Over the last five weeks, we’ve taken a look at a case study on the apparent doctrinal contradiction between the loving God of the New Testament and the wrathful God presented in the Old Testament. Today, we’ll take a look at a second case study, examining the tension which exists between the Scriptural depictions of Law and Grace.
Anyone who has ever conversed with a Biblical Christian about their faith has likely heard the words of Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (NASB) Used to demonstrate that there is nothing a human being can do to restore their relationship with God, verses like these seem to be at odds with passages like James 2:14, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” If doctrinal non-contradiction is a rule for establishing canon, how did both passages make it into the Bible?
To answer this question, we need to spend a few minutes in the Old Testament. The first five books (known as the Pentateuch) focus heavily upon the Law that God gave to His people – so much so that some have been led to believe that the rule for Salvation actually changes somewhere between the Old and New Testaments. A closer examination of the text, however, reveals that this is far from the truth. In fact, passages like Genesis 15:6: “Then he believed the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” and Habakuk 2:4: “Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; But the righteous will live by his faith” clearly indicate that even when the Law was being actively observed, it was not obedience which saved a man, but faith.
If this is the case, why did God bother with the Law at all? According to Galatians 3:24-26, “the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” Rather than being a means by which a person can be saved, the Law is a means for demonstrating that people need to be saved. Our inability to perfectly keep God’s rules is immediately apparent when we compare our actual behavior with this depiction of desirable behavior. We just can’t do it. And that’s the point.
Paul clarifies the point in Romans 4:1-8, “What then shall we say that Abraham our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ (Genesis 15:6) Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the mad to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account’ (Psalm 32:1,2).” The truth is, God’s gift to us becomes all that much more magnificent when we realize that we can do nothing to contribute to our own Salvation!
So how do we clarify the presence of a text like James 2:14 in the midst of all these verses about salvation through faith? More easily than you might think! My Dad used to say that if you ignore context, you can make the Bible say anything you like. His favorite example was to mix the phrases, “Judas went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5) and “Go thou and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Of course, any intelligent observer would note that the two verses involved different situations and were found at different places within the text. They really had nothing to do with one another other than the fact that they were both a part of the sacred writ.
The same principle applies to Ephesians 2:8-9 (written to a Church that needed to be reminded that it was faith, not works which saved them) and James 2:14 (which was written to a congregation struggling with persecution and fighting to “let their light shine”). While the former needed to remember the origins of their Salvation, the latter needed to be reminded that true faith would bear real fruit. I love to compare this to the difference between saying that I believe a chair will hold my weight and actually sitting in the chair and proving that I believe it won’t collapse beneath me. James was pointing out that real faith is more than just uttering a few words about “trusting Jesus for Salvation” – it was about actually trusting Jesus. And actual trust is demonstrated through obedience.
So do the two passages contradict? Not at all! In fact, we find that both are in perfect harmony – real faith, actual trust in Christ as the full payment for our sins – will save us. Not works. Not empty words. Genuine faith.
Next week, we’re back on track, investigating the role of “authenticity” (Was the book written by an eye-witness or someone else?) in the selection of the Christian canon. Meanwhile, if you’d like a more in-depth look at the roles of faith and works, why don’t you take some time to read through the book of Romans? It’s a short read, full of deep theology!