Without doubt, the same God who justifies also sanctifies, and so the
same people who 'copped a plea' begin a process of renewal and
restoration. It is God's will, and God's project, to make us just
indeed. . .after we have been justified.
The historic disputes about faith and works are far from being
only disagreements about the meanings of words, but they certainly
do incorporate quibbles about words. Those who are opposed to justification by
faith commonly assign a very weak meaning to the word 'faith,'
reducing it to no more than a verbal assertion, and a very high
and lofty meaning to justification: "The Papists reckon it
absurd in us to say, that a man is justified by faith, because they
explain the word justified to mean, that he becomes, and is,
actually righteous; while we understand it to mean, that he is
accounted righteous, and is acquitted before the tribunal of God, as
is evident from numerous passages of Scripture. And is not the same
thing confirmed by Christ, when he draws a contrast between
justified and condemned?" (John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of
the Gospels, Volume 2, pp. 60-61). No apology need ever be made for
using words in their scriptural sense.
Faith plus Works
Some hope to wiggle around the Bible teaching of salvation by faith by
defining 'faith' to mean 'faith plus works,' or 'believe plus do.' This
does not seem credible given the many instances in the Bible where faith
is opposed to works, which would not be possible if 'works' were in fact
a subcategory of 'faith':
"For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast
about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed
God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works,
the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not
work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted
for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the
man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: 'Blessed are those
whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; Blessed is
the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin.'" (Romans 4:2-8).
Let's plug in our new and improved definition and see how it works: 'But
to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly,
his faith plus works are accounted for righteousness. . .' 'Improving' the
passage in this way renders it self-contradictory: 'But to him who does
not work...his...works are accounted. . .' Paul's plain meaning is that
salvation is by faith, period.
Why then do so many scriptures, among them plain teachings of the
Lord, deny salvation to those who fail to do certain works? Because
we are tracking the same population throughout:
"We are not saved by a transformed life; but if we have
been saved by the mercy of God in Christ received through faith
alone, transformation will follow as surely as spring follows winter
or day follows night." (James Montgomery Boice, The Parables of
Jesus, p. 218).
The people who have faith are the same people who produce works. Not
a one has dropped out.
When God makes a promise, you can take it to the bank:
So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;
It shall not return to Me void,
But it shall accomplish what I please,
And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55:11).
He is no Florida real estate promoter, whose promise of '10 acres' needs
the qualifier attached: '...at high tide'! So when God promises that "whosoever
believeth" shall be saved, that means just that: not a fraction, not
a subset of those who believe, but all who believe, shall be saved. And
did God say it? Oh, yes!:
"...that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal
life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that
whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."
"And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees
the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:40).
"Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes
in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes
in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?'" (John 11:25-26).
Of what sin can anyone convict those whom God has found guiltless?:
"Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in
him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God." (1 John 3:9).
Who are they who are born of God? Those who believe:
"Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God,
and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him." (1 John 5:1).
When the Bible speaks of believers being 'born again' and 'born of God'
it refers to God's supernatural work of regeneration, which is imaged by
baptism. And that great work is contingent on belief and belief alone:
"But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the
sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:..."
An old theory proposes that Christ's sacrifice on the cross bought for
believers, not freedom from sin, but freedom to sin or not to sin: the
same freedom Adam and Eve surrendered in the garden. 1 John 3:9 fails to
confirm this suggestion, because it does not say that believers can sin but
don't, or that some believers sin and others don't, but that those born
of God,— which is to say, believers,— cannot sin. This is
both an awe-inspiring promise of the perseverance of the saints. . .as
well as an alarm siren to those in whose lives the unfolding of this promise is not evident.
Those who preach the Bible doctrine of salvation by faith are
often accused of antinomianism, as was Paul himself. This caricature
of Bible doctrine asserts, 'Only believe, and you are free. . .to
sin. You have purchased an eternal fire insurance policy in
answering an altar call, so have fun.' One would like to think that
this is always a false accusation, but some church-goers themselves recall having believed in 'easy-believism:'
"I had been taught of my radical assurance of salvation
in Christ. When I was in my early twenties my girlfriend and I were
about to go into some heathen concert and some anonymous evangelist
come up to me and asked me about my salvation saying, 'If you were
to die today do you know where you would go?' I promptly and clearly
said 'yes.' And he asked the standard follow up question, 'Why?' I
again said with great certainty, 'I gave my life to Jesus at First
Baptist Church, when I was 13 years old.'" (Billy Stevens, Why I
left Calvinism, Kindle location 164).
A 'believer' who cannot answer John's
challenge correctly has no reason for confidence, because a
sound tree cannot but produce wholesome fruit, and his life convicts him as
James makes a demand in his letter, "But someone will say, 'You have
faith, and I have works.' Show me your faith without your works, and
I will show you my faith by my works." (James 2:18).
Oddly enough James' demand is often misheard, as if he had said, 'Show
God' instead of 'Show me.' God's sources of information are more comprehensive
than our own:
"The heart is deceitful above all things,
And desperately wicked;
Who can know it?
I, the LORD, search the heart,
I test the mind,
Even to give every man according to his ways,
According to the fruit of his doings." (Jeremiah 17:9-10)
"...then hear from heaven Your dwelling place, and forgive, and give
to everyone according to all his ways, whose heart You know (for You alone
know the hearts of the sons of men)..." (2 Chronicles 6:30).
"As for you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve
Him with a loyal heart and with a willing mind; for the LORD searches all
hearts and understands all the intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him,
He will be found by you; but if you forsake Him, He will cast you off forever."
(1 Chronicles 28:9).
"O LORD, You have searched me and known me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up;
You understand my thought afar off." (Psalm 139:1-2).
God's knowledge is so comprehensive, He not only knows what we are thinking, but what
we will be thinking!: "Thus saith the Lord GOD; It shall also come to pass, that
at the same time shall things come into thy mind, and thou shalt think an evil thought:..."
While God knows our thoughts intimately, one human being can only infer
what another is thinking indirectly, by evidence. A man may testify to
his thoughts: but is he lying? As James points out, what a man does is
more compelling than what he says. But does God, who knows our thoughts
afar off, require evidence?
James' question falls under the category of 'epistemology,' - of how we
can know that something is so -- versus 'ontology,' -- of what is. Only
in trampling the distinction between these two fields can one make James contradict Paul.
For God, of course, epistemology is a little different than it is for us; after all, that
which God knows as real is real: "...even God, who...calleth those things which be not as though
they were." (Romans 4:17). Within the category of epistemology, there's
a hierarchy that runs from God, omniscient, at the top, to human knowledge
of the contents of other minds at the bottom. Placed midway are the contents
of our mind, which we can know by introspection.
In James's letter, works are offered as sign or evidence of faith. One
can check for life by placing a mirror beneath the nostrils of the decedent;
if he is alive, his breath will fog the mirror. So, the proponents of 'faith
plus works' sagely advise us, respiration must be 'added to' life to produce
'life.' But respiration is not something 'added to' life, it's a sign of
life. Life doesn't need anything else to be life. Should respiration fail,
the source of life starts over from scratch: "So I prophesied as he
commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood
up upon their feet, an exceeding great army." (Ezekiel 37:10).
The Work of God
"Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God,
that ye believe on him whom he hath sent." (John 6:29).
When the crowd asked the Lord about the "works of God," they
wanted to know about works pleasing to God. But the Lord's answer was not
about works pleasing to God, but the work done by Him: "Heal me, O
LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for You are
my praise." (Jeremiah 17:14).
God made promises to His people whose fulfillment is not in the natural
realm, but in the supernatural. Why on earth should calling out to God
in faith cause any change at all in our standing with God? Yet the Bible
says, "And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the
name of the Lord shall be saved." (Acts 2:21). Why should the blood
He shed wash away our sins?: "And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful
witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings
of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his
own blood,..." (Revelation 1:5). Some can't think of any reason why these things should be so, so it goes
right by them, and they revert to the natural human understanding that we must work out our own destiny, no one is
going to save us but we ourselves. There is no reason one can think of why calling upon Him who hung upon
the cross should save us, except that...God promised, therefore it's so.
Cigarette smoking causes cancer. Cigarette smoking causes stained teeth.
Does it therefore follow that stained teeth cause cancer?
It's silly to suppose, but some reason just like this. They read that grace
through faith causes salvation. They read that grace through faith causes
good works. They conclude that good works cause salvation.
Prosperity preachers are sometimes accused of blaming the handicapped for
their afflictions. They look, it's alleged, at Joni Eareckson Tada in her
wheelchair and say, 'That woman has no faith.' While I doubt anyone actually
does that, defense against the charge may be found in those Bible incidents
where disease is reported to be in God's will:
"And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the
revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan
to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure." (2 Corinthians 12:7).
What would be needed to draw the conclusion properity preachers are alleged
to draw, 'That woman has no faith'? What is needed is an unconditional
Bible promise that it is always God's will for those who ask in faith to be healed. Then, it would be
a legitimate inference to look at a woman in a wheelchair and say, 'That
woman has no faith.' The reason would not be that 'faith' means 'getting
up out of a wheelchair,' — 'faith' does not mean 'getting up out of a wheelchair,'—
nor that it lies within the sphere of human power for the disabled to get
up out of a wheelchair unaided, because it does not. Rather, if God said,
then God's supernatural work of healing could be expected in all cases
where invoked. But as shown, physical health is not an unconditional promise of God.
Is there such an unconditional promise in the Bible? Yes, the promise of
the new birth, a new heart, a new nature, is given to all without stint,
as the song says:
"Did ever saint find this Friend forsake Him? No, not one! no, not one!
Or sinner find that He would not take him? No, not one! No, not one!
Jesus knows all about our struggles, He will guide till the day is done;
There's not a friend like the lowly Jesus -- No, not one! no, not one!
(Jonathan Oatman, Jr.)
Because this promise is to all, and its guarantor is God, who cannot lie: "...in hope of eternal life which God, who cannot
lie, promised before time began..." (Titus 1:2),— then all who have stood upon the promise have seen it fulfilled. This is how James
can boast, "I will show you my faith by my works."
God is not passive in salvation but active. God gave us the grace
to fear: "'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears
relieved..." (John Newton). Legalism posits a watchmaker God,
who paints the game-board, lays down the rules and then withdraws. Some
people show interest, on their own initiative advancing to meet Him. That's
OK with Him; He passively permits it. How different is the living
God of the Bible! He runs to meet the prodigal: "And he arose, and
came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw
him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him."
He sweeps until He finds the lost coin: "Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light
a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?"
(Luke 15:8). What a wonderful God we serve!