100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

#41: Does James teach justification by works?

Yesterday we left off considering this verse:

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. (Revelation 14:12)

Now the Biblical idea of “saints” is anyone who is saved. And we might wonder why it defines them as "those who keep the commandments of God”, if salvation is by faith alone and not by keeping God's commandments. We learn this clearly in the writings of Paul:

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. (Galatians 2:16)

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. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

So some have said that God does have different means of salvation for different people in different periods of history, and at some point in the future (since the Book of Revelation could be speaking of a future time), salvation will be through strict keeping God's commandments. But this is false, as we discussed yesterday. It is impossible for man to save himself by working hard at keeping commandments. If salvation were by keeping commandments, then nobody would be saved – it's impossible.

Now James says something interesting...

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)

This might align itself nicely with the Revelation 14:12 passage which seems to refer to works and faith. And some people do take the view that the Book of James is actually written to people at that future time that the Book of Revelation is also addressing. And they would say that we, at this time, shouldn't build our doctrine from James at all. But we must reject that idea! Let's have a closer look at James' context...

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 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? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.  (James 2:14)

James is speaking to people who clearly understand that salvation is by faith alone, which is why he says “Can that faith save him?” James is speaking to people who have misunderstood what salvation through faith alone means. One who has genuine or true faith will do good works like clothing and feeding the poor. Faith without such works is “dead” - it is unable to save. “That” kind of faith cannot save. Let's read a bit more of James in this chapter...

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. (James 2:21-24)

James is using the very same Old Testament quote (“Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”) that Paul uses to prove his doctrine of justification by faith alone! (Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6). Read James carefully here; he says “and the Scripture was fulfilled...” That is to say that because Abraham had faith, Abraham did works of faith. The Scripture which tells us Abraham had faith was “fulfilled” when Abraham did a work of faith.

James and Paul do not contradict. Paul affirms that we should be doing good works as a result of faith, even in the very next verse of the Ephesians passage we used above to demonstrate Paul's doctrine of justification by faith alone:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

Until tomorrow:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. ... If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:12,15)

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