Friday, December 10, 2010

Did James Teach Salvation By Works? (Part I)

As an Evangelical Christian, I firmly believe that sinners are saved (justified or made right with God) as a free gift through faith alone in Jesus Christ. The Bible is crystal clear in affirming this doctrine:
"However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:..." (Rom. 4:5-6, NIV-UK)
"...he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,.." (Tit. 3:5, NIV-UK)
(See also: Jn. 1:12, 3:15-18, 36, 5:24, 6:27-29, 40, 47, 11:25-26, 40, 20:31; Acts 10:43, 13:39, 15:9-11, 16:30-31, 26:18; Rom. 1:16-17, 3:22-28; 4:1-4, 16, 24, 5:1, 9:30-33, 10:4, 9-11, 11:5; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 2:16, 3:6, 8-11, 22, 24-26, 5:6;  Eph. 2:8-10, 3:12, 17; Php. 3:9; 1 Tim. 4:10; Heb. 4:3, 11:6; Jm. 2:23; 1 Jn. 5:1, 12-13; 1 Pet. 1:9)

If we are to pursue working our way to heaven, we need to be completely sinless in God's sight for us to be saved. The Bible explicitly tells us that "nothing impure will ever enter" God's kingdom (Rev. 21:27, NIV; cf. Rom. 2:7; Mat. 5:48). Why? Because God is a just and holy God. His eyes "are too pure to look on evil" (Hab. 1:13). Being just and holy, He will not let any sin go unpunished (Rom. 6:23). 

The question now is whether our works (good deeds) would be enough for us to attain the perfection that God requires. The answer, obviously, is NO because: "Everyone has sinned and fallen short of God's glorious standard" (Rom. 3:23, NCV; cf. Ec. 7:20). King David realized this and wrote in his psalm: "If you, LORD, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?" (Psa. 130:3, NIV; cf. 143:2). In other words, no one can be saved by doing good or by obeying God's precepts (Rom. 3:20). It is through faith in Christ that sinners are made right with God on the sole basis of Christ's atoning death and perfect obedience to God's law (Mat. 5:17; Rom. 3:24-25, 5:19, 10:4; Gal. 4:4-5; 2 Cor. 5:21). This doctrine is widely known as Sola Fide (Latin meaning "faith only").

However, opponents of the Evangelical faith (who believe we can be saved by our own efforts) will quote James 2:14-24 to try and refute this doctrine. From this passage they conclude that faith is not sufficient to save sinners unless coupled with works. They put emphasis on verse 24 which says:
"You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone." (NIV)
As Christians we are bound to believe that the Bible, in so far as it is divinely inspired (2 Tim. 3:15-16), never contradicts itself. That being said, the idea that James 2:14-24 teaches salvation by works must be immediately repudiated as we have already shown above how the Bible affirms overwhelmingly that we are saved through faith alone in Christ. The key to a correct understanding and sound interpretation of this passage in James must be sought from an honest exegetical examination of the passages in question.

What James is really up to

The apostle is not discussing how to attain salvation, but he is addressing the problem of people who falsely profess to have faith (and thereby claims they are saved). In verse 14 we read:
"What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?" (NIV)
These people (who are most likely Jewish converts to Christianity) profess to have faith but their claim is not supported by concrete evidence in their works. The apostle asked them a very important question, "Can such faith save him?" The answer is obviously negative: such faith won't save anybody. Why not? Because such faith is nothing more than a mere confession of faith or "mental assent" over theological facts as we can see in verse 19:
"You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder." (NIV)
Can you imagine how the Jewish Christians reacted when they read these words? When they saw the words, "You believe that there is one God," they might have immediately recalled Moses' proclamation in Deut. 6, "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!" That was foundational! James says, however, that having a good theology is in itself unprofitable because even the demons believe, and shudder. The demons know the truth, and perhaps have a far better theology than all of us combined. But are they saved? No.

Paul wrote: "For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” (Rom. 10:10-11). Saving faith is not merely assenting to the truths of God, but it primarily involves a wholehearted trust in Jesus Christ alone for Salvation (Psa. 37:5-6). Unlike the kind of faith which James criticizes in his letter, saving faith is living and active; it produces good works! (Eph. 2:10;1 Thes. 1:3). Thus, a true believer of the Gospel, being a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), is expected to exhibit outward manifestations of his saving faith through his works (Gal. 5:6).

Some have argued that James taught that faith dies (or ceases to be genuine) with the absence of works, or that we should work in order for us to have a living (saving) faith when he said: "faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (Jm. 2:17, NKJV). But this is not what he was trying to say! The Greek word used for "dead" is nekros, which always denotes uselessness, insensitivity, and inability like that of a rotten corpse. It is the same word used in Rom. 4:19 to describe Abraham and Sarah's inability to bear a child. Now it would sound completely absurd to say that the couple became barren because they don't bear children when it is the other way around. Correspondingly, you don't tell dead people in the cemetery to get up on their knees and work their fingers to the bone so that they could once again live! That's absurd.

James, therefore, is simply telling us that dead faith is recognized by its lack of works for "a tree is known by its fruits" (Mat. 12:33). It is not the vitality or existence of saving faith which depends upon good works; it is the converse. True believers do good works because they have a genuine, living faith in Christ.

(End of part I. Click here to read the second part)


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