Live video and notes for my message at Central Church of christ in Stockton, CA for May 9, 2021.
Video is embedded below. Notes below that.
Soli Deo Gloria!
A paradox in the New Testament: Are we justified by works, or not?
We are continuing our visit in the classroom of James, so he can impart godly wisdom to us. The wisdom from above, James tells us, is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere, James 3:17.
When we learn this pure, peaceable, gentle, and reasonable godly wisdom, that’s how we are fit to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.
Last week, we left off in James 2:19. Today, we’re picking back up with vv20-24.
In our passage for today, James is still arguing that faith that doesn’t express itself in action is, like we said a couple weeks back, decaffeinated faith. It’s useless, it doesn’t have any get-up-and-go in it.
So now, James is going to start showing us examples from scripture of saints who had caffeinated faith.
Those OT saints James will tell us about were saved by faith alone—just like we are. But their faith, as my old friend Martin Luther said, was never alone.
There is a confusing paradox in the New Testament.
For example, Paul tells us that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ, Gal. 2:16.
So Paul says we are not justifiedby works we do, but only by faith in Jesus Christ.
Okay. Well, then … but what did we hear James say today?
I’m going to quote this from the ESV, because the NIV translation downplays the tension. James 2:24 says: You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
So, we have an apparent contradiction between these two verses, and it really trips people up.
So here’s the most common way I’ve seen Christians try to resolve the tension between these two teachings.
You have these two verses that seem to be saying the opposite thing—you’re not justified by works and you are justified by works.
And people want to try sort of remixing them. Right, so you have this epic mashup of Paul and James.
And they’ll come up with something like: No, you can’t do anything to get right with God; but you have to do good works to stay right with God.
But there are some major drawbacks to doing it this way.
First of all, you are never going to have assurance of your salvation if you go this way.
Because instead of fixing your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith, like it says in Hebrews 12:2; you’re going to always be fixing your eyes on yourself, and what you’re doing or not doing.
And of course, if you look at yourself, and your performance—you’re always going to find sin and weakness.
And so you’re either going to give up, because it’s just hopeless.
Or you’re going to climb on the treadmill, you’re going to make the incline steeper, and the pace quicker.
And here’s where that can get really ugly. And I’ve seen this happen too many times to count. It’s even happened to me.
So, you’re on the treadmill—busy, busy, busy for the Lord. And then you see other Christians and they seem to be enjoying themselves too much.
Or, on the other hand, they’re being dragged hard by the struggle bus.
And what happens? You’re up there on your treadmill with the grade set to Mt. Everest. And you’re resentful of other believers who aren’t working at your pace.
Like—you can’t even step down off the treadmill to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
My plea to you—whether you’re the one who’s about to tear a quad on the Peloton, or you’re the one who’s about to let their gym membership lapse because you’re saying, Gee, I can never be as good as that guy on the Peloton over there—my plea to you both is to step down off the treadmill and listen.
Because there’s a better way than this.
Law and Gospel Casseroles, and Chinese Finger Traps
I know that casserole is a real popular item at church potlucks. But church, listen to me—Law and Gospel casserole is going to disagree with you. Okay.
What I mean is, you can’t mix ‘em together like that and just sprinkle some cheese and corn flakes on top.
What I mean is, we don’t get into Christ by grace through faith, but stay in Christ by works. Paul said a big loud no! to that whole idea in Galatians.
Are you so foolish?, he asked. After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?
In other words—Are you really trying to finish the work of salvation that God began in you by your own works, done in your own power?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: If salvation is 99% on God, and 1% on me, I am going to hell.
Okay, y’all—that’s my longest buildup ever. But if we’ve been fed a steady diet of Law and Gospel casserole, Law and Gospel jambalaya, we gotta cleanse our palates so we can taste and see how good the Lord is.
So again—our problem: Paul says no one is justified by works. We are saved by faith in Christ alone. James says we are justified by works, and not by faith alone.
How are we going get free from this Chinese finger trap? [Slide 97] We’re gonna stop struggling, and we’re gonna lean in. That’s how you do it!
So first, let’s lean into the context. Who’s James talking to? What’s he talking about?
Remember, James was a pastor, and he was dealing with a serious problem in his flock.
He had a group of Christians who were mistreating other believers. By their actions, it appears that they did not believe that they needed to be a reflection of God’s love.
They seemed to have reasoned like this: I am saved by grace through faith. I got my salvation for free, and I didn’t have to do anything to get it.
That much is true. But here’s where their thinking went sideways: And since I don’t have to do anything to earn salvation, then I also don’t need to do anything in light of my salvation.
So that’s where James has his verbal guns aimed. He says, That’s dead faith. It’s decaffeinated faith. It’s useless.
And Paul would agree with James. Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?, he asked. By no means!, Rom. 6:1-2. The Gospel is not a blank check to disobey God’s Law.
Both James and Paul and every other NT author would agree that if you believe salvation by grace through faith alone is a license to do whatever you feel like, you haven’t really understood the Gospel. So you might not really be saved.
James and Paul would agree that if your faith is alive, if it has any get-up-and-go in it, it’s going to bear good fruit, especially love for other believers. James 2:8 says: If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right,
And Paul says: the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Gal. 5:14.
And love has standards, you see. That’s kind of James’ whole point.
Living faith—caffeinated faith with some get-up-and-go in it—will lead Christians as Paul would say, to bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ, Gal. 6:2.
And that’s exactly what James was not seeing in his church. He saw people who said they were Christians not bearing one another’s burdens. But judging one another’s burdens. Complaining about one another’s burdens. And even adding to one another’s burdens.
And that’s why he had to say: You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
Or as it says in the ESV, and most translations—they are justified by works, and not by faith alone.
And that’s the tricky, sticky, thorn-bush everybody gets stuck on. Paul says we are absolutely not justified by works, but by faith alone. James says that we absolutely are justified by works, and not faith alone.
Church, remember—let’s stop struggling with it, and lean in!
Justified in whose eyes? Getting unstuck from the Chinese finger trap
You know, the exact same words can mean something completely different depending on context.
Here’s an example. The other day, I was trying to read with Auggie. But he got frustrated about something and threw the book at me.
Now, if I were to tell you I went to court, and the judge threw the book at me—that would mean something completely different, wouldn’t it?
Something like that is going on with Paul and James.
And you can clear it up by asking one simple question of this text. Are you ready for it?
Considered righteous by whom? In whose eyes is a Christian justified by their works?
Well, we know who it’s not. Rom. 3:20 states emphatically that no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law. No one will ever be justified in God’s sight by what they do.
James is talking about how other people will know that our faith is real and living and saving faith.
And if you’re reading closely, you can see that. James already told us that in last week’s passage. James 2:18: Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.
Notice he says, Show me your faith by itself, and I will show you mine by what I do. This is about showing others that our faith is genuine, and our Gospel does what we say it does.
In this section, James is most concerned with how believers treat each other before the eyes of the world. I’ll come back to that idea, and develop it some more in a little bit.
But now we’re finally unstuck from the Chinese finger trap.
Paul was speaking primarily to Christians who thought salvation by faith alone was too good to be true. So he had to reassure them. A lot.
But James was speaking to Christians who were abusing salvation by faith alone as an excuse not to love God and their neighbor.
And this is not the way of faith, James says.
So James imparted some of God’s wisdom, from God’s word, to his flock.
And this wisdom is just as true for us now, as it was for Christians back then. James leaned on scripture to present us with evidence that faith without deeds is useless, James 2:20.
And the scripture he leaned on is a truly frightening story about Abraham from way back in the book of Genesis.
Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?, James 2:21.
Not considered righteous in God’s eyes. Long before that moment, when he tied Isaac on the altar and lifted the knife … long before Isaac was ever born … God had told Abraham to look at the stars in the sky, and promised that Abraham’s descendants would fill the earth and shine, like those stars filled that clear evening sky.
And Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness, Gen. 15:6.
Abraham had already been justified by faith in God’s courtroom long before he led his only son Isaac up that hill, with the wood for the offering on Isaac’s back.
Abraham wasn’t saved by his willingness to offer his only son. He was saved a long time before that.
I don’t know if you picked up on this or not when we read the story of Isaac’s sacrifice this morning. God says something kind of weird to Abraham. Gen. 22:12: Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.
So did God really not know whether Abraham would obey? Did God really not know the quality of Abraham’s faith? Heavens to Betsy, no!
We heard from Hebrews 11:19 today that, before Abraham and Isaac went up that hill, Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead. He had faith. And so he obeyed. Even when it seemed like obeying God would be the end of everything.
Because remember, if you know the story—Isaac was the son of promise. He was Abraham’s whole future. All of God’s promises depended on Isaac.
God never asks a question He doesn’t already know the answer to. And nothing you do, or fail to do, is ever going to prove your faith to Him. He knows whether you believe Him or not. The Lord knows those who are his, 2 Tim. 2:19. He wouldn’t be any kind of God if He didn’t!
The problem James is dealing with isn’t whether God knows you believe. It’s whether or not anyone else does.
Abraham was already justified by faith.
Abraham was already God’s friend, as James will say in v23.
In fact—I want you to hear what Paul says about all this. Rom. 4:2: If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.
Paul specifically teaches that Abraham was not justified by works in God’s eyes. And since God is not the author of confusion, His Word isn’t going to contradict itself.
So when James says that Abraham was considered righteous for what he did—or that he was justified by works—he means the faithful witness Abraham left behind for future generations to see. And learn from.
See, we’re still talking about the faith of Abraham. And how do we know about Abraham’s faith? Because his faith led him to action. He believed God, and because he believed God—he obeyed God.
And that’s James’ point in v22: You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.
Abraham’s actions show us that his faith was real, saving faith—not just a sentimental feeling, or warm fuzzies. Not done out of fear or trying to score points with God. But because Abraham believed God’s Word, and God’s promises.
And because Abraham believed, and he acted on his faith—God used his obedience to leave us a powerful foreshadowing of the Gospel.
How Abraham’s faith points us to the gospel
So here’s your good news for the day, church. Because of his living and active faith, Abraham led his son, his only son Isaac, up a mountain—to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to God.
Genesis 22 tells us that Isaac carried the wood for the offering on his back.
But just as Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, his only son Isaac, whom he loved—the Lord stopped him, and provided a life in place of Isaac’s.
God told Abraham: No, Abraham. It will not be your son.
Don’t you see? Abraham could have made thousands of offerings to God. And that still wouldn’t satisfy God’s perfect righteousness.
We do not and cannot make an offering to God that will make us righteous in His sight. Nothing we can bring Him, no matter how costly; nothing we can do with our hands or say with our lips—that can make atonement for our sin.
That’s why God offered His Son. His only Son, Jesus Christ, whom He loved. Like Isaac before Him, Jesus climbed up a mountain, with the wood for the sacrifice on His back.
Only this time, it was a cross.
On that mountain, the Lord provided a perfect sacrifice—a substitute to spare our lives from eternal death.
And as soon as we believe—as soon as faith is Christ’s finished work comes to life in us—in God’s courtroom, we are justified. We are declared not guilty by God.
Like Abraham, we believe God, and God credits our faith as righteousness. In fact, Christ took our sin to the cross, and God gives us Christ’s righteousness.
Now, that’s the Gospel, church. We are not justified in God’s eyes by anything we do. God justifies us, God declares us righteous, by faith alone.
Faith + works = salvation; Faith –> salvation + works
So, then—what was James teaching us in our passage today? When he said that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone?
Let me lay it out for you as a simple equation. Like—basic kindergarten math.
James was not teaching us that faith plus works equals salvation. That would contradict everything we see in the Bible, especially Paul.
He was teaching us that faith leads to salvation, plus works. In other words, faith is what saves us, and God’s work in salvation produces transformed lives. Our salvation shows up in our thoughts, words, and actions.
The apostle Paul calls it being transformed by the renewing of our minds, Rom. 12:2.
There’s a popular buzz phrase I hear a lot these days. I hear Christians being challenged to live the Gospel, or live out the Gospel.
I am sorry to say that you and I cannot live out the Gospel. Not one of us has ever been God made flesh.
Not one of us has ever lived in perfect obedience to God’s Law, and suffered its just punishments in the place of sinners.
Not one of us has or can make sinners right with God by our perfect life and substitutionary death.
There’s only one Man who ever lived out the Gospel, and that was Jesus Christ.
But you know what we can do? We can live in faith, and by faith. And we can live out our faith.
And that is what James has taught us today. Like Abraham, we can make our faith complete by our obedience.
While Abraham didn’t live out the Gospel by his obedience, his obedience did point to the Gospel in a visible way.
But God is not commanding any of us to do something as awful as sacrificing our only son. He’s calling us to love Him, and love our neighbors. And when we love well, when we do justice and mercy, and walk humbly with our God—like Abraham, our obedience in faith will point others to the Gospel.
Our good works play no part in our salvation. But they do glorify God. In view of God’s mercy, [we] offer [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, Rom. 12:1. Our obedience is a sweet thanksgiving offering to the Lord.
Our good works are not the basis of our assurance in Christ. But they can be assured that we do have true, saving faith by seeing the fruits it has produced. 2 Peter 1:10 tells us to make every effort to confirm [our] calling and election. When we see ourselves growing in knowledge of the Lord, and in goodness, and in patience, and in mutual affection and love—we can be assured that God planted those good fruits in us.
Finally, our good works do not make us righteous in God’s eyes. But they do demonstrate our faith in the eyes of other people. With fellow believers, Paul tells us to pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. And those things that make for mutual upbuilding are righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, Rom. 14:17, 19.
And God also uses our living and active faith to point unbelievers to the Gospel. Just like Jesus taught us: let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven, Matt. 5:16.
Salvation by grace through faith alone means that we’re not obeying God out of fear or duty. We obey out of love and trust and gratitude.
That being said—living our our faith, active faith, faith with some get-up-and-go in it—begins right here in the church. Among ourselves. Yes, even in this very building.
So here’s our homework, sisters and brothers. One of the greatest times I’ve seen this church united, working in faith, was when we were working together to get this building ready to move in.
We were working hard, but working together. We were resting in the Lord, and leaning on each other. It was awesome.
I think it’s time for us to start brainstorming another work day. I bet our Board could put together a wish list.
And I know there’s stuff in the building and grounds here we could do to make this beautiful home God has given us even more beautiful.
But also—to build each other up in love and encouragement as the household of God. So let’s be thinking about that, beginning this week.
Because when our faith gets moving—whether here with each other, or out in the community—we glorify God and we enjoy God. And others will see the good we’re doing, and they’ll glorify God along with us!