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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Justification by Works in James 2:14-26

There was one passage that we did not have sufficient time to look at closely in our sermon series on Matthew 12:33-37.  James 2:14-26 is a crucial text to consult when working out our theology regarding the relationship between faith and works.  What we have already discovered in the sermon series will help us to make sense of a passage that is a conundrum to many. 
First, let’s recall the main ideas of those sermons.  The Bible teaches both that justification is by faith and that good works will be necessary on judgment day in order to be justified.  Both of these ideas are found all over the New Testament and in the writings of each of the New Testament authors.  In other words, the Bible teaches that justification is both by faith and by works.  How is this not a contradiction?  We are justified by faith in one sense and we are justified by works in a different sense.  The basis of our justification is the imputed righteousness of Christ that comes through faith alone.  Good works are the necessary outward evidence of God’s salvific work in the life of a believer. 
To use Jesus’ analogy from Matthew 12:33-37, good works are to faith what fruit is to a tree.  Fruit is evidence of the condition of the tree.  Good trees bear good fruit; rotten trees bear rotten fruit.  So reliable is this relationship that no one cuts open a tree to discover its condition.  The tree’s fruit tells the whole story.  Likewise, those who have faith in Christ produce good works; those who do not have faith in Christ do not produce good works.  So reliable is this correlation that Jesus says we will be judged according to our words (works) on the day of judgment.  Is it the works themselves that save us?  No, the works are the necessary outward evidence of inward saving faith.  If we grasp these ideas, James 2:14-26 will make perfect sense to us. 
Now let’s cut the passage in half and deal with it a section at a time:
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe-- and shudder!
There are a couple of key things to notice.  First, we should notice what the issue is.  James asks in v14, can that faith save him?  The issue at hand is what kind of faith saves.  He demonstrates that there are two kinds of faith – faith that does not have works and faith that does have works.  Which saves?  The faith that has works.  James describes the faith that does not have works as “dead,” that is, it does not save.  In vv15-16, he portrays this kind of faith as useless. 
Second, we should notice that James tells us explicitly what the role of works is.  In v18, he anticipates the objection that faith and works can be separated – “someone will say, ‘you have faith and I have works.’”  But James shows that they cannot be separated, for works are what demonstrate saving faith – “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”  Works are the identifying mark of saving faith.  To believe without bearing fruit makes one no better off than the demons (v19). 
20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 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. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Beginning in v20, James offers to give biblical proof that faith without works is not saving faith. A knowledge of how these events are recorded in Genesis is crucial.  In v21, he writes that Abraham was justified by works when he offered up Isaac on the altar.  This event is recorded in Genesis 22.  In v23, James writes that this act fulfilled the Scripture that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”  This declaration of Abraham’s righteousness is recorded in Genesis 15.  In other words, Abraham was declared righteous, or justified, before the offering of Isaac.  What this means is that Genesis teaches that Abraham was justified by faith (in the event recorded in Gen 15), and James teaches that Abraham was justified by works (in the event recorded in Gen 22). 
Contradiction?  Only if we assume that both indicate justification in the same sense.  But James has already told us what sense he intends – works are evidence of saving faith (“I will show you my faith by my works”), evidence that is necessary for justification.  He offers another clue that this is his intention in v23 in the words, “and the Scripture was fulfilled…” Abraham’s works in Genesis 22 were the fulfillment or completion or demonstration of the internal change that took place in Genesis 15.  That Abraham is described in Scripture as being justified both at the point of belief and at the point of bearing good works is analogous to the already-not-yet character of justification that we discovered in the sermon series (justification is presented in the NT as both a present possession and a future event – Rom 5:1; Matt 12:37).
You see, James is using “justified” in the same sense Jesus did in Matthew 12:37 when He said, “By your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned.”  Outward fruit is what demonstrates the reality of inward faith.  That evidence will be necessary in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Those who have saving faith will inevitably possess that evidence.  Faith that saves is faith that produces works. 
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Fruit & False Positives

There are a couple of things related to Sunday’s message that I’d like to cover on the blog.  The first was suggested to me by a dear brother after the service.  “What about false positives?”  I knew immediately what he meant.  We’ve spent several Sundays now looking at the biblical truth that good works will be required on the day of judgment as evidence of God’s salvific work in our lives.  But what about people who do good works but who are not regenerate?  If good works provide the visible evidence of internal change, what are we to believe about those who do good things but are unbelievers?
We all most likely know at least one individual whom we would describe as a “good person” who is not a believer.  I’ve heard Mormons referred to many times as “good, moral people,” but they are not regenerate believers.  Will their good works look like ours on the day of judgment?  This question is based on the wrong assumption that unbelievers are capable of doing true good works.  
Remember what Jesus said to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:34?  “How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”  A person’s words and works are drawn from the well of his heart (Mark 7:21-22).  He can only speak and act out of that which fills him.  The unbeliever is dead in trespasses and sins, following after the devil, the world, and the flesh, enslaved by various passions, utterly incapable of obeying or pleasing God (Eph 2:1-3; Rom 8:6-8).  In other words, the well from which the unbeliever’s words and works are drawn is filled with sinfulness.  Whatever they do or say that seems to be virtuous, “good fruit” is not.  And there are several reasons for this.
First, their actions are not produced by the Holy Spirit.  We noted on Sunday that our good works are actually the work of the Holy Spirit in us.  That’s the whole reason why works will be used as evidence of salvation on judgment day.  Obedience is described in the Bible as fruit of the Spirit, being led by the Spirit, walking in the Spirit, sowing to the Spirit, living by the Spirit, etc. (Gal 5:16, 18, 22, 25, 6:8; Rom8:13-14).  It is the Spirit who empowers us for obedience.  Unbelievers do not have the Spirit.  They are incapable, therefore, of producing the fruit of the Spirit.
Second, their actions are not born of faith.  In Romans 14:23, Paul teaches that whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.  The entire chapter of Hebrews 11 demonstrates that obedience flows from faith.  Over and over we are told of Old Testament figures who “by faith” obeyed God.  Genuine good works are born of faith, which is why the writer of Hebrews asserts, “without faith it is impossible to please him…” (Heb 11:6).  If a person does not have faith, he cannot have good works.  Unbelievers, by definition, do not have faith.
Third, their actions are not a result of union with Christ.  In John 15, Jesus teaches that it is only through union with him that a person is able to produce good fruit: “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).  Unbelievers do not enjoy union with Christ, therefore, they cannot bear true fruit.
Fourth, their actions are not done for the glory of God.  Unbelievers have traded the glory of God for idolatry and self-worship (Rom 1:23).  Everything they do, including supposed acts of virtue, is for the glory of self.  They are “haters of God” (Rom 1:30).  I once heard Dr. Bruce Ware say, “An unsaved person can sin by mugging an old lady or by helping her across the street.  Whatever is done for any reason other than the glory of God is sin.  Anything that is not from faith is sin.”  
“Good” unbelieving people will have absolutely no good works to show on the last day.  What may appear to be good works in the lives of unbelievers now will not appear as good works before the judgment seat of Christ.  Nor will those acts be simply neutral.  Rather, those acts will be sins for which the unbeliever will be justly condemned.  So, there will be no such thing as a false positive on the day of judgment.
Does this lead to pride in the believer?  It shouldn’t.  Our salvation is all of grace.  That we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, that we have faith, that we are unified with Christ, that live for the glory of God, and therefore that we produce visible fruit is all a result of God’s sovereign grace. 
3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)
Next time, we’ll take a look at what James meant by his statement, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Watch Your Mouth, Part 2

Dealing with sins of speech requires dealing with the problem at the heart level.  Behind our critical speech is a critical heart.  Behind our complaining is an unthankful heart.  So we cannot just seek to create new habits in our speech; our hearts need to change.  In our last post we looked briefly at the first two steps of dealing with heart issues.  First, we need to pray for God’s help.  Second, we need to grow in our worship of Christ.  (If you missed the last post, you can find it here.)
Third, we need to apply the biblical model for change taught in Ephesians 4:22-24, which requires putting off the old self, being renewed in the spirit of our minds, and putting on the new self.  This means that we need to recognize how the old self is being manifested, what we are thinking and wanting in moments of temptation, when those moments of temptation tend to strike, and what are the godly alternatives that need to replace those things.
A good way to gather this information is to keep a journal for a week or two.  Every time we give in to the temptation to use ungodly speech, we should write down the circumstances surrounding the temptation, what we were thinking, what we were wanting, what we did in response to the temptation, and when it all happened.  After keeping this journal diligently for a while, we can go back and analyze the information.  We may find patterns behind the sinful speech.  Perhaps temptation always comes when we are with certain people or in a certain situation.  Perhaps temptation tends to come first thing in the morning or at the end of the day.  It could be that though there are different manifestations of sinful speech coming out, there is a common thought or desire behind them. 
Once the information has been analyzed, we can go to the Word and find out what the Bible teaches about that sin and the opposite godly virtue.  Bible Gateway is a great online resource for doing topical searches.  It’s a good idea to write down the truths that we find along with the corresponding Bible references.  It will be helpful to commit some of these passages to memory.
Now we’ve got all that information written down. What do we do with it?  The specific manifestations we’ve written down tell us the specific actions we need to put off.  If that specific action is complaining, the godly action that we can seek to put in its place is the expression of thankfulness.  So when we are tempted to complain, we stop and pray a prayer of thanksgiving instead or we express thankfulness to those around us.  
The thoughts we’ve recorded in our journal tell us what thoughts need to be replaced, or “put off”.  Maybe the common thing we are thinking when we are tempted to complain is, “this really stinks.  Why does nothing ever work out for me!”  We need to construct a biblical thought to replace it, like: “God is using all things, including this inconvenience, to conform me to the image of Christ.”  That new thought needs to be written down and memorized.
The desires we’ve recorded tell us what we’re worshiping that needs to be replaced with worship of Christ.  If we want convenience or smooth circumstances so much that we will sin to get it or sin if we don’t get it, it’s an idol.  We need to recognize it as such and determine that in moments of temptation we will focus on worshiping and pleasing Christ alone.  This particular part of the plan relies heavily on our having preached the gospel to ourselves as a habit of life.
The times of temptation we’ve recorded tell us the specific times when we need to prepare ourselves for temptation, so that we can take a few minutes beforehand to go over all this information…the sin that we are avoiding and the godly behavior we want to exhibit in its place…the thoughts we are going to resist and the godly thoughts we will strive to think instead…the idol behind the temptation and the excellencies of pleasing Christ that we will focus on instead.  We need to review the relevant Scriptures that we have gathered, pray for God’s assistance in the moment of temptation, acknowledging before God we can’t do this in our own power.  Only His grace and strength will enable us to obey as we trust in Him.  We need to commit to the Lord that we will strive to be faithful. 
We should go through that material every time we are about to go into a situation where we know temptation will be waiting for us.  And one crucial part of preparation is having started the day rehearsing the gospel, pondering all the glorious truths of what God has done in Christ on our behalf for His glory.  Remember that looking intently at the gospel is what fuels the fire of our devotion to the Lord, giving us the very desire to obey.

Seems like a lot of work, doesn’t it?  The apostles were not reluctant to teach that sanctification requires great effort.  That’s why Peter writes in 2 Peter 1:5 make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue.  That’s why Paul commanded Timothy in 1Tim 4:7, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.  In v10 of that chapter, he says to toil and strive.  That’s why Paul writes in Philippians 2:12 to work out your own salvation as God works in you. 
We do this trusting in the Lord’s strength, not our own, and focusing on the gospel, but we do have to do something.  Isn’t that the spirit of James 1:19-27Be doers of the law, not hearers who deceive themselves.  Look at the perfect law of liberty and persevere.  May the Lord grant us victory as we go to war with ungodly speech.
Posted by Greg Birdwell