Monday, October 27, 2014

Faith That Works

Part 1 of Faith and Works

Text: Romans 3:28 and James 2:24

You can listen to this sermon here.

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:28). You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24). 

A Contradiction?

Someone once famously described the epistle of James as an “epistle of straw.” [1] Do you know who it was? It was Martin Luther, the man whom many historians see as the Father of the Protestant Reformation.

Why did Luther have a low opinion of the epistle of James? One of the slogans of the Reformation was sola fide, which is a Latin phrase that means “by faith alone.” And Luther thought that James 2:14-26 contradicted the doctrine of justification by faith alone (seen most clearly in the writings of Paul).

Does James contradict Paul? The supposed contraction is seen most clearly when comparing Romans 3:28 and James 2:24. Luther even added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28 in his German translation of the Bible.
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:28). 
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24). 
It’s easy to see why people think that Romans 3:28 and James 2:24 are contradictory, but my view is that they are actually complementary.

Why does this matter? First, if there are contradictions in the Bible, our trust in what it says will be lowered. Second, there is nothing more important for us to understand than how to be justified. 

Complementary, Not Contradictory

How can Romans 3:28 and James 3:24 be complementary, not contradictory?

1. Paul and James use the word “justified” differently. 

In Romans 3:28, to be “justified” means to be declared righteous by God through faith (a past event). Our acceptance with God is not based on what we have done but on what Christ has done on the cross. In James 2:24, to be “justified” means to demonstrate righteousness through works (a present activity). James was probably responding to a distortion of Paul’s teaching on justification (which Paul also confronts in Romans 6). [2] David Nystrom writes, “Between James and Paul there is no disagreement of substance, but only of vocabulary and emphasis.” [3]

2. Paul and James agree on the necessity of works for the believer. 

James writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (2:14). “That faith” refers to bogus faith, not biblical faith. “James is not arguing that works must be added to faith. His point, rather, is that genuine biblical faith will inevitably be characterized by works.” [4] Paul wouldn’t disagree. He refers to “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5). He writes, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6). And he states, “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2).

A Working Faith

In verses 15-16, James presents a hypothetical situation: “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?” James comments, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (v. 17). Workless faith resembles the “worthless” religion of James 1:26-27.

Genuine faith results in good works.

“Works are not an ‘added extra’ to faith, but are an essential expression of it.” [5] The epistle of James was not Martin Luther’s favourite book of the Bible, but he actually did agree with James about genuine faith: “Faith…is a living, restless thing. It cannot be inoperative. We are not saved by works; but if there be no works, there must be something amiss with faith.” [6]

[1] This quote only appears in Luther’s original 1522 Preface to the New Testament. After 1522, all editions of Luther’s Bible dropped the ‘epistle of straw’ comment.... It was Luther himself who edited [this] comment out” (James Swan, “Six Points on Luther’s ‘Epistle of Straw,’”
[2] James probably wrote his epistle before Paul wrote Romans, which would mean that James was not commenting on Romans 3:28.
[3] David P. Nystrom, James, 160.
[4] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, 120.
[5] Peter H. Davids, The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 121.
[6] Ronald H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, 259.