Friday, October 9, 2015

Works, Faith and Salvation - or Faith and Parachutes, Part 2

We hope that those of our readers who just finished celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles enjoyed safe travels home and have been refreshed with meaningful worship and fellowship.

For those readers who have never celebrated this festival: The Churches of God, that have descended from Herbert W Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God, teach that the Feast of Tabernacles looks forward to the time that true Christians who qualified for literal deification will rule with Jesus Christ after He returns to earth.

If you celebrated the Feast, you probably heard sermons that capture the joy of that message. Some that discuss the grace by which you'll find yourselves there. And, unfortunately, possibly some prideful ones that celebrate a foretaste "making it" into God's Kingdom.

In a recent post, we explored what salvation by grace through faith means and what it doesn't mean. In light of this recent festival, which pictures the time when "true Christians" will know they have "made it," let's consider whether we will "make it" into God's Kingdom by grace through faith or by our works. How do we safely get off the crashing airplane of humanity? How can we be sure we have a parachute and not a backpack?

Just how do the writings of the apostles fit in with what we've already discussed about salvation by faith? Publications from today's Churches of God regularly cite James 2 to criticize the Protestant Christian teaching that salvation comes through faith in the shed blood of Jesus alone.

(James 2:18-20) But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe - and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?

Let's do our due diligence first. The word translated as "believe" in verse 19 is the Greek word pisteuo, which can mean "to believe," "to give credit to," or to be of an opinion (Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study of the New Testament, p. 930). It comes from the Greek word pistis, which is translated as "faith" in verse 18. Pistis implies a knowledge of, assent to and confidence in divine truths, especially those of the gospel, as produces good works.  Pistis can mean a simple assent to religious truths without accompanying good works, or “false faith,” but it generally indicates a “lively faith in Christ.” (Zodhiates, p. 930).

But understanding pisteuo and pistis is not nearly as important as understanding the full context of James 2:14-20, as indicated by both the Expositor’s Bible Commentary and by theologian John MacArthur. One cannot just hone in on one or two verses in a vacuum and build an entire doctrine around them, as the COGs are so fond of doing.

The key to understanding the passage is found in verse 14 – “if someone says he has faith.” The NIV makes James’ implications even more clear – “if someone claims to have faith.”

(James 2:14) What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?
“James does not say that this person actually has faith, but that he claims to have it.” (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1887). “Again, the verb’s form describes someone who continually lacks any evidence of the faith he routinely claims.”
“James is not disputing the importance of faith. Rather, he is opposing the notion that saving faith can be a mere intellectual exercise void of a commitment to active obedience.”  (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1888.)
When we take a step back and look at the whole passage, we can see that James is not contrasting salvation by faith with salvation with a component of works. He is contrasting the behavior of someone who has genuine, saving faith in Christ with that of someone who only claims to have placed his faith in Christ. The behavior of someone who is wearing a parachute with someone who is claims to have a parachute but is only wearing a backpack.

So what role do the works play, since they are a topic of concern in this passage? The works of which James speaks are not deeds performed to earn merit with God according to Expositor’s.  Instead, works are the manifestation – the fruit – shown in the life of someone who has genuine faith.

“Faith without works cannot save; it takes faith that proves itself in the deeds it produces,” according to the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Exposition of James.

The example James gives in verses 15 through 17 – of a man who claims to have compassion on a starving brother but who gives him no food – helps illustrate what James is saying about faith and works. Compassion isn't really compassion if it doesn't move one to action. And on the flip side, giving a hungry brother food doesn't create compassion. The compassion, the state of heart and mind are already there, and the action follows. It's the same with faith - it is already there, and the evidence of that faith is visible when the opportunity arises. And when the opportunity comes, one's actions - or lack thereof - indicate what's on the inside (Luke 6:45). It shows whether or not they truly have a parachute, so to speak.

And that is the key difference between the demons’ belief and Paul’s. The demons believe in God; they have more evidence than any of us. But their belief - their direct knowledge of His existence - has not changed them. In contrast, Paul’s belief changed him to the core, and his life after the road to Damascus was the evidence of that change.

(One side note before I leave James 2. Most of the COG magazines I read this summer that quoted James 2 cited the passage to support their stance on things like keeping the 10 Commandments and Holy Days. UCG vaguely linked it to commandment-keeping and baptism earlier this year. Yet James focuses his letter on things like showing favoritism, providing for the poor and taming the tongue - areas where the track record of COG leadership is poor. Don't blame me - comments on this blog and others tell me you guys know it's true. Like I said earlier, it's theologically unwise to hone in on an individual verse and ignore everything around it).


So why would faith change us? Does conviction simply make you choose to change your behavior in the future? Does a lack of works indicate that you just need to try harder?

Saving faith goes hand-in-hand with what mainstream Christianity calls regeneration - or what some call being "born again." Regeneration occurs when God imparts new spiritual life through the Holy Spirit. In terms of our analogy, it is when you are given your parachute. Some debate whether regeneration comes before saving faith and is what allows a Christian to place full faith in Christ or whether it occurs after a Christian places his faith in Christ. Regardless, it is evident that the two go hand in hand. The fruit of this faith and regeneration is physically invisible, but the evidence will show in a man's life, as James 2 indicates. And the fruit of empty claims of faith will show in the unregenerate heart too.

Traditional Christian teachings on saving faith, regeneration and sanctification harmonize the seeming contradictions between verses like Ephesians 2:8-9 and James 2:14-19. But the COGs reject traditional teachings on regeneration; insisting that Christians are like spiritual fetuses in this life are not born again until Christ returns to earth. This teaching forces them into uncomfortable cognitive dissonance - claiming that obedient works do not save you, but that they maintain your justified status with God:

“To remain justified after being forgiven, one must behave in a righteous or just manner from that time forward.” – UCG, The New Covenant: Does it Abolish God's Law?
“Integral to salvation is the matter of justification. This term refers to being made just, right or righteous. Literally, it means being made straight—perfectly lined up (with God). We are initially justified or aligned with God when, on repentance and faith in Christ’s shed blood for atonement, we are forgiven of sin and reckoned by God as righteous. This is referred to by Paul as “imputed” righteousness (see Romans 4:20-25). (Martha's personal note - UCG is using biblical language but does not accurately portray imputed righteousness, which we will see later on in this post). Justification in this sense is also known as reconciliation. It corresponds to the past sense of salvation—in which we have been saved from sin and death as long as we continue in God’s way.
                                             – UCG, The New Covenant: Does it Abolish God's Law?
“Now we just "accept Christ" and His righteousness is somehow "imputed" to us—without any requirement for righteous works” LCG, Rod Meredith, Who or What is the Anti Christ?
 “Even though we have not yet been changed from flesh and blood to spirit and must remain faithful to God’s instructions in order to have our mortal bodies transformed, God already considers us members of His future family and Kingdom because we are voluntarily living by the laws of His Kingdom.” COGWA, “Believe in the Gospel


So why are the COGs so preoccupied with works? I suspect it comes from the perennial fixation on the law. If your definition of righteousness largely comes from the Sinai Covenant, you trip over the same stumbling block as the Jews. 

(2 Corinthians 3:12-16) Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech - unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away." 

The Sinai Covenant made the Jews prideful. They considered themselves better than everyone else. They were God's chosen people. They had special knowledge. They knew the path to righteousness! (Does any of this sound familiar? If you're not sure, think about the typical opening or closing prayer you heard last week). Righteousness - concretely defined in the Sinai Covenant - almost seemed attainable. If they just tried a little harder, they could "make it!".

But Martha, the New Testament is referring to the Jews, not us! We're not like them. We believe Jesus is the Son of God, that He died for our sins. We know we can't earn salvation. We are totally different.

No. It would seem that anyone who believes works are a component of salvation is vulnerable to this trap, according to Romans 10:2-3:

"For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God."

If we could become righteous by submitting"God's laws," then our obedience would make us righteous. So it would seem that the righteousness of God must come from somewhere else besides obedience. I would submit to you that this "righteousness of God" is the imputed righteousness discussed in Romans and other NT books. In short, imputed righteousness, explained in Philippians 3:8-9, is the process through which Jesus' righteousness is credited to those who place their faith in Him, just like it was to Abraham, and our sin is credited to Christ.

"Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ, and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith."

The Expositor's Bible Commentary expounds on Romans 10:1-3:

"In trying to establish their own righteous standing before God, they have refused submission to God's righteousness. By looking forward to verse 4 where the law is mentioned, we see that this attempt of Israel to achieve a standing in righteousness was related to finding satisfaction in their imagined success in meeting the demands of the law of Moses. Paul is able to analyze their trouble in expert fashion, for he has been over the same route in his spiritual pilgrimage. It was a great day for him when he gave up his cherished righteousness, based on service to the law, in exchange for the righteousness that comes from God and depends on faith (Philippians 3:9). Israel's covenant relation to God and reliance upon law keeping do not add up to salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). For this reason Paul points to Christ and His righteousness as Israel's great need (verse 4).

Rather than scoffing at the doctrine of imputed righteousness as "cheap grace," or as a cheater's shortcut to artificial righteousness, we should cling to it with grateful thanksgiving. Because Israel couldn't establish their own righteousness through obedience. The COGs don't teach that Christians need to establish their righteousness based on law-keeping, but they certainly do teach that Christians must maintain it through law-keeping. But we can't, certainly not to a level that would qualify us for the Kingdom.


Focusing on a checklist only distracts us from realizing the true depth of our wickedness. It is the James 2:15-16 moments that cut us to the heart and shows us how desperately we need a Savior. When we look away from the checklist and look at our hearts and our true prognosis for righteousness, we have no choice but to cling to the cross as our only hope.

But if we fail to look into the mirror of the Law of Liberty (James 1:23-25), we will never see what kind of people we really are. We will fail to perceive our blindness, our nakedness, our bankruptcy. We will continue believing that we are almost there, that righteousness, or at least good-enough-ness, is right around the corner. We will remain fixated on the dirty rags of our works instead of praising Jesus in thanks that our salvation is not linked to our behavior.

Next time, we will look at the life of a Abraham - a man whom New Testament authors held us as an example of both faith and works. A closer look at Abraham's life will give us further insight into harmonizing Ephesians 2:8-10 and James 2:14-19

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11


Child Survivor said...

Whenever I hear a "lawkeeper" use the "faith without works is dead", I always ask for the context of what James was referring to. I always ask them to tell me the things he talks about in his epistle. I usually get either silence or they say you can't go to his epistle, you have to go to the "whole Bible", translation, the Old Testament.

Martha said...

Predictable, isn't it? I've been out of the COGs for at least a couple years now, and even I was surprised by some of the things he talked about in his epistle. James definitely is not the treatise on law-keeping that I was always taught.