As we seek to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, Brett Ricely will be preaching from Romans 3:21-31 this Sunday night. Keep him in your prayers as preaching is not an easy task. It's much more about shepherding from the pulpit than it is about conveying information.
Next week, we'll be looking at Romans 4:1-12 as a church--first in your house fellowships than during or corporate worship gathering on Sunday night.
In Romans 4:1-12, Paul argues that our justification comes by faith, not works and he appeals to the life of Abraham to make his point. This might be simple had James had not argued that faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26). It gets a little more complex we we find that both Paul and James used the exact same Greek word for justification. Even more complex is the fact that James too appeals to the Father of Our Faith, Abraham. What are we to do? Who are we to believe?
Throughout history, theologians have handled this differently. Martin Luther went so far as to declare that the book of James didn't belong in the Canon (although he later reversed his position).
Today Christians will tend to reside on one side or the other of this conundrum. They ask, "Does justification really come by faith or is there some work that is necessary." I'd venture a guess, Redeeming Life, that most of us lean one way or the other. We may declare that justification is by faith alone but our actions may speak a little differently. Some of us may have a little self righteousness deep down. We take too much confidence in our effort to make ourselves holy as we seek after salvation. But be warned, we can do nothing to save ourselves; there is no work to be done that earns our justification--on this Scripture is clear.
So how do we resolve this conflict between Paul and James?
First, there is no conflict. The Bible is the Word of God and God does not contradict himself. The conflict resides within us and our understanding of what's being communicated. Second, there is no conflict. Paul and James are arguing for two different purposes. And third, there is no conflict. This contrived tension is actually resolved when we better understand our own justification over time.
It is helpful to look at what Paul and James wrote in the proper context of their arguments. Paul is dealing with the question, "What can I do to be saved?" He then makes an argument that salvation does not come from our works. We can do nothing. Salvation comes from faith in God. Faith how? Faith that God is who he says he is and that he will, as his Word says, provide for our justification. Abraham was saved prior to circumcision or any other work for that matter. His faith was in God's promise of the coming Redeemer, or in Abraham's terms, the coming salvation of God. Abraham believed. Ours on the other hand is faith in the Redeemer who has already come--Jesus Christ. Abraham had faith looking forward in time while we have faith looking back in time.
James, on the other hand, is dealing with the question, "How do we know someone is justified?" See the difference? God has a serious advantage that is not ours to share. We can't, with absolute certainty, know if someone is saved. God can and does. God knew the moment Abraham was saved because God did the saving. He didn't need any fruit (or as James puts it, works) as evidence of Abraham's justification but there was some in Abraham's faithful actions following his justification.
Imagine that someone in our congregation claimed to be a Christian simply by a statement of his or her faith without any kind of evidence of a saved, blood-bought, transformed life. Had you been present 27 years ago when I stood in a lake and said the right words to convince a pastor to baptize me and then you saw the following 14 years, you would say, "That boy does not know Christ." However, if you could look back on the most recent past 13 years I hope you would feel differently. While only God can know for sure, James gives us an indicator that the justified life typically should be followed by some kind of fruit. This fruit, or 'works' as James says, does not earn salvation, but instead serves (most of the time) as evidence of it. The same was true of Abraham.
The trouble however, is how often we get this mixed up. Little ideas creep into our mind that drive us to a place of self-righteousness. We strive after things like perfection, excess knowledge, religious rituals, and the like to create our own justification. But our own justification is worthless. Instead we must place our faith in the only one who justifies--Jesus Christ.
But if these little ideas don't drive you to self-righteousness like the Pharisees, then they may have the potential to drive you toward antinomianism. Antinomianism means 'lawless' and an antinomianist doesn't live by God's Law, Kingdom ethic, or moral code. He or she uses justification as license to do anything and everything, often claiming "freedom in Christ."
Where do you tend to find yourself, leaning toward works for salvation or justification as license to disobey God? Why do you think you default the way you do? How can we remind one another that both of these positions are incorrect and instead rightly understand our justification and live accordingly? How can we resist self-righteousness and combat antinomianism while still showing one another great love and grace?
It's my prayer that we are able to celebrate our justification and declare that it comes by faith in Christ alone. I also pray that in light of this amazing gift, our lives are radically changed and we, Redeeming Life Church, are marked by how we live for our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
Soli Deo gloria!
*"Sacrifice of Isaac" by Rembrandt is in the public domain.