Sermon of June 9, 2013 – When Words Collide (James 2)
I really tried to pare this one down a little more, but it just wasn’t happening… 3600 words. I also must credit John Piper as I came across a sermon from him on this subject in my preparation that so closely mirrored my own thoughts that I reworked some aspects as I liked his flow better.
Let me tip my hat right away. I do not believe the Bible contradicts itself, ever. Regardless of any academic mechanism of redaction, textual criticism or argument about manuscript preservation, I believe the Holy Spirit has acted to make sure the living Word of God that is implanted in our hearts is fully consistent in its context throughout.
I believe that the Bible is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16). It is the very word of God, written. Therefore, I believe that the Bible is true and coherent. It does not teach us things that are false; It does not contradict itself. I believe this because Jesus Christ has made himself real to us and has shown himself to be the trustworthy Son of God. He has taught us that the Scriptures cannot be broken (John 10:35). He commissioned apostles to teach the church and promised to lead them into all truth (John 16:13). And he has given us his Spirit to open our eyes to see reality for what it is (1 Corinthians 2:14-15) so we have come to receive his Word as the very Word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13), free from error and contradiction, because God is true and not a God of confusion.
You can probably guess where I’m going to come out with regard to the “contridiction” between James and Paul. No worries, my desire now is to completely convince you as well. So let us turn in our Bibles to Exhibit A and Exhibit B in our conversation this morning. We’ll start with James 2 verse 14 and then jump to Romans 3.
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 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? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Now over to Romans 3
27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
4:1What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,
Let me start at where I believe the problem exists; words are inherently ambiguous. Language fails us. We are finite. We are sinful. We are culturally biased. Language itself can confuse us when different words carry the same meaning, and when the same words carry different meanings.
I could speak for ages about this problem as it’s one of my biggest challenges, my biggest irritants and my biggest failures all at the same time. I have always been word OCD because I know that words bring with them not only meaning, but often effect the affective part of us as well. A simple word can draw out our emotions, our motivations, our biases and our really shape our understanding. Let me give you a one of my favorite examples in a churchy context.
I do not like the word “volunteer” used in the context of a worshiping Body of Christ. I believe it brings with it the sense of secular volunteerism, making it the gracious gift of our precious time because we like the cause. Personally, I believe we need to serve the body because we are part of the body. We are to uphold and honor each other as the Bride of Christ, the church that he has entrusted with his ministry on earth. I don’t think we are to volunteer our time, I believe we are to serve one another as an act of worship. When you are stacking chairs, or helping setup a potluck or caring for babies in the nursery or preaching, you are serving the body with the gifts God has given you. To me “volunteer” means the time is mine and I’m being gracious, “serve” means the time is God’s and I’m caring for His sheep. For the same reason I hope we never start saying “donations” instead of tithes and offerings. The wrong word brings a wrong mindset.
Judge for yourself if you think I’m too picky. That’s the problem with words, we all have our different takes on what they really mean. We can agree to disagree on their nuances and can spit hairs over their application and just consider the whole thing semantics or pedantic (and yes I’m trying to be ironic).
We have the same problem in the original biblical languages. For example, the Greek word zelos which can be used to mean “jealousy” in a bad sense or “zeal” in a good sense. So if someone says to you, “I think we should strive to overcome all zelos in our lives,” before you agree or disagree what should you ask them to define which zelos they are referring to. Are they asking you to overcome their jealousies or to become apathetic towards life?
Personally, I also get stuck on the word judge. “Do not judge” we often recite to one another. This has become a phrase of acceptance, inclusion and dare I say an excuse to allow all sorts of unacceptable behavior. We are missing the meaning of the word by not using good judgment (discernment) to make sure we don’t judge (condemn) others.
So the same words can have different meanings. And different words can have the same meanings. This is true in the Bible as well as in all other books and conversations. In one of his articles John Piper mentions that when “Jonathan Edwards came to the end of one of his journal entries after arguing that the phrase “moral duty” was a redundancy, since “every duty whatsoever is a moral duty.” And the last sentence is a sigh of resignation to the world of words: “O, how is the world darkened, clouded, distracted, and torn to pieces by those dreadful enemies of mankind called words!”. Of course, that’s an overstatement, and while words are at times maddening, they are also a precious means of communicating. “
But we do feel like Edwards sometimes when trying to solve problems in the Bible. The inspiration of the Word of God is like the incarnation of the Son of God. When the Son of God became a human being he became vulnerable to abuse and death. When the Word of God became human language, it became vulnerable to ambiguity and misunderstanding.
This very long introduction and insight into my love-hate relationship with words is simply to set the stage for the apparent contradiction between Paul and James on the doctrine of justification by faith.
I completely and firmly believe Paul’s teaching in Romans (and many other places in the Bible) that we are justified by faith alone, not by works. You can already see it, for example, in Romans 3:28, ” For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” and especially in Romans 4:5, ” And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” So God’s verdict of not guilty and his imputing his own righteousness to us in Christ at the beginning of our regenerate life is by faith alone, with nothing else making us worthy to God. We trust his free grace to forgive us and acquit us and count us as righteous because of the work of Christ. That is how our new life with Christ starts – justified by faith alone.
Now you have just heard the verses in James that seem to contradict that. Let’s note them again. James 2:21, ” Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” And James 2:24, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” So you see that James not only says that a person is justified by works, but he also denies that justification is by faith alone. At least he uses words that, on the face of it, in isolation, seem to mean something very different from Paul.
So the key question here is: Does James aim to refute the doctrine of Paul that justification is by faith alone? (This would mean there is a massive contradiction in the Bible!) Or, does James aim to refute an abuse of Paul’s teaching and bring a course correction for the churches he was writing to? I believe and will try to show you that James is not contradicting Paul here but teaching something completely compatible with Paul’s teaching. In fact I believe he is correcting a misuse of Paul’s teaching.
Paul was very aware that his teaching of justification by faith alone was being distorted and misused by those who said something like, “SO, if we are justified while we are ungodly by faith alone, and this magnifies the grace of God, then let’s just keep sinning, because we are secure anyway and God’s grace will get more glory.” You can see this, for example, in Romans 3:8, ” And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.” Paul knows he is being slandered (or at least horribly misquoted): “Paul teaches that the more evil you do the more good comes of it, because God’s grace is glorified in justifying the ungodly.”
Or consider Romans 5:20. Paul says, ” Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,” Paul knows what some are saying, “Well, if grace abounds where sin increases …” which he addresses a few verses later in Romans 6:1, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” You know Paul is not mentioning these philosophical arguments as an academic exercise, the Roman church was probably saying “Let’s continue in sin that grace may increase.”
Paul often refutes this kind of superficial distortion and abuse of his teaching. He has answers in virtually all his letters to show how good works and love necessarily flow from real justifying faith. For example, in Galatians 5:13 Paul says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love [make sure to volunteer… er, I mean ] serve one another.” So we have a wonderful freedom from the commandments of God as a means of justification.
So the question becomes, is there another layer? Does Paul say that “works of love” are required on of that freedom through faith as a layer of legal duty?
No. Look at Galatians 5:6, a crucial text in seeing Paul and James in harmony with each other. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but faith working through love.” So when Paul deals with the abuse of his doctrine of justification by faith alone, he clearly says that it is not added works like circumcision that will win God’s favor. It is “faith working through love.”
What counts with God? “Faith.”
But what kind of faith? Faith that “works through love.”
He does not say that what counts with God is “faith” plus the additional layer of loving works added to faith. He says that what counts with God is the kind of faith that by its very nature produces love. It is faith that gives us our right standing with God. The love that comes from it only shows that it is, in fact, real living, justifying faith.
I believe that is exactly what James was trying to get across to his churches, he’s just using different words that in our ability to flip back and forth, confuses us. James is arguing that loveless faith is absolutely useless. Anybody that comes along and says “We are justified by faith alone, and so you don’t have to be a loving person to go to heaven” is not telling the truth.
Let’s see how James corrects this distortion of Paul’s teaching. This is where we have to look at the meaning James is giving to his words. Even when his words may seem to be in conflict with Paul, is the meaning in conflict?
James’ concern is with a kind of counterfeit faith that does not produce love. This faith cannot justify anybody. Verse 14: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”
“Can that faith save him?”
Can an action-less faith be faith at all? If we look closer, we can see that James is interested in the same sort of action that Paul is – the works of love. Verses 15-16: ” If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 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?” So James’ concern is that people have real saving faith, not counterfeit faith; the difference being that real faith produces loving behavior.
James goes on to describe a couple differences between this active faith that produces a loving behavior and faith that is not sufficient to save; let’s call it a counterfeit faith.
First, and the one we are most familiar with is in verse 17. He says faith on its own is dead: ” So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” If faith does not “work through love” it is dead. This is the direct no holds barred condemnation of people claiming faith but not having any fruit of it in their daily actions.
The second difference between an active faith and a counterfeit faith is described in verse 19. I’ll call it an academic faith. “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder..” There is a faith that even demon have, namely, belief in right doctrine. The faith that justifies and works through love is not simply belief in right doctrines like, “God is one.” Demons can be orthodox at the intellectual level. They believe but it doesn’t save them. So there is dead faith and an academic faith but James argues that neither shows evidence of it being a salvational and real faith.
In my opinion, the greatest evidence that James and Paul were, in fact, saying the same thing with different perspectives and emphasis is that they both use the life of Abraham as their example of faith. James takes two events in the life of Abraham. The first (in James 2:22) is from Genesis 15:6. God promises Abraham a great host of descendants though his wife is barren. Verse 23 cites Abraham’s faith from Genesis 15:6: “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” This is exactly the same argument as Paul in Romans 4:3. One thing is counted as righteousness: faith. Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. Faith, not works, was counted as righteousness.
But then James notices that in Genesis 22:1 “God tested Abraham” by commanding him to offer up his son Isaac. What was God testing? He was testing his faith. What was he looking for? He was looking for the kind of obedience or works that shows Abraham’s faith was not dead faith or an academic faith, it was an active and real faith. So the issue in James 2:21 (where Abraham offers Isaac) is not the first act of justification that put Abraham in a right standing with God. The issue is the test: was Abraham’s faith the living kind of faith that produces the “obedience of faith” or the dead kind that has no effect on life?
I believe that when James says in verse 21 that Abraham was “justified by works” he has a meaning in mind different from Paul’s when Paul denies that a man is justified by works (Romans 3:28; 4:2; 4:5). James is answering the question: Does the ongoing and final reckoning of Abraham’s righteousness depend on works as the necessary evidence of true and living faith?
James’ answer to that question is Yes.
And Paul’s answer is also Yes, in Galatians 5:6 (the only thing that counts is “faith working through love”).
If you ask James and Paul, “How does an one get right with God and receive the righteousness of God in Christ as a gift?” both James and Paul would answer with the words of James 2:23: “Trust God (trust Christ) and that faith alone will be counted as righteousness.”
The next step is where the semantics of the words gets in the way and makes it look like there’s a contradiction.
If you were to then ask James and Paul, “Does justification as an ongoing and final right standing with God depend on the works of love?” Paul is going to say, “No, if by works you mean deeds done to show that you deserve God’s ongoing blessing (the point of Romans 4:4).” And James is going to say, “Yes, if by works you mean the fruit and evidence of faith like Abraham’s obedience on Mount Moriah.”
I do believe, though, that Paul would also say, “I agree with James, based on his definitions.” and James is going to say, “I agree with Paul, based on his definitions.”
So when Paul renounces “justification by works” he renounces the view that anything we do along with faith is credited to us as righteousness; only faith obtains the verdict “not guilty” when we become Christians. Works of any kind are not acceptable in the moment of initial justification. But when James affirms “justification by works” he means that works are absolutely necessary in the ongoing life of a Christian to confirm and demonstrate the reality of the faith which justifies.
For Paul, “justification by works” (which he rejects) means “gaining right standing with God by the merit of works.” For James, “justification by works” (which he accepts) means “maintaining a right standing with God by faith along with the necessary evidence of faith, namely, the works of love.”
Let me try it from another angle in order to make my meaning clear. When Paul teaches in Romans 4:5 that we are justified by faith alone, he means that the only thing that unites us to Christ for righteousness is dependence on Christ. When James says in James 2:24 that we are not justified by faith alone he means that the faith which justifies does not remain alone. These two positions are not contradictory. Faith alone unites us to Christ for righteousness, and the faith that unites us to Christ for righteousness does not remain alone. It bears the fruit of love. It must do so or it is a dead or academic faith and does not ultimately justify.
The glory of Christ in the gospel is not merely that we are justified when we depend entirely on Christ, but also that depending entirely on Christ is the power that makes us new, loving people. Depending entirely on Christ is how we are justified and how we are sanctified. Paul struck the one note. James struck the other. Both are true and together they bring Christ the glory due his name.