Will you repent and accept this Good News?
I often over-complicate the message to my own shame, but it is just that simple. It amazes me how there are entire denominations (thinking RCC) that constantly refer to "the Gospel", yet when pressed they cannot even define what "the Gospel" is anymore... or if they do define it, it is some sort of faith + works complicated mess, far beyond what Paul described in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4:
"Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures."
Why is it such a temptation to go back to the law? Maybe it gives us a sense of security. In other words, if the whole "by grace through faith apart from works" thing doesn't pan out, we can fall back on our works. Yet God has removed the cover off of my sin and now I am daily confronted with the impossibility of being perfect enough. Not only can I not be perfect enough, but actually I am utterly wretched and have accrued a debt that I realize is simply impossible for me to pay back.
"Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God's sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin." - Romans 3:20
Now the "but" starts. "But what what about James?" The question here is particularly regarding James chapter 2, which to some seems at odds with virtually every other New Testament epistle. It is largely upon James 2 that the Roman Catholic Church bases its dogma that salvation is by faith and works (in apparent contradiction to Ephesians 2:8-9: "faith apart from works").
Just step back for a minute and think about all you know about the Bible. What's the story? Isn't it the story of man's fall from grace, man's continual rebellion, God's promise of a coming Redeemer, and then ultimately the Redeemer coming to reconcile us back to God?
What about the law? Was it not a system of rules that no one could perfectly keep, so there was a parallel system of sacrifices and offerings "to make up for" man's inability to keep the rules?
If you boil it down, the Bible is the continually repeated pattern of man's inability to save himself, and so God steps in and does it for him:
- Adam and Eve sinned and had shame... God provided a covering.
- Through Moses God gave Israel a law system they could not keep... God provided them with sacrifices and offerings to atone for their inability to keep the law.
- God required moral perfection to be saved and man couldn't live up to that... God provided Jesus who not only lived the perfect life we couldn't live, but He died the death we deserve.
Before you dissect James 2, you have to read Galatians 2:11-3:14, which is literally the lens through which James must be interpreted. Let no one fool you, this issue of faith vs works is not a new issue, it was at the very heart of early Church conflict, and the very author of James' epistle is one of the main targets of Paul's fury in Galatians 2 & 3:
11 When Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.
19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
3:1 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? 4 Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? 5 So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? 6 So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
7 Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” 12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
Above, in red, you can see the terrible results of thinking works have anything to do with saving you. You can see that James initial teaching:
1. Caused Peter to stop ministering to Gentiles
2. Broke fellowship between Jews and Gentiles
3. Forced Gentiles to bear burdens not necessary for salvation (i.e. circumcision)
4. Caused the church in Jerusalem to stop meeting with sinners (unlike Jesus Himself)
5. Ignores the Cross of Christ
6. Is impossible to keep
7. Brings the curse upon those who believe it
Galatians 2 & 3 is even more significant when you realize this is likely Paul's description of the issue at hand in Acts 15. What is Acts 15 about? This is the Council of Jerusalem, known as the first council of the universal Church, and the very issue at hand was faith (Paul and Barnabas) vs works (James and the "circumcision party"), specifically circumcision vs uncircumcision.
The council sided with Paul.
Peter's final verdict can be found in v. 7-11:
"After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: 'Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.'"
Going back to James, you must first realize that he was no longer at odds with Paul and Barnabas because their preaching had won him over (see v. 13-19).
So now, before considering James 2, you have in favor of "grace through faith apart from works":
1. The general theme of the Bible
2. The entire sacrificial system of the Torah
3. Virtually every epistle in the New Testament
4. The Cross of Christ itself... Jesus died for your sins!
Considering #4, which is Christianity 101 (what Paul literally called "of first importance"), why do so many denominations in technicality reject that? Jesus died for your sins, he literally took your sins in His body to the tree (1 Peter 2:24). Tetelestai! It is finished, debt is paid, Jesus sat down (Hebrews 1:3).
Catholicism and Orthodoxy have developed entire systems of sacraments, indulgences, and intercessions to have man again go back to the stage of having to continually atone for his sins through his own works. It is like rewinding the Bible back to Leviticus.
If Jesus died for your sins (which again is Christianity 101), why are you trying to atone for them yourself?
Consider James 2:10:
"For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it."
James is exactly right and goes on to talk about mercy triumphing over judgment (12-13). It is amazing to me that even though Jesus died for our sins (Revelation 1:5) to free us from the James 2:10 predicament (1 John 2:1) that so much of Christianity through the centuries drifted from the simple Gospel message of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, into a message of sacraments, indulgences, and other-than-Jesus intercessions.
Consider the current Catholic system. If you commit even once any one of these sins without confessing before death you have a one-way ticket to Gehenna whether you believe Jesus died for you or not. In fact, every single time you commit a "mortal sin" in Catholicism you become unsaved and are "re-saved" upon confession and priestly pardon. Notice that this process completely decouples forgiveness from faith in Jesus' finished work. Instead, the Torah system of the endless sacrifices of bulls and goats is replaced with the Catholic system of the endless sacrifices of the Mass, and priestly confession, and other sacraments, because no one can truly live up to the Catholic standard just as no one could live up to the Levitical standard.
In light of the Catholic system consider also Jesus' standard where hatred = murder and lust = adultery. Are people so blind as to not see how at any given time the vast majority of Catholics would be unsaved under their own standard?
With these things in mind, it is my belief that James is not contradicting the rest of the Bible in James 2. He is not debating faith vs works, but rather a profession of faith (v. 14: "says he has faith") vs an actually demonstrated faith (v. 18). It's the difference between saying something and actually believing it. Knowledge is just "knowing" some facts, while belief is what one acts upon because he trusts that knowledge. I have much knowledge of Islam and Hinduism, but I do not believe either of them because I believe they are false. I have knowledge of Christianity and I believe it to be true, so I naturally act upon my belief. The demons know that God is one, but they do not believe that His way is right and they fight against the Gospel.
This leads to the final question about James, which regards justification. James says that a man is not justified by faith alone (while Paul frequently does). Just as there are two types of faith, there are also two types of "justification". This article nails it:
"It is also true that the justification of which James speaks is not the justification of which Paul speaks. One indication of this is the timing. Abraham was justified by works "when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar" (James 2:21). This was about thirty years after he had been justified by faith (Gen. 15:6). James shows that he is sensitive to timing when he says in 2:23 that Abraham's justification by works "fulfilled" Genesis 15:6. He speaks of Genesis 15:6 as a prophecy, and of Genesis 22 as its fulfillment. Prophecy and fulfillment do not occur at the same time and are not the same thing.
What then is the nature of justification in James? James indicates this plainly in 2:18: "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works." He is speaking about demonstrating the genuineness of faith.
In Romans 4, Paul addresses the question, How was Abraham justified? In this question, "justified" means "reckoned righteous before God," and Paul's answer is: by the imputation of Christ's righteousness, received by faith alone. But when James asks how Abraham was justified, he is assuming that Abraham already had faith. So his question really is, How was Abraham justified in claiming to have faith? In this question, justified means "judged to have made a valid claim," and James's answer is: by producing good works. The questions are different, the answers are different, the justifications are different.
Paul speaks of a justification that comes by faith and not by works, while James speaks of a justification that comes by works and not by faith. Paul teaches us that we are constituted righteous before God by faith alone. James teaches us that the genuineness of our faith is demonstrated by our works."
The take away from all of this is simple: Get back to the Gospel. Know it. Believe it. Accept it. Preach it.
"Gospel" - εὐαγγέλιον - Strong's Greek 2098 - literally "God's good news"
The time is short! MARANATHA!
So what should you do? Now that you've heard the message of God's unmerited and undeserved grace for you, prove to the world that your faith is authentic. The first thing to do is to get baptized as a testimony to the world that Jesus is now your Lord and that you have been crucified and raised with Him. Then begin living out your faith. Devote yourself daily to the reading of God's Word and to prayer. Share your faith!
Here is what the first step of obedience looks like:
See PART TWO in my five-part series on the Gospel here.