At the last trump, shall we proudly march up to Jesus pushing a wheel-barrow
full of our 'good works' and triumphantly heap them at His feet, demanding,
'Where's my reward?' We might just as well try to barter the Trump Tower
for a pile of filthy rags and colored beads. What we're offering
is worthless!: "But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our
righteousnesses are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities,
like the wind, Have taken us away." (Isaiah 64:6).
Grace is not dependent upon our works: "And if by grace, then it is
no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of
works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work." (Romans 11:6).
What is Faith?
"Faith is a living, unshakeable confidence in God's grace; it is so
certain, that someone would die a thousand times for it. This kind of trust
in and knowledge of God's grace makes a person joyful, confident, and happy
with regard to God and all creatures. This is what the Holy Spirit does
by faith. Through faith, a person will do good to everyone without coercion,
willingly and happily; he will serve everyone, suffer everything for the
love and praise of God, who has shown him such grace. It is as impossible
to separate works from faith as burning and shining from fire." (Martin
Luther, Preface to Romans).
This uninspired author carries no special weight, but he did make
a sincere effort to make sense of what the Bible teaches, which is
salvation by faith. This undeniable Bible doctrine makes no sense if
one plugs in, for 'faith,' the common Roman Catholic definition,
i.e., assent to a proposition:
"We should note that there are two ways of believing.
One way is to believe about God, as I do when I believe that what is
said of God is true; just as I do when I believe what is said about
the Turk, the devil or hell. This faith is knowledge or observation
rather than faith. The other way is to believe in God, as I do when
I not only believe that what is said about Him is true, but put my
trust in Him, surrender myself to Him and make bold to deal with
Him, believing without doubt that He will be to me and do to me just
what is said of Him." (Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther, A Brief
Explanation of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's
Prayer, Volume II, Kindle location 5180).
Christian faith is faith 'in,' more than faith 'that.'
What are Works?
"Yet the law of not of faith, but 'the man who does them shall live
by them.'" (Galatians 3:12).
Paul finds in Leviticus 18:5 proof that the law is not of faith but of works: "You shall therefore keep My statutes and
My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them: I am the LORD."
That's all it takes for Paul to make this classification, that the law
is not of faith: "...if a man does..."
"You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons
believe—and tremble!" (James 2:19).
The devils believe...what? That there is one God! Just like one billion
Muslims believe. Must those who uphold the Bible teaching of salvation
by faith admit the devils are saved, because they believe that there is
only one God...along with, presumably, the one billion Muslims as well?
Surely we can join James in ridiculing the notion that 'demon-faith'
saves. A mental or verbal affirmation that there is only one God saves no one. But is James' 'demon-faith' exactly what Paul is talking about?
Or does it not matter Who or What you believe in, just so long as you believe...something?
Suppose I say, 'The late Madlyn Murray O'Hair believed taxes were too high.'
(I'm just making this up, I don't know whether she believed taxes were
too high, too low, or just right.)
Legalist: 'Aha! You claim Madlyn Murray O'Hair was saved!'
Legalist: 'You just did! You said she believed!'
Believe in Whom? Those who repudiate the Bible teaching of salvation by faith are often
found to define 'faith' as 'mental assent to a proposition.' There are
several cases in the Bible where the word 'believe' is used in this weak
sense: "Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him...I know that you are Abraham’s descendants, but you seek to kill Me,
because My word has no place in you." (John 8:31-37). These 'believers'
may have concurred with some aspect of Jesus' pronouncement of the kingdom,
but can scarcely have placed their hope for life in Him, if they sought
to kill Him! Jesus may, it is true, have turned His attention to a different
audience segment at the end of the discourse than at the start.
Another case is that of Simon the sorcerer, who is said to have believed:
"Then Simon himself also believed..." (Acts 8:13). But his scheme to purchase the Holy Spirit does
not show good faith, and tradition recalls Simon as an arch-heretic. Saving
faith is an allegiance, a heart-felt trust, not mere mental assent.
Recall how Martin Luther defined it: "Faith is a living, unshakeable
confidence in God's grace; it is so certain, that someone would die a
thousand times for it." But in spite of generations of preachers
expounding this message from the Protestant pulpit, there is continual
pressure to revert to the 'demon-faith' definition, of a mental or
verbal assent to a proposition. See, for instance, Deal Hudson:
"Not only is the role of reason in religion
misunderstood, but so is faith itself. To most people, even many
believers, faith is conceived as some kind of feeling or
emotional state. Looking at the passion displayed by some
Evangelicals, especially Pentecostals, it's easy to see how
faith can be identified with these emotions. But, whatever
strong feelings are associated with religious faith and
practice, faith itself cannot be one of those feelings or one of
those emotions. Faith does not give believers emotions; it gives
them intellectual content for their minds. When a Catholic for
example, recites the creed (a term derived from the Latin for 'I
believe,' credo), a whole series of intellectual propositions
are affirmed, beginning with God exists and created the world,
Jesus Christ his only son was born of a young virgin, lived,
suffered, died, and was resurrected from the dead. Volumes of
religious content has [sic] been gleaned from the Bible constituting
the fundamental beliefs, or creed, for the believer. To have
faith is the mind's affirmation of those ideas, which is called
a 'sacred deposit.'
"Faith has a content that can be put in sentences, and those sentences can be put in
a creed or a catechism. The meanings of those sentences are
recognizable to anyone who understands language, even someone
who does not believe they are true. In this way, faith itself
exists as a form of reason and rationality." (Deal W. Hudson, 'Onward,
Christian Soldiers,' pp. 200-201)
Why is it so important to redefine 'faith' so that it does not mean trust or confidence reposed in God,
but rather the affirmation of "intellectual propositions"? Because this
is how they propose to use James as a crow-bar to eject Paul's teaching
of salvation by faith from the Bible. And make no mistake, they are not
enlarging or complementing Paul's teaching that salvation is by faith and
not by works by amending it to read, salvation is by faith plus works;
they are denying this teaching, which is quite plainly set forth in
letters like Romans and Galatians. If salvation is by faith and not by
works as Paul explicitly teaches, then it cannot also be by faith plus
works. 'Plus works' affirms exactly what 'not by works' intends to
James' letter does seem to have been written in response to Paul's
letter to the Galatians, even in small points, whether James had
this letter in front of him or had heard reports of its contents. Paul curses those who
have taught the Galatian Gentile believers their men must be
circumcised, a popular opinion at the time amongst the Jewish
believers who were James' principal constituency: "But though we, or
an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that
which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said
before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto
you than that ye have received, let him be accursed." (Galatians
1:8-9). James is duly appalled that any Christian could curse
another: "But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full
of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and
therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.
Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren,
these things ought not so to be.' (James 3:8-10). Paul,
incidentally, never does it again.
On the larger issue of salvation by faith or by works, James
seems to take a different tack than does Paul: "Ye see then how that
by works a man is justified, and not by faith only." (James 2:24).
This verse is the Counter-Reformation Catholic's life raft. Can
these two writers simply be offering two different opinions? The
reader of the Talmud understands that the authorities whose opinions
he is perusing do not agree with one another. But in a work like the
New Testament, whose every word is God-breathed, there is no possibly
of contradiction. The early church wisely realized that Paul and
James are not, in fact, contradicting each other, though verbally
they seem to be, because they are talking about different things. They are
two ships passing in the night, they are not on a collision course,
and each can take his rightful place in the canon. James provides a healthy
correction, a protective side wall against which to skid if anyone reads
Paul with the deficient concept of 'demon-faith.' The trouble is, some
people want to insist upon that very definition, even though, as James
points out, adopting it leads Paul's program of salvation by faith into
absurd terrain. Moreover they want to adopt this erroneous definition precisely because its adoption creates a
contradiction, which they then intend to use to eject Paul's teaching from the New
For two statements to present a contradiction, the word which is their
common term must be
used univocally, understood the same way in both statements. The
astronomer who says, 'Mars is an arid rock,' and the literary critic
who says, 'Mars loves Venus,' are not saying the same thing nor can
their statements be easily reconciled. How, indeed, could an arid
rock love the tempestuous Venus, or anything else? Yet each can rest comfortably in
his corner of the faculty lounge, because they
are not contradicting each other: they are ultimately talking about
different things. Although the pagan mythographer did identify the
god who loved Venus with the planet lately visited by landers and probes,
the literary critic who advises his students, helpfully and
productively, about the love-life of a conventional character who
turns up in ancient poetry is really just talking about something
else than what the astronomer is talking about. They do not need to
get into a screaming match, shouting 'You lie!'; they simply mean
different things by their shared term, 'Mars.' Since the common term is not
used univocally, there is no contradiction.
When Paul talks about faith, he is speaking of Martin Luther's
trust and confidence. Indeed it is difficult to see how the common
New Testament concept of faith: "And Jesus said unto them,
. . .for verily I say unto you, If ye have
faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain,
Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall
be impossible unto you." (Matthew 17:20),— could
possibly be imagined to mean affirming an intellectual proposition. James is
aware of the more compendious definition of faith, because he says,
"I will show thee my faith by my works." (James 2:18); works
demonstrate true faith, not 'said' faith. But James is also capable of
contracting the definition down to demon-level. Demons repose neither
trust nor unshakeable confidence in God, rather they are His sworn
enemies, they are not even on His side. The only faith they can
claim is to give mental assent to a proposition, which is Deal
Hudson's highest conception of faith. James means to say, 'Ye see
then how that by works a man is justified, and not by mental assent
to a proposition only.' Yet neither Paul nor any else ever claimed
(prior to Mohammed ibn Abdallah, who sometimes makes salvation
contingent upon a certain verbal affirmation) that assent to an
intellectual proposition saves. Although the same word, 'faith,' is
used in both statements, it is used equivocally; Paul means by it,
throwing oneself upon God with no other plea, James means assent to
the proposition that there is only one God. Since these authors are
ultimately talking about different things, James cannot serve as a
fit crow-bar to pry the doctrine of salvation by faith out of the
Bible; it stays.
Those who believe in salvation by faith often hear tales about 'A sincere
believer who turned to the Lord in faith, nothing wavering, and was left
a child molester.' Don't believe it? Ever heard the question, 'So aren't
you saying a believer who molests children will be saved?' Look at the
sentence, 'The present king of France is bald.' While there are various
ways of analyzing this sentence, one way runs thus,
a.) There is at present a king of France,
b.) and, he is bald.
But given the French predilection for guillotining their kings, there is
at present no king of France. So when skeptics ask about a child molester
who is also a believer, are they not asserting that a believer may be left
as a child molester? What great promise of God does this assertion deny?
God gave us this promise: that those who turn to Him in faith will be given
a new nature, renovated in the image of God: "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:..." (John 1:12). Those who stand upon this promise
not only have the merits of Christ imputed to them so as to be found guiltless
though guilty, but also begin to feel the workings of God in their heart,
remolding them to conform to His image. This rebirth is a supernatural
work of God; there's no reason in the natural realm to suppose that turning
to God in faith would produce any character reformation, the sole and only
reason it does so is because God promised. And what He promises, He does.
Those who stand upon the promises of God find Him not to fail. It's when
our faith fails that we sink. So where are the "believers" who
have stood upon God's promise, but have found Him to fail: that He's left
them mired in their sins? Aren't these rather 'disbelievers', not 'believers'?
Believers who are also gross and unrepentant sinners is an empty set.
Nevertheless, in spite of the Bible's clear teaching, you will find
people who live like the devil but believe they're heaven-bound because
they prudently purchased fire insurance at a childhood altar call. Such
things ought not to be: "The great mercy of God has been preached
unguardedly, and has led hundreds into licentiousness. . ." (Charles
Spurgeon, Lectures to my Students, p. 190).