Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Temporary Justification I - Election and Dort

Xon Hostetter has laid out a direct challenge with clear terms: to show that the Federal Vision is not Reformed, one must demonstrate (a) that there is a clear contradiction between FV and the Westminster Standards, and (b) that this contradiction amounts to an exception to the system of doctrine rather than some minor issue in the Confession.

Rather than accept the challenge as stated, I have decided to approach it this way: in these posts, I aim to show that one particular tenet of the Federal Vision is in conflict with the Canons of Dort and the Scriptures. I will not make any judgment as to the severity of this conflict; I merely wish to satisfy myself that the conflict is real rather than apparent.

The tenet in question is what Xon and I have agreed to call "Temporary Justification", or "TJ."

TJ: Some people receive a temporary judicial verdict (or status) of 'forgiven' from God, yet not permanently.

Over the next few posts, I hope to show that TJ is in conflict with the Canons of Dort and also the Scriptures.

Federal Vision statements that explicate TJ

Steve Wilkins speaking of the entire (visible) Corinthian church:

Through Paul's ministry, they have been "born" through the gospel (4:15...). Christ has been sacrificed for them (5:17). They have been washed (or baptized) which has brought about sanctification and justification in the name of Christ, by the Spirit of God (6:9-11). ("The Federal Vision", 59)

and again:
Paul emphasizes that Christ died for "our" sins (including those of his hearers; 15:3). Paul declares these things to be true of the members of the church in Corinth...All this was true of each of the members, but, like Israel, they were required to persevere in faith. If they departed from Christ, they would perish like Israel of old. All their privileges and blessings would become like so many anchors to sink them into the lake of fire. ("The Federal Vision", 60)
Rich Lusk speaking of those who are within the church but "not destined to receive final salvation":
These non-elect covenant members are actually brought to Christ, united to Him and the Church in baptism, receive various gracious operations of the Holy Spirit, and may even be said to be loved by God for a time. They become members of Christ's kingdom, stones in God's living house, and children in God's family...But, sooner or later, in the wise counsel of God, these individuals fail to bear fruit and fall away. They do not persevere in the various graces they have received; their faith withers and dies. In some sense, they were really joined to the elect people, really sanctified by Christ's blood, and really recipients of new life given by the Holy Spirit. ("The Federal Vision", 288).
Rich Lusk on Covenant Members:
We can truly derive comfort and encouragement from our covenant membership. God loves everyone in the covenant. Period. You don’t have to wonder if God loves you or your baptized children. There is no reason to doubt God’s love for you. You can tell your fellow, struggling Christian, “You’re forgiven! Christ paid for your sins!” This is far more helpful than only being able to tell someone, “Well, Christ died for his elect, and hopefully you’re one of them!” Rich Lusk, Covenant and Election FAQS

and again:
But reprobate covenant members may temporarily experience a quasi-salvation. They were, in some sense, bought by Christ (1 Pt. 2), forgiven (Mt. 18), renewed (Mk. 4), etc., and lost these things. Rich Lusk, Covenant and Election FAQS
Tim Gallant, speaking on the relationship between faith and covenant-keeping:
3. Faith is the sole instrument which maintains union with Christ.

i. Covenant-keeping is mandated in Scripture. The Bible warns strongly against "drawing back to perdition" (cf. Heb. 10:39). Those who persevere to the end will be saved. For this reason, God has appointed excommunication as censure against covenant-breaking, and Paul warns that those who attempt to be justified by law have "become estranged from Christ" and "fallen from grace" (Gal. 5:4).

ii. However, this is not "maintenance of salvation by way of works." While it is true that various sins often occasion covenant-breaking, yet Scripture does teach us to view covenant-keeping as a matter of faith. In the text cited above (3.i), the writer says: "we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul" (Heb. 10:39). While we know that, in their covenant-breaking, the children of Israel in the wilderness committed various sins such as fornication and idolatry, yet Hebrews 3 repeatedly parallels their disobedience and rebellion with unbelief. They could not enter the land of rest "because of unbelief" (Heb. 3:19). Thus the warning to Christians is to beware lest there be "an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God;" this is paralleled with becoming "hardened through the deceitfulness of sin" (Heb. 3:12-13).

iii. This faith-centeredness of covenant-keeping is not surprising, particularly since Christ Himself is identified as the new covenant (Is. 42:6; 49:8). Covenant-breaking is thus termed as spurning Christ's sanctifying blood (Heb. 10:29), as turning away from Him who called us in the grace of Christ (Gal. 1:6), and as becoming estranged from Christ (Gal. 5:4). Christ dwells in our hearts by faith (Eph. 3:17); hence, properly understood, the doctrine of union with Christ does not undermine sola fide, but reinforces it.

iv. Since Christ is the new covenant, and it is in union with Him that justification and all other gifts of salvation are to be found (see e.g. Col. 1:21-23), God's Word calls upon us to remain in Christ by faith, and not to rest upon a one-time event in our past as the act of faith which saved us. "For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end" (Heb. 3:14). Paul said that the Galatians "ran well" (Gal. 5:7) and had "begun in the Spirit" (Gal. 3:3), but he does not allow them to be complacent regarding the present due to that good beginning; he rather warns them that they must stand fast in the liberty given by Christ (Gal. 5:1), through the Spirit eagerly waiting for the hope of righteousness by faith (Gal. 5:5). Because justification is a gift of union with Christ, repudiation of Christ is an unbelieving repudiation of justification. Hence Scripture calls upon us to a living faith, a faith that clings to Christ from beginning to end.
Tim Gallant, Affirmations on Justification and Covenant-Keeping"

From these, it can be seen that some advocates of the Federal Vision assert the following:

J1: Justification can be acquired, then lost.
J2: People can have their sins washed away, yet ultimately be lost.
J3: Christ died for people who will be lost.

It is not difficult to see that J1-J3 are logically equivalent to TJ.

Differences in the term "elect"

The term "elect" is tricky when reading Federal Vision writers. Federal Vision proponents affirm the Westminster Confession as a system, the Canons of Dort, and monergism. Thus, they will rush to say that no one who is truly predestined to be saved can actually be lost. These, they call the "decretally elect." TJ is not true of any of them.

However, the decretally elect are a subset of a larger group, the "covenantally elect." These are all those whom God has chosen to be a part of the Church as it exists within history. Those who apostasize thus show themselves to be non-elect (decretally). It is the non-decretally-elect-but-covenantally-elect (or to borrow Rich Lusk's term, the "non-elect covenant member", or NECM) who experiences TJ.

So from a covenantal perspective, one can "lose one's salvation"; from a decretal perspective, never. (see Rich Lusk on this: Covenant and Election FAQs). Or better, an NECM will ultimately lose whatever blessings (including justification) God has given him, by means of his apostasy.

Because these statements about temporary justification therefore apply only to NECMs, the Federal Vision has circumscribed their adherence to the Confession in this way: the term "elect" in the Confession refers to their "decretally elect", but Scripture uses the term more broadly, to (at times) include covenantal election. Thus, they claim that their theology is consistent with the Confession (in that they affirm the same things as the Confession with regard to the decretally elect), but more thoroughly Biblical than the Confession (in that they are bringing to light more accurate nuances of Scriptural texts).

So it would not do, for instance, to show that what the Confession says about the elect is different -- in fact, in stark contrast -- with what the Federal Vision says about the elect. For the terms "elect" are simply being used differently.

And the same difficulty applies, I believe, with comparing statements from Dort to statements from Federal Vision writers concerning "the elect." It is acknowledged by all that Dort's use of the word "elect" clearly means "decretally elect."

That TJ is contrary to the First Canon of Dort

But now, it's worth considering what the First Canon of Dort has to say about the non-(decretally-)elect.

First, we note that Dort drives a wide wedge between the elect and the non-elect:
God's anger remains on those who do not believe this gospel. But those who do accept it and embrace Jesus the Savior with a true and living faith are delivered through him from God's anger and from destruction, and receive the gift of eternal life. -- Article 4: A Twofold Response to the Gospel

Second, we note that the non-elect are non-believers:
The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from his eternal decision. For all his works are known to God from eternity (Acts 15:18; Eph. 1:11). In accordance with this decision he graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of his chosen ones and inclines them to believe, but by his just judgment he leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen. And in this especially is disclosed to us his act--unfathomable, and as merciful as it is just--of distinguishing between people equally lost. This is the well-known decision of election and reprobation revealed in God's Word. This decision the wicked, impure, and unstable distort to their own ruin, but it provides holy and godly souls with comfort beyond words. -- Article 6: God's Eternal Decision

Third, as a matter of linguistics, we note that Dort did not admit of various types of election:
This election is not of many kinds; it is one and the same election for all who were to be saved in the Old and the New Testament. For Scripture declares that there is a single good pleasure, purpose, and plan of God's will, by which he chose us from eternity both to grace and to glory, both to salvation and to the way of salvation, which he prepared in advance for us to walk in. -- Article 8: A Single Decision of Election

The Canon then moves on to contradict the errors of those...
Who teach that God's election to eternal life is of many kinds: one general and indefinite, the other particular and definite; and the latter in turn either incomplete, revocable, nonperemptory (or conditional), or else complete, irrevocable, and peremptory (or absolute). Likewise, who teach that there is one election to faith and another to salvation, so that there can be an election to justifying faith apart from a peremptory election to salvation. For this is an invention of the human brain, devised apart from the Scriptures, which distorts the teaching concerning election and breaks up this golden chain of salvation: Those whom he predestined, he also called; and those whom he called, he also justified; and those whom he justified, he also glorified (Rom. 8:30).

Who teach that not every election to salvation is unchangeable, but that some of the chosen can perish and do in fact perish eternally, with no decision of God to prevent it. By this gross error they make God changeable, destroy the comfort of the godly concerning the steadfastness of their election, and contradict the Holy Scriptures, which teach that the elect cannot be led astray (Matt. 24:24), that Christ does not lose those given to him by the Father (John 6:39), and that those whom God predestined, called, and justified, he also glorifies (Rom. 8:30).

So here's the contradiction, simply put: Whereas under Dort, all who are non-elect are called "non-believers" and are stipulated to be under God's wrath, under the FV, some who are not decretally elect are stipulated to be believers, under God's favor, and justified, temporarily.

Put more simply,

BF: The Canons of Dort bifurcate people into two groups; the "elect" and the "non-elect." The former enjoy justification, perseverance, and eternal life; the latter do not.

or in set notation, (each x): E(x) <=> justification, perseverance, and eternal life and ~E(x) <=> ~justification, ~perseverance, and ~eternal life.

In particular, Dort explicitly states that the wrath of God remains on the non-elect.

This clearly contradicts TJ, which holds that for some x, ~E(x) permits justification (for a time) and that God thus loves such individuals, not in the manner of common grace, but as adopted children.

There are some possible avenues that a Federal Vision theologian might take to resolve this contradiction. First, he might stipulate that "justification" in Dort is something different from "justification" according to the Federal Vision. The difficulty with this road is that Lusk's quote above fleshes out justification in exactly the way Dort does: "You're forgiven! Christ paid for your sins!" So this avenue is blocked.

Or, a Federal Vision theologian might stipulate that Dort is speaking only of the decretally elect from an eschatological perspective, and that the historical experiences of the non-elect covenant members ("NECMs") are simply not in view. However, article 6 blocks this road: "The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from his eternal decision. For all his works are known to God from eternity (Acts 15:18; Eph. 1:11). In accordance with this decision he graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of his chosen ones and inclines them to believe, but by his just judgment he leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen." We note here that the historical experiences of the NE are precisely what is in view! That experience is described as "left in wickedness and hardness of heart."

Thus, it appears that all avenues are blocked, and we must (regretfully) conclude that the Federal Vision is in real conflict with the First Canon of Dort.

In retrospect, what emerges is that the doctrine of election in Dort was richer than most simple presentations of "TULIP" typically explicate. Election speaks not only to the condition of the elect, but also to that of the non-elect.

In the next post, I will consider the conflict between TJ and the Second Canon of Dort.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Faith fulfilled by works (Part III)

Previous parts: Part I Part II

Previously, we've seen that James unites faith and works by proving through four separate arguments that faith without works is useless, dead, and not salvific. He paints a picture of living faith as something that is fulfilled by works committed later. It is important now to consider what relationship James has to Paul. What additional perspective does Paul provide concerning faith and works that help avoid certain errors in thought (which, after all, is what the epistles are chiefly concerned with)?

Romans 4

James appears to be qualifying the doctrinal content of this chapter, though it is doubtful that it was available to James in written form when he wrote his epistle. Here, Paul presents a fairly complex picture of justification that cannot be fully explicated in this space. In summary, Paul teaches here that

  • Justification entails both the forgiveness of sins (vv. 6-8) and being joined to the covenant with Abraham (vv. 12-16). These two are not separate benefits of justification, but viewed as a unity. This is seen in the free way in which Paul transitions back and forth between the two from 3.21-5.1.
  • Justification occurred for Abraham at the moment of faith, prior to any works having been done (vv. 10-11).
  • Justification is by faith and not by works (vv. 1-8) nor through the Law (vv. 13,16).

One very interesting feature in this passage is vv. 19-22:
He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was "counted to him as righteousness." Rom. 4.19-22 ESV

Note here that Paul does much the same as James; he claims that Abraham's faith grew and was strengthened, resulting in his belief at age 100 in the promises of God, resulting in Isaac's conception (implied). And Paul attributes this faith, at age 100, as the reason that Abraham's faith was "counted as righteousness" at age 76. We have the same "pre-facto" attribution of later faithfulness to the initial faith that justified.

Paul is not being a wisdom writer here, but he is showing the same view of faith that James does: that living faith grows and matures over time, bearing fruit. James labels this fruit as "works"; Paul labels it as "being fully convinced" or more simply "faith" (as does the writer to the Hebrews in Heb. 11.11-12 and 17-19). Nevertheless, Paul (more explicitly than James) attributes the justification to the initial faith, prior to the maturity of the faith.

In short, for Paul, just as for James, a justifying faith is a living faith that matures over time.

Ephesians 2.8-10

Here, Paul is quite blunt about the mechanism of salvation. In context, he speaks of us as being under God's wrath and being dead in sin. But then, God raises us up:
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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. -- Eph. 2.8-10 ESV

Once again, Paul presents a picture of "being saved" from God's wrath and from ourselves through faith, and he excludes any notion that our works contribute to our "being saved" (which indubitably includes our justification). And yet, our saving faith makes us God's handicraft, created for the purpose of works.

This is expressing the same notion as Romans 4 and James 2; that a living faith will mature into and be completed by good works.

What is the Mechanism?

If then we are to understand that living faith matures into works, but also that justification is on the basis of faith and not those works, then the next question is How? What distinguishes living faith from dead faith *at the moment of faith* so that justification does (or does not) take place? And, if the works are not credited as righteousness, then what role do they play?

Here, three passages are most relevant: Rom. 7-8, Gal. 5.16-26, and Eph. 4.17-24.

In each, Paul affirms that the source of our works is the Holy Spirit, given to all who belong to Christ (Rom. 8.9). The Spirit who dwells within then wars against the flesh (5.17) and ultimately produces fruit (through faith, not through human effort -- cf. Gal. 3.1-5). In Ephesians, the work of the indwelling Spirit is described as "the new self."

The mechanism can thus be expressed like this: At the moment of faith, we are justified. But more than that occurs; we are united with Christ (whether justification is a result of that union or a condition for it is immaterial here) and filled with His Spirit.

It is the work of the Spirit, then, that produces fruit in us. Without that fruit, we certainly do not have the Spirit -- which means that we do not have Christ.

This mechanism is consistent with the teachings of James and Paul (and of Jesus) concerning our faith and works.

The answer to the question is this: living faith results in reception of the Holy Spirit, who guarantees the works by producing them in us.

Practical Concerns

When I first read John MacArthur's "Lordship Salvation" in the summer of 1990, it made me angry. This was not because I disagreed with his conclusion, which agrees in concept with the position taken above. Rather, his way of framing faith and works seemed to bring in justification by works through the back door. This is the most pressing practical problem for understanding justification and works.

So many will seek to evaluate their works as a way of evaluating their faith; and if they deem themselves successful, they will mark themselves as "saved" and never consider the radical, impossible nature of God's commands (cf. Matt. 5, esp. v. 20; and Rom. 3.19-20). The result for these is a smug self-righteousness that rests in the flesh.

Others of a more sensitive nature evaluate their works and become worried that perhaps they fit into the category of those with dead faith. And they then feel the pressure to produce works. The result for these is a panicked self-doubt that continually self-examines without ever productively resting in Christ.

I was just beginning to emerge from that second category in 1990, and MacArthur's book angered me because I felt dragged by it back into a justification that is nominally by faith, but in reality is by works that are needed to prove my faith.

What was missing there was a description of mechanism: that both our faith and our works are a result of God's work in us. Also missing was a clear remedy: if my faith fails to produce works, the solution is NOT to produce works. The solution is to believe in the promises of God.

That is to say, real works can only be the result of faith. Or better: real works are the works that God does in me, and those are appropriated by faith.

For both of these groups, then, the answer is "Believe!" Believe in the promises of God (which might entail closer study of them...), and believe that He desires to fulfill them in you.


Saturday, November 17, 2007

Faith fulfilled by works (Part II)

Previous parts: Part I

The Larger Context

James is encouraging his readers to reconsider their lives and to adopt various types of good practices -- works -- as normative for themselves. In particular, he wants to communicate that what they "believe" must work its way into their fingers; else, their belief is worthless (1.22, 1.26, 3.13, 4.17). These practices include enduring testing and temptation (1.2-18), bridling the tongue (1.20; ch. 3), care for the poor (1.27-2.9), and walking away from worldly desires (4.1-6, 5.1-6).

In this context, the thesis of 2.14-26 is right at home: "faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself." Apparently, a teaching had been circulating that faith alone is salvific, regardless of whether it is accompanied by works or not. This teaching appears to have been a distortion of the contents of Romans 4, although it is unlikely that James was reacting directly to that letter, which was published around 57-59. One indication that James is reacting to (a possibly garbled version of) Paul's teaching is his pointed repetition of the phrase "justified by works", a direct contrast to Paul's insistence that Abraham was not justified by works in Rom. 4.2.

Over against the teaching that "mere faith" is salvific, James raises the constantly repeated proposition that faith without works is unable to save because it is dead. This thesis is repeated in various ways in vv. 14, 17, 20, 24, and 26. These repetitions bracket four separate arguments.

First Argument

First, James makes an argument by analogy:

15 If a brother or a sister are naked and lacking in the daily necessities, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warm and satisfied", but does not give to them the necessities of the body, what's it worth? 17 Thus also faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself.

James kills two birds with this argument, reminding his readers about their obligations to the poor while simultaneously pointing out the connection between words and actions. In this scenario, the right words are spoken, but the words themselves are left uncompleted by the actions. So the rhetorical question is raised: "What's it worth?" The force of the argument is that the action of neglect tells us what the words truly mean: nothing.

In like fashion, a lack of deeds tells us what the faith is really like: dead. And it is understood here in v. 17 that a dead faith cannot save.

Second Argument

Now, James turns to two possible objections. First up:

18 But if someone says, "You have faith, and I have works" – show me your faith without the works and by my works I will show you my faith.

The idea behind the objection is that faith and works are two different characteristics. Perhaps then they are independent of each other? Maybe some people have more faith, but other people have more works, and God accepts them all.

James responds with a dare: go ahead and show me your faith without works. Of course, it is impossible for the objector to comply, for the only demonstration of faith is ... works! Meanwhile, says James, I will show you that I have faith by demonstrating the fruit of faith. He shuts the door to the possibility of dividing faith from works as if they were independent qualities. Instead, what faith "looks like" is works. (This point will require further development when we consider the relationship of James to Pauline teaching in the next post.)

It would be a mistake here to imagine that James is equating all works with a demonstration of faith; certainly, false works are possible as Jesus often declared. The point here is simply that faith cannot be demonstrated except by its fruit.

But now, the objector takes refuge in orthodoxy:

19 "You believe that God is one." Nicely done. The demons also believe – and tremble.

Here, our objector appeals to Deut. 6.4: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one God." This statement was a Jewish shorthand for the statement, "I affirm the truth about God", which is then supposed by the objector to be a proof of faith.

James is rather caustic in response: "Good job." But the demons also believe that God is one, and their "faith" leads them to tremble at the certainty of their destruction. Unspoken by James but clearly implied is that the demon's belief is hardly a saving faith.

Thus, orthodoxy is no certain test of saving faith.

Third Argument

Now, James turns to the case of Abraham. This is a rich subject, because Abraham was declared righteous on the basis of his belief in Genesis 15. In fact, Abraham is precisely the example chosen by Paul in Romans 4 to demonstrate that we are justified by faith apart from works1. This remarkable coincidence of topic and example serves as strong evidence that James was aware of some version of Paul's teaching and was anxious to qualify it.

20 Do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is worthless? 21 Abraham our father, was he not justified by works after he gave up Isaac his son upon the altar?

James begins by affirming something remarkable: that Abraham was justified "by works." Two puzzles immediately emerge. First, the affirmation of "justified by works" is very different from the thesis that James has been advancing so far, that a living, saving faith is accompanied by works. We might expect him to say that Abraham was justified "by faith that was accompanied by works", but it is a strange shift on his part to move from saving faith to justifying works. Second, James' statement at face value contradicts both the narrator of Genesis and also Paul's commentary on Abraham in Romans 4.

To see this clearly, we need to reconstruct the timeline of Abraham's introduction to the covenant. Because we don't have certain dates for his life, we will take year 0 to be his birth. Then, from Genesis 12.4, 16.3, 16.16, 17.1, 21.5 we can construct this sequence:

Year 75: Abraham leaves Haran
Year 76: Abraham receives the covenant promise
Year 86: Abraham sires Ishmael
Year 100: Abraham and Sarah have Isaac
Some time later: Abraham offers up Isaac.

We don't have a date for the last event, but Isaac seems old enough to know the pattern for sacrifice (22.7) but not old enough to resist Abraham or make a break for it (though perhaps he, also, trusted that he would be raised from the dead -- Heb. 11.17-19). For the sake of round numbers, we can put this event 30 years after the covenant promise (when Isaac is 6), understanding that this is only approximate. So, roughly, the events on Mount Moriah occur in Year 106.

Now here's the problem with James' statement, taken at face value: the narrator of Genesis stipulates that in 76, Abraham believed God and his belief was credited as righteousness. Paul affirms that Abraham was justified at that time (Rom 4.5,9,22-24). But James here states that Abraham was justified in 106, after (or "as a result of") his work of offering Isaac. It appears that there is a conflict between James and the others as to whether Abraham was justified in 76 or 106.

What are the possible solutions? The two most common are that either (a) James is talking about a second justification event, or (b) Paul and James are using the word "justify" in two different senses. These solutions are not incompatible, and some would combine them.

But now the puzzle gets even more curious:

22 You see, the faith worked together with his works, and the works completed the faith. 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled, the one that said, "And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness", and he was called "God's friend." 24 You see, by works a man is justified, and not solely by faith.

The faith that Abraham had in year 76 is said to work together with his work in 106! Somehow, the faith that caused Abraham to be declared righteous in 76 and to be called God's friend worked together with an event thirty years in the future.

Well ... how do we know that James is talking about the faith in year 76? Perhaps he meant Abraham's continuing faith, so that at the moment of near-sacrifice, his faith and actions were working together? That would certainly be a more reasonable statement of events: that the faith and the works both occurred in 106.

But three facts rule out this interpretation of James.

(1) James explicitly states that the faith that was completed is that mentioned in Genesis 15, year 76.

(2) The outcome of that faith, according to James, is that Abraham was called "God's friend." Yet, Abraham's covenantal relationship with God begins in year 76. It is certainly not the case that Abraham was something other than God's friend between 76-106! It is certainly not the case that Abraham changed or improved his status with God on Mount Moriah. In fact, Genesis 22.15-18 is a reaffirmation of the covenant promises made in Genesis 15; this is further evidence that Abraham's action in Genesis 22 completed the faith in Genesis 15. Here it is worth considering that God was "testing" Abraham (Gen. 22.1) on Mount Moriah. The outcome of that test was already known, but its function was to confirm the covenant relationship between Abraham and God. No additional justification is said to take place in Genesis 22; rather, Abraham's action fulfills his faith.

(3) James' overall thesis is that saving faith is a faith accompanied by works. The faith that saves Abraham begins in Genesis 15; yet the work cited by James occurs three decades later. It is unthinkable that Abraham's faith was "worthless" and non-salvific prior to year 106. It must instead be the case that the faith in 76 is salvific because it *is* accompanied by works; specifically, the work on Mount Moriah in 106.

What can we say then? James, in the mode of wisdom writers, is creating a paradox. Abraham's faith in 76 is working together with his actions in 106 to produce a living, salvific faith.

What is the point of the paradox, then? What wisdom are we to learn from it? How do we untangle the puzzle?

Several options need to be eliminated here. First, many Protestant commentators will assert that James is speaking of justification before men (by means of outward actions), whereas Paul is speaking of justification before God (by means of faith). While this approach is plausible if one emphasizes v. 18 in isolation, it is clear here that Abraham is not being justified before men. For one thing, the only "man" who knows of Abraham's deed is Isaac. Additionally, Genesis 22 explicitly notes that God is "testing" Abraham; this rules out some demonstration before men. And finally, James' overall point is clear: a faith without works is not a saving faith. James is talking about deliverance from God's wrath (v. 19), not vindication before men.

Second, Catholic commentators will cite this as an example of "initial justification" and "subsequent justification." In this view, God creates righteousness in us at initial justification, but that righteousness is tarnished by sin. As a result, subsequent receptions of righteousness (through the sacraments) are needed in order to be righteous.

The problem here is three-fold. (a) There is no indication in the texts of Genesis or James that his work of sacrificing Isaac restored some lost righteousness; nor was it a sacramental act. (b) There is also no indication that James views this as a subsequent justification. Rather, he declares the action as a completion of the faith, uniting both in a single act of justification. (c) Subsequent justification would be a significant tangent in an otherwise tight, disciplined argument. James' thesis, reaffirmed with regard to Abraham in v. 20, is that "faith without works is worthless", not that "works finish what faith started."

A more recent solution has come to my attention, that of Rich Lusk. According to Lusk2, there are various justifying acts throughout the life of a believer. Citing Calvin at points, Lusk argues that we need continual forgiveness of our sins, and that the justification that James speaks of is a subsequent justification.

I would dispute that James means this, for the reasons given above. It seems clear to me that James is unifying the act with the faith; one completes the other. Rather than two acts of justification, there is only one.

It seems much better to read 21-23 thus: saving faith justifies. But saving faith itself will grow and will of necessity mature into the fruit of works. From this perspective, there is a unity between faith and works. We might pause to consider here the images that Jesus used to describe real, saving faith: trees that bear good fruit, wheat as opposed to tares, vines that bear fruit, plants in good soil that bear fruit. James learned this way of thinking from his brother!

And so he expresses the unity of faith and works in a rhetorical hyperbole: "the works do the justifying." And in his example, the works justify "pre-facto" -- Abraham is justified in year 76 by a work he did in year 106.

James' outrageous, mind-bending claim is the clue: James is being rhetorical. He doesn't literally mean that the works justify. He doesn't mean that Abraham was declared righteous once and then was made righteous in a different way thirty years later.

Instead, he wants his readers to be impressed with the indivisibility of faith and works. The works "justify" in the sense that without them, the faith does not justify.

Fourth Argument

Rahab (v 25) now serves as a test case for our reading. What does James say? That Rahab was "justified by works" when she received the spies and sent them off the other way. When we compare James now to Hebrews 11.31, we find that the same action is described as the "faith" of Rahab. It's not that she received two different types of justification here. Rather, she was justified by her faith that was completed by her works. Here again there is a unity of faith and action.


What can we say about James' message? James is trying to impress on his readers that faith cannot in any way be apart from works. To do so, he uses a variety of arguments, including a rhetorical re-analysis of Abraham that deliberately flouts the language of Paul and outrageously attributes Abraham's justification to a work committed thirty years in the future. All of this is an attempt to get at one truth: Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

The next post will examine the relationship of James to Romans 4, Ephesians 2, and various systematic concerns.


1Some would limit the works under discussion in Romans 4 to "works of the law" to make room for James at this point. Such a limitation is not warranted, since there was no Law at the time of Abraham and therefore Paul's discussion of circumcision would be nonsensical under such a limitation. But neither is the limitation necessary, as is shown above.

2 Lusk, The Tenses of Justification. Lusk has also graciously interacted with me on this point, with discussion found here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Faith fulfilled by works (Part I)

James 2.14-26 clearly teaches that a saving faith is a working faith. It has long been a passage of debate because it presents such an apparently different take from Paul on the role of works in justification. The next couple of posts will seek to explore this crucial passage, attempting a close reading to understand what James is saying and then connecting it to the Pauline doctrine of justification. This post presents background information, a translation of the passage, and analysis of its structure; the next provides exegesis; and the last compares James to Paul.

The author is "James, the servant of the Lord." Carson et. al. walk through possible Jameses and conclude that the best fit is James, the half-brother of Jesus on the grounds that the epistle shows linguistic similarities to James' speech in Acts 15 and that the other candidates are either too obscure or else died too early (CMM, An Introduction to the New Testament 410-413).

I agree, and would add this: The writer of this epistle could easily have spent significant time with Jesus. He seems to be familiar with Jesus' teachings in a way that does not simply parrot the gospels (4.11-12; 5.2,12), and he also shows similarities in his use of imagery and in his analysis to Jesus' teachings and interactions (compare for example Jas. 4.13-17 to Luke 12.15-21, or Jas. 4.4 to Matt. 6.24). I would estimate that James has more allusions per verse to Jesus' teachings than any other of the NT epistles.

The date is contested. Many would give it a date in the 40s; CMM takes this approach (414) on the supposition that James is reacting to a distorted form of Pauline teaching without having the benefit of having spoken to Paul directly. This is plausible, but so is the argument that James is writing at a time when there are Christians scattered far abroad, and when enough time has elapsed for Paul's teachings to become distorted. Such reasoning would place James in the late 50s, with a terminus ad quem in 62, when (as Josephus records), James was killed. I prefer the later date, but it makes little difference.

What seems beyond doubt is this: James 2.14-26, by its concern over "faith apart from works" and by its choice of Abraham as an example, seems familiar with a basic argument of Pauline theology. He is in some way countering teaching that was current within the churches, and this teaching bears the unmistakable echoes of Romans 4, though it was clearly a distortion of Paul's gospel. This point will be important for connecting the message of James together with the message of Paul.

The other crucial preliminary is that James is a New Testament example of wisdom literature. That is, James is written in the mode of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, conveying truth by means of practical advice and certain unmistakable literary techniques.

James' advice echoes that of Proverbs. The topics of wisdom (1.5), the tongue (1.19-27; ch. 3), and wealth (2.1-9; 5.1-7) are prominent. Likewise, James makes use of the "wisdom" literary techniques: strong imagery (3.6-8 and 5.2, e.g.), paradox (1.2; 1.10-11; 2.13; 4.11), hyperbole (4.9), and riddle (2.10; 3.11-12) are all part of his method.

Of these, the riddle is most important for our passage. In Proverbs, truth is often expressed in terms of a riddle; wisdom comes from figuring out the meaning of the riddle (e.g., Prov. 14.4). As we shall see, James 2.14-26 contains a riddle that must be puzzled out.

The text itself is found here:

James 2.14-26 in Greek, NASB, and ESV

My own translation, which attempts to capture some of the word play involved:

14 What's it worth, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith, but has no works? Such faith is not able to save, is it? 15 If a brother or a sister are naked and lacking in the daily necessities, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warm and satisfied", but does not give to them the necessities of the body, what's it worth? 17 Thus also faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself. 18 But if someone says, "You have faith, and I have works" – show me your faith without the works and by my works I will show you my faith. 19 "You believe that God is one." Nicely done. The demons also believe – and tremble. 20 Do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is worthless? 21 Abraham our father, was he not justified by works after he gave up Isaac his son upon the altar? 22 You see, the faith worked together with his works, and the works completed the faith. 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled, the one that said, "And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness", and he was called "God's friend." 24 You see, by works a man is justified, and not solely by faith. 25 Likewise also, Rahab the prostitute, was she not justified by works after receiving the messengers and sending them off in a different direction? 26 Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

Here, I've made some translation decisions that need justifying.

In v. 18, I take James to be quoting a possible objection, and then responding to it. Hence, the quoted objection should end at 18a, with James' response in 18b.

In v. 19, the second half appears to be a sarcastic response to the first; I take it to be parallel in structure to v. 18.

Verse 24 the major Protestant translations translate as "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone", which is a faithful literal translation. It suffers from the disadvantage of leaving the door open to the reading "By works, you see that a man is justified...", which some commentators have taken. As shall be argued later, this is not a possible reading. Most telling at the translation level is that v. 22 and v. 24 have the same sentence structure, and in v 22, the οτι clearly extends to the end of the sentence. Hence, I've tried to render the two verses in parallel ways.

Also, the verbs βλεπεις (22) and ορατε (24) are not perfectly parallel, and they are technically in the indicative mood (the first for certain; the second by extension). Nevertheless, the sense in English is the language of proof: "You see that..." (drawing on the question in v 20). Hence, I've rendered them both in a colloquial "You see, ...", which lingers somewhere between the indicative and imperative.

Finally, the structure of this passage is fairly clear:

  • thesis: faith without works cannot save (14)
  • argument by analogy (15-16)
  • restatement of thesis (17)
  • objections answered (18-19)
  • restatement of thesis (20)
  • example of Abraham (21-23)
  • restatement of thesis (24)
  • example of Rahab (25)
  • summary restatement of thesis (26)

The thesis, "faith without works cannot save", is restated in various ways as a kind of chorus. It develops throughout this section into "faith without works is dead", a strong expression of the fact that a worksless faith is not a saving faith.