FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS, volume ten, number 6, February 10, 2011 - You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone, James 2:24.
Staying on the Highway to Zion
Paul says that by the works of the law no flesh will be justified in God’s sight (Romans 3:20) and James says that man is justified by works and not through faith alone. Which is it, and what difference does it make? To answer these questions we must keep both James and Paul in their proper historical and theological context. James was the first book written in the New Testament (perhaps as early as 38 A.D., only a few years after the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2:1ff) and James is addressing the problem of Jewish believers who are in spiritual declension from the height of God’s mighty work just a few years earlier. He is concerned with antinomianism (living as though God’s grace gives them a license to live in careless disobedience, wrongfully thinking that the more they sin, the more they receive God’s grace). Paul, on the other hand, in writing some ten to twelve years later to the Galatians says, “Nevertheless, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ Jesus and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). Paul is upset because Judaizers have come to these Gentile believers and in effect are saying, “Okay, it’s great that you have believed on Jesus, but if you really want to be saved, then you must become Jewish and take up Jewish rituals like circumcision.” This was troubling to the Galatians and Paul tells them that if anyone preaches a different gospel to them they then ought to be anathema (Galatians 1:9). So, Paul is all about the root of faith while James is all about the fruit of faith. Paul is after faith in the bud while James wants to see faith in full bloom. Paul yearns for saving grace while James abhors cheap grace. Paul wants to see living faith while James condemns dead or demonic faith. Paul says that no pre-conversion works save while James says post-conversion works prove saving faith. Paul says that man is justified by faith alone while James says one’s justification is never alone. So there is no contradiction between the two apostles.
A close look at James’s two Biblical illustrations proves this very point. He cites Abraham who believed on the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Clearly Abraham’s faith justified him. But then in Genesis 22 we find God testing Abraham, commanding him to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Abraham immediately went about the task—this obedient and joyful work—and God provided a ram in the thicket. The angel of the Lord says, “Now I know that you fear God because you did not withhold your son, your only son from Me,” (Genesis 22:12). And his second illustration with Rahab the harlot proves the same thing. She clearly has already believed on Yahweh, proclaiming that He is the Lord God of heaven above and earth below, the One who divided the Red Sea, the One who destroyed Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites (Joshua 2:10ff). This fruit of faithful action—that she readily takes in the spies, hides them, and sends them out another way, asking them to spare her and her family when they come to destroy Jericho—has its root in saving faith. To this James concludes his argument by saying, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead,” (James 2:26).
Okay, most of us know this and “buy in”, but what difference does it make? You see, our tendency, as we move on the highway of holiness (Isaiah 35:8), the straight and narrow way (Matthew 7:13-14), or the highway to Zion (Psalm 84:5) is to run off the road into the ditch on the right side of the road (legalism) or on the left side (antinomianism). How do we keep the car on the road to Zion? How do we live out the glorious truth of justifying grace?
Consider first of all the astounding truth of how you gain right standing with God; and then see how obedience to the Law is to play out in your justification. Indeed you are justified by faith alone (Galatians 2:16), through grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), and by Christ alone (Romans 3:24). I fear that most of us know this so well that we take it for granted. Here’s an illustration to drive it home. Imagine a pagan man who worships thousands of gods, who regularly bows down to them, who even makes images of them, who mocks the name of the true and living God, and who consequently ignores the Sunday worship of the true God. Furthermore, he hates and neglects his parents and rebels against any and all authority figures in his life. To make matters worse, he is a serial murderer and adulterer, given over to untold licentious perversion. He is a pathological liar. No one can trust him. He steals anything not nailed down, even cheating retired persons out of their nest eggs. Finally by bearing false witness against many, he is responsible for the executions and imprisonments of scores of people. Now this despicable man is finally arrested and indicted for embezzlement and conspiracy to commit murder. The judge who hears the case, after days of condemning and collaborative testimony acquits the man, declaring him not guilty. Furthermore, he also declares that he now is the very essence of righteousness, the most admired and upright man in the whole town![i]
Impossible? Yes with man, but all things are possible with God through the Lord Jesus! You, my dear friend, are this man! You are guilty of all these things in some degree. If you are angry with your brother then you are a murderer (Matthew 5:21-22). If you look on a woman to lust after her, then you have committed adultery (Matthew 5:27-28). If you ever love anything more than God then you worship idols and bow down to them. But if you are in Christ, if you have believed on Him, then you are acquitted of your guilt. You no longer are in a negative position. But to go even further, you are now in a positive category. You have been given the very righteousness of the Lord Jesus, the One who obeyed the Law of God perfectly. We know the Father has accepted Christ’s death for our sins because He raised Him from the dead (Romans 4:25).
And here’s the application of the Law of God to your life, here’s how you keep the car out of the ditch of legalism or antinomianism. The judge needs a clerk and he hires you. Because you know the judge has been so merciful to you, you surely would not take advantage of his beneficence. You would not say, “Because the Judge loves me and has done so wondrously for me, it does not matter if I do sloppy work, if I stroll into the office at 10 a.m., if I ignore his commands.” Instead if he told you that your work was inferior, that he wanted you to redo it, if he wanted you to stay late a few nights a week to finish up some case, then you would gladly do it. You would also not say, “What must I do to stay in the Judge’s good favor? What if I miss some important facts of a case I have been researching? What if he finds my work inferior to that of other clerks? Will he remove me from my job?”
If you are in Christ Jesus, if you have been justified by faith in the finished work of Christ on Calvary, then your sins are washed away and you have right standing before God. You stand acquitted of all your sin and condemnation. You have the righteousness of Jesus Christ. You ought to serve God from profound humility and awe at His mercy and grace toward you. The pride and self-righteousness of legalism is repugnant, and proves that the legalist takes his sin far too lightly. He sees holiness of life as mere outward conformity to Law. But the laziness and sloppiness of antinomianism is likewise repugnant, proving that the antinomian takes God’s grace far too lightly.
I will seek to drive this home more practically next week, but for now remember this—our tendency today is more toward antinomianism than legalism. For you to sin without great remorse and regret leading to repentance proves one of two things. Either you never have seen the depth of your sinful rebellion and thus see little need for a true Savior, or you have never grasped the beauty and glory of this very grace that says, “While we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.”
[i] The problem with this illustration is that it does not capture the fact that a merciful judge must also be just. God in fact requires a payment for man’s transgression, and of course, the Lord Jesus has made that payment by His death on the cross for all who repent and believe His gospel.
FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS is a weekly devotional by Reverend Al Baker, pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.