Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Faith and Works

Part 11 of Romans: The Gospel of God

Text: Romans 4:1-8



For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). 


A Contradiction?

There appears to be a contradiction between Romans 4 and James 2 regarding how Abraham was justified. Paul says that Abraham was justified by faith. James says that Abraham was justified by works.

  • “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted [1] as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). 
  • “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” (James 2:21). 
Do Paul and James contradict each other? Are we justified by faith or works? These questions are not just for theologians to debate. These questions affect our belief in the trustworthiness of the Bible and our understanding of how we can be justified. What’s more important than that?


Making Sense of Paul and James

In order to properly understand what Paul and James are saying about justification, faith, and works, we need to know two things.

First, we need to know the chronology of Abraham’s life. The story of Abraham begins with God giving Abraham an amazing promise: “I will make of you a great nation” (Gen. 12:2). The only problem is that Abraham is seventy-five years old (Gen. 12:4) and his wife Sarah is barren (Gen. 11:30).

Some time later, God repeats his promise to Abraham, “Look up at the sky and count the stars.” Then God tells Abraham, “So shall your offspring be” (Gen. 15:5) What is Abraham’s reaction to God’s promise? Does he doubt or believe? Genesis 15:6 tells us, Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”

More time passes. And just when it looks like Abraham and Sarah will never have a son, God’s promise is fulfilled. They name their long-awaited boy Isaac (Gen. 21:1-3).

Years later, Abraham’s story takes an unexpected twist. God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and sacrifice him as an offering” (Gen. 22:2, paraphrase). The next day, Abraham takes his son to the place God had told him to go. He places Isaac on the altar and takes out his knife to kill his son. But suddenly, an angel calls out to Abraham: “Do not lay your hand on the body or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son” (Gen. 22:12). [2]

Both Paul and James quote Genesis 15:6. Paul quotes that verse to show that Abraham was justified by faith. James points to the story of Abraham’s willingness to offer up Isaac on the altar as proof that Abraham was justified by works. Which came first? Abraham’s faith or his obedience? Abraham was justified by faith before he was justified by works. But what does that mean?

Second, we need to know that “faith” and “justify” don’t always have the same meaning. “Faith” in the Bible does not always refer to saving faith. James writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (v. 14). In this verse, James is referring to a certain kind of faith—a faith he describes as “dead” (vv. 17, 26) and “useless” (v. 20). It’s a faith of words but not deeds. [3]

When Paul writes that Abraham was “justified by faith,” he’s referring to Abraham’s initial justification (declared righteous by God through faith). But when James writes that Abraham was “justified by works,” he’s referring to a present justification (shown to be righteous through works). [4] Jesus used “justified” in the same way that James does: “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:37; cf. 11:19).


Justified by Faith or Works?

Are we justified by faith or works? Both. Huh? Justification isn’t the only things that happens when we put our trust in Jesus. We are also given the Holy Spirit who begins the work of transforming us (i.e., putting within us love for God and others). If we have been justified by faith, we will show evidence of our justification by our works. In Galatians 5:6 Paul says that what matters most is “faith working through love” (“faith expressing itself through love,” NIV).

Paul and James don’t contradict each other; James is refuting an abuse of Paul’s teaching. What James writes is a response to people who were saying, “We have faith. Don’t bother us about how we should live.” This could be why James says what he does in vv. 15-17 (see also 2:1-4, 8-9; 3:8-11). Our love for God and others (or lack thereof) is a good test of the genuineness of our faith.

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[1] To “count” (logizomai) means “to ‘credit’ or ‘reckon’, and when used in a financial or commercial context, it signifies to put something to somebody’s account, as when Paul wrote to Philemon about Onesimus: ‘If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.’ There are, however, two different ways in which money can be credited to our account, namely as wages (which are earned) or as a gift (which is free and unearned), and the two are necessarily incompatible” (John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans, p. 125).
[2] Skeptics often claim that it would be immoral for God to tell Abraham to kill his son. However, God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac was a test of faith (Gen. 22:1) that resulted in a promise of divine blessing for Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 22:15-18) and foreshadowed God’s gracious sacrifice of his only Son. Isaac’s life was spared, God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32).
[3] John 6:66 mentions that “many of [Jesus’] disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” John 12:42-43 says that “many even of the authorities believed in [Jesus], but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” These are two examples of people who possessed faith that did not save.
[4] “James 2:21, 24, and 25 are the only verses in James that contain forms of the verb ‘justify’...; in each case, the term means to ‘show to be righteous.’ Thus [Abraham was] shown, in history, to be righteous by [his] actions, giving proof of [his] prior spiritual state (cf. Ge 22:12, with its ‘now I know’)” (Craig L. Blomberg, Miriam J. Kamell, James, p. 136).