship, and therefore had no place in the Canon?
R.C. Sproul, in his book Knowing Scripture, points out a key idea in hermeneutics, one that is surprisingly simple and solves the dilemma between these two passages. The dilemma can be solved when we realize that words have different meanings (a novel thought indeed!).
The word justify, Sproul points out, can mean different things in different contexts.
“The term justify may mean (1) to restore to a state of reconciliation with God those who stand under the judgment of his law or (2) to demonstrate or to vindicate” (83).
Sproul then quotes Luke 7:35 which says (Jesus' words), “Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.” Jesus obviously does not mean the first of Sproul’s definitions. He obviously means the second.
Paul and James are both writing in separate contexts. Paul is writing to solve the question “Are we saved by the works of the law?” And his answer is resolute: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). Only through faith are we imputed with Christ’s righteousness!
James on the other hand is answering the question, “What kind of faith will save you?” James was dealing with those who were saying they had faith, when in reality their actions showed the opposite (James 2:15-16).
Again, Sproul’s words are helpful:
“[James] is saying that true faith brings forth works. A faith without works he calls a dead faith, a faith that is not genuine. The point is that people can say they have faith when in fact they have no faith. The claim to faith is vindicated or justified when it is manifested by the fruit of faith, namely, works. Abraham is justified or vindicated in our sight by his fruit. In a sense, Abraham’s claim to justification is justified by his works. The Reformers understood that when they stated the formula, “Justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone” (83-84).
We are regenerated unto faith by the Holy Spirit, and true faith is always followed by works of righteousness. True believers will walk in accord with “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). But we can never take good works out of order, as the two verses before Ephesians 2:10 say, “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.”
Because true faith naturally leads to good works, the doctrine of justification by faith alone does not lead to laxness in doing good on the part of the believer. Interestingly, Paul had to deal with the same question (Romans 6:1,15).
Apparently when we get the doctrine of justification right, people will respond with comments like “Well then I can just do as I please!” Because Paul dealt with these exact questions, isn’t it fair to assume that the Reformers delineated from Scripture the same view of justification by faith alone that Paul taught?
So in response to the question of carelessness in doing good works, or in sinning because there is no danger, I respond with the words of Paul:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
Luther said that justification was the article upon which the church would stand or fall. Let us not give up the words of Scripture! Let us always hold dear the free gift of our salvation by faith alone! And let’s live lives full of good works in thankfulness for that message!
Verses I excluded for sake of length: