14 March 2009

Faith and Works in Justification: A Consideration of Paul and James, Derek Thomas (PCRT 2009, Sacramento)

by Dan Phillips

This was a seminar held at 3:15pm Saturday.

Thomas began by praying, then reading James 2:14-22. (When he read "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" [v. 22], Thomas quipped, "It's right there in the Bible.") Then he read Romans 3:28, which seems to say the opposite. Then Thomas added Romans 2:13, that the doers of God are justified, and said it's worse than Paul against James. It is in fact Paul against Paul!

His point: the issue can't be resolved by taking Liberal Scissors and just slicing off James from Paul. There is in fact a strand of teaching in the NT that we will be judged according to our works. This is shocking to some; many of his students answer wrongly, when asked whether there will be, on the last day, a judgment according toworks. How to fit it into the whole?

Passages such as Colossians 3:24-25, and 1 Peter 1:17, and many others suggest an important relation of works to our Christian lives, and to God's judgment of us.

Thomas says Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, in his commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:10, suggests the key to understanding this teaching. Paul is addressing Christians; and Hughes says that it is important to see that the purpose of this tribunal is retributive, not penal. The judgment is not a declaration of doom, but an assessment of worth, with an assignment of works to those who, by reason of their faithfulness, deserve them.

This is not an unusual teaching in the history of Reformed teaching, but it has virtually disappeared in the last 25-30 years, to be replaced by an odd sort of egalitarianism.

Three ways of harmonizing have been proposed.
  1. James is hear using dikaioĊ (justify) different than Paul uses it, in the sense of vindication - to be in the right. His works prove his salvation.
  2. Both that and pistis (faith) are being used differently in James and Paul. James has in view professing faith, and the vindication of true faith. John Owen propounds this in volume 5 of his Works.
  3. James has in view a different kind of faith (nominal), and a different kind of works (works of faith, not of flesh or the law). Galatians 5:6 is the key to harmonizing: faith always works by love. So the faith that James condemns is different than the faith Paul commends, and the works Paul condemns are different than the works James commends.
Shockingly, Thomas asked if it is possible for Christians to fall from grace - and insisted that the answer is "Yes." Then he said, "Is it possible for professing Christians to fall from grace?", and when everyone more heartily said "Yes," he asked "How do you tell the difference?"

He told the tale of a girl he knew long ago, who was always witnessing, one of the most vibrant Christians he'd ever known. But then her father said that, if she'd give up on Christianity, he'd buy her a house when she graduated. She did, and he did. Godly, earnest - and she fell, and has remained in that state for 35 years.

So, Faith A and Faith B both think they have genuine faith. See Faith A in v. 14: a faith that does not have works (vv. 14, 20), apart from works (v. 18), unacompanied by action (v. 17), isolated from deeds (v. 24). It is "faith alone" in the sense that it is isolated from works.
Faith B is shown by what it does, or consummated in actions (v. 23).

So James asks whether Faith A can save (v. 14), and he clearly expects the answer, "No." Why? Because Faith A does not work. On what presupposition does he reach that conclusion? On the premise that saving faith always works - which Reformers have always confirmed.

He is using "Faith" in two quite different senses himself, then. So the example of Abraham shows that Abraham's works showed his right relationship with God through genuine faith. The key is in verse 18: what a man does is the touchstone of faith. Faith without works is dead, and thus is no faith at all. Faith is not an abstraction; it is a way of describing a man who is united with Christ.

Then Thomas spoke about Norman Shepherd, who begins his work with James, thus going contrary to the accepted Reformed practice of starting with the clear when approaching the unclear. Shepherd then argued that James used "justify" in the same sense as Paul, and inevitably ended up with justification by works.

In summary: the more important question is reconciling James with James. He is using the words in two different senses. It is a claim to faith that James is testing.

Dan Phillips's signature


The Squirrel said...

Yep, what you really believe will always effect what you do. If you really believe that the building you are in is about to fall down, you will act on that belief. If you don't act, it just shows that you don't believe.

Great job this weekend, Dan. Thanks!

The Squirrel

Strong Tower said...

The kind of "works" that James points to in Abraham is of a peculiar nature. That should tell us something.

"Faith B is shown by what it does, or consummated in actions"

Paul told Timothy to study to show himself "one approved." And I think that the two words may have the same root derivation since the meanings are nearly synonomous.

The idea is basically that the creation declares the glory of God, being toward him praise for what he has made.

The same idea is used of Jesus when it says he was "justified in the Spirit" is linked with, show, declare, et cetera. In otherwords, the kinds of works reveal the a work which nothing can corrupt. They do not make the thing what it is, they are the thing which they declare. Faith is the thing down under, as Hebrews 11 declares.

"it is a way of describing a man who is united with Christ."

To expand this, faith is the way of declaring Christ. Abraham's works, as James describes, are peculiar. They are not just any works of good. James tied this to the inter-fellowship behaviors and goes along with: "They will know that you are my disciples by your love for one another."

A peculiar type of good work that is different than the self-righteous good works in the world which pit a man against his brother takes us all the way back to the death of righteous Abel.

Just some thoughts.

Trinity said...

The off-shoot you describe about his discussion of the woman he claims "fell from grace" doesn't quite make sense. Either she was never a Christian in the first place or she has fallen away temporarily until she is drawn back by the Holy Spirit in repentence. Maybe I'm not understanding his point, but to say that Christians can fall from grace does not seem correct.

DJP said...

InAwe, it makes sense taken with the preceding paragraph:

Shockingly, Thomas asked if it is possible for Christians to fall from grace - and insisted that the answer is "Yes." Then he said, "Is it possible for professing Christians to fall from grace?", and when everyone more heartily said "Yes," he asked "How do you tell the difference?"

She illustrates a person who professed to have faith — zealously! vociferously! — yet the test of time revealed a fatal flaw.

I wish I could have typed fast enough to reproduce what Thomas did verbatim, but it was very effective, and I think Biblical. Here are 100 people who are "Christians." They all say they are. But some will fall from grace. That is, some of these "Christians" will, one day, not be "Christians."

So a "Christian" can fall from grace. How do you know? By his deeds.

Is that clearer? Thomas affirmed that God truly and unerringly keeps His own — but He does not necessarily keep all who claim to be His own, because they are a subset of professors.

I hope that helps; his talk was very helpful to me.

DJP said...


"what Thomas did" = "what Thomas said"

I think my fingers are worn out.


Strong Tower said...


Of all the people who have live-blogged a conference, there are none like what you did. Your fingers worked just fine, they just need a rest. I am amazed at what you've done.

Thanks again.

Stefan Ewing said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stefan Ewing said...

I guess the point is that, we can affirm from a soteriological point of view that all those who are truly Christians will persevere by God's grace to the end; and all those who fall away were not truly Christians in the first place.

But before a person's falling away happens, he or she may appear to all intents and purposes to be a believer, and bearing fruit. Perhaps if we could see inside that person's heart, we would know that they are not truly born again; but outward activity might mask the true affections of the heart.

Just as we can't know who among a hundred non-believers is of the elect (and will thus one day be a believer), likewise we can't ultimately know 100% for sure who among professing believers is truly of the elect, either. Such people may themselves be deluded, and they might catch an inkling of their state long before the rest of us do, but we may well not know until they pull a Charles Templeton on us.

If others cannot truly know what is in our own hearts, then it is incumbent on us to examine own hearts for ourselves, to see if we are truly walking in faith, and if we are walking predicated on a firm and strong foundation.

Now, here's the key. If we determine that we ourselves are not truly walking in faith, what is the solution? To work harder? To try to be more holy? Or alternatively, to coddle and nurture our doubts? Or resign ourselves to our besetting sins?

No. It's to repent and turn back to the Cross, and fall once more on Jesus Christ, since in the end that's all any of us boastful, proud sinners have.

This is a good reminder that I too, need to examine myself, and my affections and motives, to "make my calling and election sure" and to "work out my salvation with fear and trembling."

I do think I'm truly born again, but I sometimes conduct myself as if the Final Judgement is some abstract concept, not an imminent reality.

Mike Riccardi said...

It's interesting, though, to use the term "fallen from grace." What grace did they fall from?

DJP said...

Though Thomas did not, I would probably connect to Galatians 5:4.

Mike Riccardi said...

Right... I was thinking about that connection myself, but wondering what it meant. It'd be improper to interpret "grace" in Gal 5:4, wouldn't it, as saving grace. And it'd be wrong to say they'd fallen from common grace. That'd mean they'd've gone to hell.

So I guess, they've fallen from the concept of grace being how they're going to live the Christian life. Is that in the ballpark?