Saturday, July 20, 2019

Saved By Faith...With a Sprinkling of Works?

One of the cornerstones of the Reformation was the belief that we are saved by faith apart from works. This was emphasized strongly and was based on the clear teaching of the Scriptures notably by Paul in his book to the Galatians and the Romans, especially chapters 4 and 5 of the latter. The Reformers emphasized their belief in this doctrine by what they referred to as Sola Gratia, Grace Alone, and Sola Fide, Faith Alone. This echoed Paul's famous passage in his letter to the Ephesians where in chapter 2:8-9, he declared that "for by grace are you saved, through faith and that not of yourselves it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest anyone should boast."

Reformed doctrine strongly emphasizes the glory and sovereignty of God. Passages such as the one in Ephesians teach us that, were we able to somehow gain some favor from God based on what we do, we would be able to boast before Him. In Romans 5, Paul makes a similar point in that to those who work the reward, in this case salvation, is not rendered as a gift, but as wages that must be paid. We humans often don't seem to understand the affront it is to God for us to seek to "steal" some of His glory. And there is no worse way to attempt to do that than to take any credit for our salvation.

But, someone may be heard to object, "what about James chapter 2"? Ah, yes the refuge of all those who seek to be justified by what they do. From Jehovah's Witnesses to Catholics and Mormons and everyone in between, James 2 has been used and abused in an attempt to impose works on justification. Unfortunately, it isn't just the advocates of work salvation that have erred when it comes to James. Martin Luther himself, unable at first to find a way to reconcile James with Paul's faith alone argument, believed that James was inferior to the rest of the epistles, at one point even doubting whether it belonged in the canon at all. 

Eventually, Luther came to understand what James, correctly understood and exegeted, was discussing. And it was the same thing that Augustine realized in his battles with Pelagius. In the fifth century, a British monk by the name of Pelagius found himself appalled by the state of the church and the rampant immorality found within its ranks. But rather than seeking to bring the Bible to bear on the problem and to, scripturally, admonish those whom he considered profligate in their behavior and life, he went to the extreme and began to teach that man was much more capable than he truly is. Pelagius’ ideas centered on his belief that man can, of his own accord, attain to the holiness and purity that the Scriptures demand of the followers of Christ. Although he admitted that no man since Christ had been sinless, he equally taught that there were men in the Old Testament who had been, in fact, sinless.

Augustine would have none of that. In his writings, Augustine argued that the Scriptures clearly and unmistakably teach that man is dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1) and that, as with any dead person, he is incapable to reach out to God and do what is pleasing to Him (Romans 8:6-8). As such, God has to make the first move and grant man the grace and the faith that he needs in order to do what pleases Him (Ephesians 2:6-9). Not only so, but man even needs to be granted repentance in order to exercise it (2 Timothy 2:25). To Augustine, man was in a hopeless condition which, left to his own, would inevitably lead to eternal death. But God, in his graciousness, granted some the ability to cry out to Him in faith and so be saved. Thus, Augustine rightly believed that, since it is God who grants man the ability to do His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13), man could only apprehend this ability by faith. In that light, we can then understand that James was not advocating that man can be saved by what he does, but rather that what he does is a testimony to the fact that he possesses true, saving faith. Our works are a result of our salvation, as Paul put it in the passage in Ephesians 2, and not the cause of that salvation.

It is not our works that gain the favor of God, but our exercise of the faith that God Himself gives in the receiving of His grace that leads to our justification. Were we to work from now until the end of recorded history, we would be unable to make up for our sin. Simply because they stand in two different categories. Our works are only temporary in nature; our sin is eternal. In order for us to atone for our sins with our works, we would have to work perfectly forever, something that no one except Christ has been able to do. That being the case, then, we must look to Christ and to Him alone in order to be justified in the sight of God. Since “by the works of the law will no flesh be justified” (Galatians 2:16), our only hope is in Christ and in Him alone. Anything else is tilting at windmills.

1 comment:

  1. "Profligate?" Yu dun gon tu usin fancie wurds…

    Still, a very true article.