Rebuilding the Foundations
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It is obvious, I assume, that if we enter the kingdom of heaven by faith alone, then the 25,000 words I used to carefully construct a foundational doctrine of Christianity was a waste of my time and yours. Fortunately, I can find a hint in the Bible that I have not wasted my words. The only occurrence in the Bible of the term "faith alone" is James 2:24, which says "not by faith alone" (NIV).
On the other hand, there are passages which tell us that salvation and justification are "apart from works" (Rom. 3:28) or "not of works" (Eph. 2:9).
Where then is the boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Rom. 3:28)
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we would walk in them. (Eph. 2:8-10)
We have already addressed this second passage, but only the part about being re-created in Christ Jesus to do good works. The first part, though, says we are saved by grace and not works. Further, both these passages say that salvation apart from works is what keeps us from boasting. How then can all the things I have been writing be true?
Of course, the corresponding question is: how can all the things we have looked at in the first six chapters be false? We did not play with Scripture. We did not twist any verses. We simply read what they said and drew clear, logical conclusions from them. Now we are looking at verses that, seemingly, directly contradict everything we have been learning?
Don't fault yourself for struggling with the contrast. Martin Luther thought James 2:24 ("not by faith alone") and Romans 3:28 ("by faith apart from works") were so impossible to reconcile that he offered his doctor's cap (the sign of his academic doctorate) to anyone who could reconcile them. Many of my friends have tried to reconcile these two verses by pointing out that Romans 3:28 does not only say we are justified "by faith apart from works"; it specifies "apart from the works of the Law (of Moses)." That argument falls apart at Ephesians 2:9, however, which does not add "of the Law" to "not of works."
The answer is actually simple, though it is not easily noticeable. I only found it because I became a reader of the early church fathers. The first thing I found was the same sort of contradicting statements in a letter from the bishop of the church in Smyrna to the church in Philippi, written sometime during the first half of the second century. The bishop of Smyrna at that time was Polycarp, whom scholars believe to have been appointed by the apostle John. He was later martyred for the faith. His credentials are as strong as any person's outside the apostles.
In his letter, in the first paragraph, he wrote:
The strong root of your faith, spoken of in days long gone by, endures even until now and brings forth fruit to our Lord Jesus Christ, who for our sins suffered even to death … in whom, though now you do not see him, you believe, and believing, rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory. Into this joy many desire to enter, knowing that by grace you are saved, not of works, but by the will of God through Jesus Christ. (Letter to the Philippians, ch. 1)
Clearly Polycarp understood and agreed with Ephesians 2:8-9. He both quoted it and said that it makes us "rejoice with joy unspeakable." But in the second paragraph, he wrote:
He who raised [Jesus] up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do his will, walk in his commandments, love what he loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness, covetousness, love of money, evil speaking, false witness, not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing … (Letter to the Philippian, ch. 2)
The first time I read this, I was very excited. While I still did not know why Paul wrote both Ephesians 2:8-9, which says we are saved by faith and not of works, and Ephesians 5:5, which says that immoral and unclean people have no inheritance in God's kingdom, I was certain that Polycarp did know. He wrote the same sort of contradictory statements without out any thought that they might be contradictory. If Polycarp knew, then maybe all his contemporaries knew as well.
Later, I ran across the anonymous letter to Diognetus that was written about the same time period. That letter contains this passage:
As long then as the former time [i.e., the Old Testament] endured, [God] permitted us to be borne along by unruly impulses, being drawn away by the desire of pleasure and various lusts. This was not that he at all delighted in our sins, but that he simply endured them. Nor did he approve of the time of working iniquity that then was, but he sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be vouchsafed to us. And having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able. (Letter to Diognetus, ch. 9, brackets mine)
It was as I was reading this paragraph, not for the first time, that the answer instantly struck me. Mind you, I had been mulling over the contrast between Ephesians 2:8-9 and Ephesians 5:5 for about six years. It had been two years since I had first read Polycarp's letter. There was a lot of waiting, a lot of praying, and a lot of rejecting insufficient answers before God let me see something that is obvious when you realize it but, apparently, quite hidden when you don't.
Ephesians 2:8-9 and the first chapter of Polycarp's letter are about the past. Ephesians 5:5 and the second chapter of Polycarp's letter are about the future.
We were (past tense) born again, saved, and brought to life in Christ by faith apart from works, so that no one can boast. In the future, on the last day, however, it is our works which will be judged. If we are immoral or unclean, or if we do not keep his commandments and do his will, we will not—future tense—be raised up with Christ, and we will not have any inheritance in his kingdom.
The thing I saw in the Letter to Diognetus was that our problem is that we were—past tense—unable to enter the kingdom of God, and the solution God offered was to make us able. This helped me to see that Romans 2:6, which I had also been puzzling over for six years as well, was what we had to look forward to—future tense. We need those works we patiently did throughout our lifetime in order to receive eternal life at the judgment. We are incapable of them, so God had to make us able.
Thus, Romans 8:1-4 expresses the solution. By Jesus' death, God takes all condemnation away (8:1), and we get to start over. God takes us out of the law of sin and death that Paul described in Romans 7, and he puts us under the "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus" (8:2). He then empowers us in a way that no law could ever empower us (Gal. 3:21), so that those who walk by the Spirit will fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law (Rom. 8:3-4). So then, what was impossible for the natural or Old Covenant person in Romans 2:6 is simply normal life for those empowered by and sowing to the Spirit, as described in Galatians 6:8-9.
This took care of all the passages in Paul's writings and Peter's. For example, in 2 Peter 1:3-11, verses 3 and 4 tell us what has already happened to us by faith:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and virtue; by which he has granted to us his precious and exceedingly great promises; that through these you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world by lust.
Notice all the things God gave to us by faith that Peter describes in this passage. We have everything we need for life and godliness; we know God; we have great and precious promises, and we have escaped the corruption that is in the world because of lust. Because of these wonderful promises, we can become partakers of his divine nature.
Peter then teaches us to "add to" our faith. You may have heard as often as I have that we cannot add to our faith. Peter never heard that evangelical tradition. He commanded us to add to our faith. Because of all those things that we already have—past tense—in verses 3-4, we have the ability to add to what our faith has obtained. If we do so, we will not be unfruitful in our faith (v.8), we can make our calling and election sure (v. 10), and we will be—future tense—richly supplied with an entrance into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In Paul's letter to the Galatians, we see something similar. In the past tense, the Galatians began in the Spirit (3:3), in the present tense God is supplying the Spirit to them (3:4), and if they want to inherit the Kingdom of God in the future, they need to walk in the Spirit and avoid the works of the flesh (5:19-21).
Paul even wrote a very important passage distinguishing between the past and future tense of our salvation:
Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we will be saved by his life. (Rom. 5:9-10)
Notice the tenses in this passage. In the past tense, we are justified by his blood and reconciled by his death. In the future tense, we are saved from God's wrath through him and through his life. This is a reference to the fact that we live our life here on earth by faith in Christ and by the power of the Spirit. Paul described this in Galatians 2:20 where he wrote:
I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me. That life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me.
His death and his blood have brought us—past tense—into justification and have reconciled us to God. We then live by his life and do the good works that God has created us in King Jesus to do (Eph. 2:10). In this way, his life will save us from God's wrath.
All of this precludes boasting, even with a judgment awaiting us that is according works. It is Jesus' life that saves us. As the Apostle Paul put it to the Corinthians, "What do you have that you didn't receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had received it? (4:7). We do not boast because we made use of the amazing gifts and promises that God supplied us with. Even though doing good makes us worthy (Rev. 3:4), there can be no boasting involved because it is the Spirit of God, Christ's life in us, that enables all of us to keep our garments undefiled.
This past tense faith, future tense works pattern is consistent in the writings of all the apostles except John. The Apostle John is a very interesting exception to this rule, and we must therefore give special attention to his writings.
The Apostle John's writings seem like an exception to everything I have written in this book. On the other hand, John's writings are unique from everyone's perspective. John quoted Jesus as saying, "He who believes in me has eternal life" (Jn. 6:47), then wrote, "This is how we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments" (1 Jn. 2:3). In addition, while he repeated "He who believes in the Son has eternal life" in John 3:36, he followed it with "he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him" (v. 36b).
To deal with the apostle John's black and white letter (1 John), and the faith and obedience verses in his Gospel, it is necessary to learn one facet of the Greek language in which he wrote. Greek verb tenses and English verb tenses are different. While Bible translations rarely bring out this unique feature of the Greek language, it is not something unknown. Every first-year Greek student learns it. I will let the web site NTGreek.org explain:
In English, and in most other languages, the tense of the verb mainly refers to the 'time' of the action of the verb (present, past, or future time). In Greek, however, although time does bear upon the meaning of tense, the primary consideration of the tense of the verb is not time, but rather the 'kind of action' that the verb portrays. The most important element in Greek tense is kind of action; time is regarded as a secondary element. There are three basic kinds of action in the Greek tenses. One is progressive, indicating ongoing action. A second is "completed" action, meaning something that has happened in the past that has results extending into the present. Finally, there are tenses that do not indicate a specific type of action. (Keating, C., (n.d.), "Greek Verbs (Shorter Definitions)," Resources for Learning New Testament Greek; retrieved July 16, 2018)
John used tenses that indicate progressive action a lot, and it affects the meaning of some of his sentences in important ways. For example, in 1 John 3:9 he wrote, "Whoever is born of God doesn't commit sin." In the World English Bible (WEB) translation just given, it would be easy—even natural—to interpret John to be saying that a person who is born of God does not commit a single sin. The King James Version is just as unclear. The New American Standard Bible (NASB), however, which pays more attention to the Greek verb tense than most other translations do, reads "No one who is born of God practices sin."
The WEB gets the word right. The Greek verb used means "do" or "commit." The NASB gets the translation right. The Greek verb in the present tense means "continue doing" or "repeatedly doing"; therefore, the NASB chooses the word "practices," which more accurately represents what John wrote.
Obviously, getting the Greek tense right greatly clarifies what John said in that verse. Translating without proper regard for tense leads to a translation that would make none of us born again because all of us have sinned in our Christian life. It was John himself who pointed out that we have all sinned (1 Jn. 1:8,10). If we ignore the Greek tense, we make John to have contradicted himself.
The same is true of many of the verses in John's writings. John 6:47 should read, "He that is believing is having eternal life." Even the NASB does not get this right, even though "believe" and "have" are both in the same present tense used in 1 John 3:9. In John 3:36, what John actually wrote was, "The one believing in the Son is having eternal life, but the one not obeying the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God is abiding on him."
"Believe," "have," "obey," and "abide" are all in the present tense in the Greek in John 3:36. John loves the present tense, and if the progressive action of the Greek present tense were translated into English consistently, rather than occasionally as the NASB does, John's words would be more accurately represented, and they would make more sense to us.
John lived "in the now" more than the other apostles did, or at least his writings indicate that. If you believe now, you have eternal life now. If you are living a life of disobedience now, you do not have life, but the wrath of God is resting on you now. D.A Carson, the noted New Testament scholar, explained that John's use of eternal life as the present experience of the believer shows that we experience something of the resurrection life before the last day (1991, The Gospel According to John, Leicester, England: Appolos; p. 256; Cited by Wikipedia, in "Eternal life"; Retrieved July 18, 2018). George Eldon Ladd, professor of New Testament exegesis and theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, in regard to John's usage, wrote that eternal life is "not only an eschatological gift belonging to the Age to Come; it is also a gift to be received in the old aeon [age]" (1993.\ A Theology of the New Testament, Eerdmans. p. 528; cited by Wikipedia, in "Eternal life"; retrieved July 18, 2018).
It is apparent that not only did John write of what is happening now as though it were final, he also put obedience and faith in a locked relationship. You cannot have one without the other. This is not unique to John. James obviously thought the same way, as he explained in chapter 2 of his epistle. The writer of Hebrews made the same connection between faith and obedience that John did in John 3:36. He wrote, "To whom did [God] swear that they wouldn't enter into his rest, but to those who were disobedient? We see that they were not able to enter in because of unbelief" (Heb. 3:18-19).
Those who quote John 6:47 as though they have eternal life no matter how they are living are deceived, but as evangelicals, most of us are guilty of having helped them be deceived. We have taught them to trust in the wrong thing. We have taught them to trust in Jesus' death rather than trusting in Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16). We have mistranslated John and told new believers that believing once was enough. We have misrepresented John and told them that belief and obedience had nothing to do with one another.
A proper reading of John 3:16 helps convey the truth.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son in order that the one believing [that he is Christ, Lord, Judge, and Son of God] will not be destroyed, but is having eternal life.
We know from John 3:36, 1 John 2:3-4, and 1 John 3:7-10 that John means by this that the person who is obeying Jesus, doing God's commandments, and practicing righteousness rather than sin is having eternal life.
These passages show that John was as certain that works were required to obtain eternal life as Paul was. He told us, like Paul did, that there is a judgment awaiting. We can be ready for it by "abiding in him," and this will make us confident rather than ashamed when he comes (1 Jn. 2:28). He also wrote that we can "assure our hearts before him" if we love in deed and truth rather than in word or tongue (1 Jn. 3:18-22).