Rebuilding the Foundations
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One of the more important things to me, in light of all the division and competing doctrines today, is being able to say exactly what the Bible says. I am NOT saying that we can ONLY use biblical wording, far from it. I am saying. that if there is biblical wording that we are afraid to say, then we have a problem.
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What led me to this conclusion was reading Romans 2:6 (and v. 7 even more so) when I was a young Christian. I was saved in an Assembly of God church that did not believe in eternal security, but it did emphasize salvation by faith alone, as most evangelicals do. Since we all thought that the word "saved" in Ephesians 2:8 and Romans 3:28 included going to heaven by faith only, Romans 2:6 puzzled me. I wrote the verse in the back of my Bible, added others like it, and puzzled over them for six years.
In the late 80's, I opened a book in a bookstore that said Martin Luther invented the idea of salvation by faith alone. I scoffed, but then went looking for the phrase in my Bible. I soon found the only occurrence of "faith only" in the Bible is James' statement that we are NOT justified by faith only.
As I puzzled over this, I realized that "faith apart from works" is awful close to "faith only." It would surely be acceptable to say that the Bible says we are saved by faith alone on the basis of the several references to "faith without works" (Rom. 3:28; 11:6; Eph. 2:8, Tit. 3:5). On the other hand, we evangelicals say "faith alone" over and over and fight for it with all our might. Yet James dismisses it casually. Something was amiss!
I just did not know what!
I determined that I need to believe justification by "faith apart from works" AND justification "by works and not faith only." If the Bible does not contradict itself, then there must be an explanation how both could be true.
The next step, in 1990, was finding Polycarp's letter to the Philippians. I about danced when I read a quote of Ephesians 2:8 in chapter 1 and "God will raise us up with Christ if we do his will and keep his commandments" in chapter 2. I still did not understand how to resolve the contradiction between verses like Romans 3:28 and verses like James 2:24, but obviously Polycarp did! Polycarp must understand what would cause Paul to write Ephesians 2:8-9 AND Ephesians 5:5-7. If he did, I figured his contemporaries did too. Surely I would find the answer as I read through the early church fathers.
To this day, I don't know if any early Christians carefully explain it, but in 1992, as I was re-reading the anonymous letter to Diognetus, I ran across the line, "having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able" (ch. 9), and revelation came flowing in. The answer was obvious, hidden right in plain sight.
Jesus did not die to get rid of the judgment according to works. He died to make it possible for us to face a judgment according to works and not be found wanting, but instead to be found righteous, blameless, and holy. What was once impossible for us, to be able to enter into the kingdom of God, he made possible. As Romans 8:3 says, "What the Law COULD NOT DO, God DID." There is no law that can produce righteous people, but Jesus died to produce people who, IF they walk by the Spirit rather than the flesh, will fulfill the righteous requirement of the law.
What I missed, despite how obvious it is, was that EVERY "no works" verse in the writings of Paul is in the past tense. We "were" saved apart from works. In other words, we were born again, filled with the Holy Spirit, made into new creatures, given membership in the kingdom of God's beloved Son, and made inheritors of the promises of God all by faith that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God (Jn. 20:31 & Rom. 10:9-10). Nonetheless, to enter the kingdom of heaven after the judgment requires that we truly "sow to the Spirit" (Gal. 6:7-9), "by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body" (Rom. 8:12-13), and produce the fruit of the Spirit rather than the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-24).
Thus, I found my answer to the conflict between Romans 3:28 and James 2:24. Paul is saying that we were, past tense, born again and made new creatures by faith apart from works, and James is saying that the whole context of our faith—past, present, and the future judgment(see context, James 2:14-24)—requires both faith to be empowered by the new birth and works to face the judgment.
The wording of James 2:24 and Romans 2:6-7 troubled me for six years, but sticking to those words of God allowed me to come to revelation after those six years. Thus, I hate it when evangelicals want to put words in James mouth and change the word of God. Many say James 2:24 means "we are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone," but that is not what he said. It is a great danger to change the words of Scripture.
After hearing the tradition that going to heaven has nothing to do with works all their Christian life, most evangelicals completely freak out when they hear a teaching like this. Here are a couple important notes.
Evangelicals teach that we must be perfectly sinless to pass the judgment. This is based on one out-of-context verse in James (2:10). Throughout the Bible, God has always rewarded a general pattern of righteousness, and this is discussed in 1 John 3:7-10. (Make sure to read that passage in the New American Standard Bible that. For some reason it is one of the only translations to take into account the Greek verb tenses.) I talk about this more fully in Rebuilding the Foundations, chapter 7.
Let me add that we are to appear before the judgment seat of Christ blameless, but that blamelessness comes from the fact that those who walk in the light are continually cleansed by the blood of Christ (1 Jn. 1:7-2:2). We do receive a perfect imputed righteousness from the Lord, but that righteousness is only promised to those who practice righteousness themselves. John tells us not to be deceived about that (1 Jn. 3:7).
"Works" is almost a cuss word in some evangelical churches, needing to be instantly corrected with a reference to faith only every time it is brought up. (Thank God this is changing in the internet age.) As a result, all sorts of picture leap into the evangelical mind when they are told to be zealous for good works (Tit. 2:13-14).
We must remember that the only way to please God is to walk in the Spirit (Rom. 8:1-16; Gal. 5:16-23). Since Martin Luther, evangelicals have read Paul's letters as contrasting faith and works, when in fact he is primarily contrasting the power of the Spirit with the works of the flesh.
For example, in Galatians 3:5, Paul writes, "Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?" The issue is not that they were working to become perfect, the problem is that they were trying to do so by the flesh (using the Law of Moses). They were to do good works. In fact, Paul soon commands them not to grow weary in doing good so that they can reap eternal life (Gal. 6:9); however, this is to be done by the Spirit, not by the flesh.
Finally, if you need a solid definition of good works. there is a very brief one and a lengthy one. See James 1:26-27 and Matthew chapters 5-7. Since I included James 1:26, you better go on to read James 3 so that you can know that no one can bridle the tongue (apart from the power of the Spirit) and that it is okay that we all stumble.
May God grant that this is helpful and grant that it overthrows our fear of believing that works are necessare to enter the kingdom of God (e.g., Rom. 2:6-7; Gal. 5:19-21; 6:7-9; Eph. 5:5-7; 2 Pet. 1:3-11).