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.



Toby said...

Hey Jeff! (I really want to call you "Mr. Cagle")

This is Toby Sumpter from Chapelgate days and husband of Jenny (formerly Jackson). I've been catching your comments here and there out on the blogosphere and just wanted to say hello!

God bless!


Jeff Cagle said...

Hey Toby,

I've been thinking about you. Hope things are well. I understand you're moving towards ordination?

Jeff Cagle

Toby said...

Yes. I was just examined at presbytery in October (and passed).

The ordination service is being planned for Nov. 30th. We're very thankful.

Perhaps you've heard, but Jenny is expecting twins!

Hope you and your family are well.

Travis said...


I will be reading your three posts shortly but thought I could impose upon you for a moment. Since your posts are on James 2, I thought I'd send you my text for an ordination sermon (that was rejected). What do you think?
Christ is a Verb


Jeff Cagle said...

I'm sorry to hear it was rejected. What did your examiners say?

If I were to be your editor (I'm only saying because you asked), I would encourage you to preach on a single passage rather than the whole book. It's really hard to speak to an entire book and do it justice.

And then, I would also encourage you to nuance the notion of "doing Christ" by explaining the mechanism: that we "do Christ" in the power of the Spirit, through faith. That nuance helps mute a strong overtone of legalism that one can naturally read into James ... as did Luther.

I hope that's helpful; it's a little uncomfortable for me to be making comments about someone else's sermons! :)

Grace and peace,

J.P. Carrico said...

Thanks for the (non-Enlightenment) enlightening. Confounding as total justification is, it also is comforting.

Travis said...

The sermon was from the 2.14f text. It's just that in preparation for it, that's where I felt the Lord leading my presentation: to cover the whole point of the letter (encapsulated in vv14ff). My first sermon from Ps 119.1-8 was rejected as well. You can listen to this one if you'd like.
My examiners weren't very helpful in the criticism area. Their main retort was, "You don't know the Reformed doctrine of grace." That's about it.

Jeff Cagle said...

Hmph. Got a "no files to download" message. Dunno what that means ... whether I need login credentials, or what.


Travis said...

try this, Jeff.