Justification by Faith (Romans Sermon 21 of 120)
June 18, 2000 | Andrew Davis
Faith, Justification, Good Works
The Condemnation of a Righteous Man: John Wycliffe
Now, those of you who've been following along, we've been traveling through the Book of Romans, and this morning we're going to continue to some degree in Romans, but I want you to look also with me this morning at the Book of James. So if you would, open to Romans chapter 4, and perhaps put something in it and then look over at James chapter 2. This morning we're going to be looking at these two different texts and we're going to be seeing the issue of whether God, in His word, speaks two different words through both James and Paul on the issue of justification. Do James and Paul understand justification the same way? Or do they contradict one another? And as we begin our journey, I'm going to start back in the year of 1422. From that year, Roman Catholic authorities condemned an Englishman for heresy and they ordered that his body be burned and the ashes scattered over the Swift River in England. His name was John Wycliffe and his crime was simple. He had the temerity, the boldness to translate the scriptures into the common language of the people.
Catholic bishops said this about Wycliffe's crime. This is a quote, "That pestilent and most wretched John Wycliffe of damnable memory, a child of the old devil and himself a child or a pupil of anti-Christ who while he lived walking in the vanity of his mind, crowned his wickedness by translating the scriptures into the mother tongue." That was his crime. Well, the sentence was indeed carried out. Wycliffe's body was burned and his ashes were spread over the Swift River. The most amazing aspect about this, though, is that he had been dead for 44 years. They dug his bones up and they burned his bones and scattered the ashes over the Swift River. Now, why did they do that? Because of their opposition to his practice of translating the scripture into the common language. Now, exactly 100 years later, 1522, Martin Luther published his edition of the New Testament in the German language, the language of the common people. The Catholic church hadn't changed much in a hundred years, Roman Catholics condemned his effort, they condemned his work and ordered that his bible be burned wherever it could be found. And any booksellers that sold the German bible would also be subject and liable to penalties and to persecution.
Now, why did the Catholics dig up a dead man, may have been dead for 44 years, and burned his bones, and why did they order that the pages of holy scripture be burned? Because they were convinced that the bible was so complicated that people like you and me could not understand it, we'd just get into trouble with it, and so we needed to leave that to the priests and to the clerics who would explain it all for us. And so they forbid that the scripture be translated into the common language. Now, these days, we probably have over 20 good solid translations in English. The problem has been solved. The Reformation solved it. And we have the English bible. It's hard for us to understand just the issues at stake there and what was struggled over and what was fought over. Now, Martin Luther, when he translated the New Testament into German and published the New Testament in the common language, understood that there were complexities in scripture that could not easily be explained, and so he published an introduction to each book of the New Testament so that people reading it would understand its message.
I. Martin Luther’s Struggle with James
He gave special attention to one book of the Bible, and that's the Book of James. For when he came to the Book of James, he struggles. I would say he stumbles. Because of his discovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works, he could not understand James chapter 2. Now, we've been studying in Romans and we've seen what it is that Paul's been saying in Romans and how Paul seeks to expound the gospel. That gospel is the only message of salvation for a sinful world. Any of us who are in this room today, who expect to stand before God, blameless and holy on Judgment Day will do so on the basis of the gospel that Paul wrote, as shown clearly in the Book of Romans. We will stand before God holy and blameless because of faith in Christ and what He accomplished on the cross alone. And in Romans 1:17, Luther's great freedom verse, for Luther was not a free man before he understood this message. Luther was a medieval Catholic trying to work out his salvation through prayer, through fasting, through alms-giving, through good deeds, and he could never do enough to satisfy his conscience. What is enough? What is enough before the holiness of the throne of God? What is enough? There was no answer. He could never be free.
Until he came to Romans 1:17 and there it says, in Romans 1:16 it says, "I'm not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, for the Jew first then for the Gentile." Verse 17, "For in the gospel, the righteousness from God is revealed. A righteousness that is from faith to faith just as it is written. The righteous will live by faith." And then the gates of heaven opened up for him. And he saw it was by faith alone that he could be just. It was a righteousness which God gave as a gift. And so when he came, as we saw in Romans 3:28, which we read in the NIV, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law." He inserted a single word. He inserted the word "alone." "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith alone apart from works of the law." I believe his doctrine was right. I believe his example was wrong. We should never add a single word to the scripture. But his doctrine was right. We are justified by faith alone apart from works of the law.
And Luther speaking of those works and he knew well about those works. In a treatise he wrote in 1520 on the freedom of a Christian man, he wrote this. Speaking of good works, he said, "Unless a man is already a believer and a Christian, his works have no value at all. They are foolish, idle, damnable sins. Because when good works are brought forward as a ground for justification, they are no longer good." In other words, if you stand before God on Judgment Day with a handful of your best deeds, and hope because of them to be cleansed of all your sin, you will be lost. And it's good to know that now. It's good to know that now, so you empty your hands and then with empty hands of faith look up to Jesus alone for your righteousness. Luther discovered that, and he was right. Fasting and prayers and alms-giving, and all the good deeds you could muster will do nothing for you in terms of the payment of your sins, nothing at all. And he discovered that correctly.
And so there was a key Reformation slogan, "justification by faith alone, apart from works." But that little error, that little attitude that Luther had to add a single word in the translation came to full flower when he addressed the Book of James. And in the introduction in the New Testament, in the Book of James, he called it an epistle of straw. And he gets it out of 1 Corinthians 3, which says that on Judgment Day, there'll be a pile of works, and there'll be wood and there'll be hay, and there'll be straw, and then gold, silver, costly stones. He said it's going to burn up on Judgment Day. What a tragedy, because James is the inspired word of God, and Heaven and Earth will disappear, but God's word will never disappear. And that includes the Book of James, he just didn't understand it properly.
Now, in order to explain to you the basis of the controversy, you kind of have to look at specific verses. Look at Romans 4:1. In Romans 4:1, Paul in his argument gets to this point where Abraham's going to be an example of faith, and it says, "What then shall we say, that Abraham, our forefather discovered in this matter," verse 2, "If in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about, but not before God." So here, he's clearly repudiating justification by works. Now, look over at James 2:24. And after a development, which we're going to get into, James 2:24, it says, "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." Well, there it is. There is a contradiction in the Bible. Or is there?
And that's the purpose of my sermon today, that we may understand justification, and along with that, that we may understand the perfection of scripture. There is no contradiction in the Bible. And there's never going to be a contradiction in the Bible, but we still need to understand these things. Is there a disagreement between Paul and James on the issue of justification? This is not a minor question, is it? Isn't the doctrine of justification a thing we're clinging to on whether we're going to get to Heaven or go to Hell? Isn't this the very thing? What about my sins? How can I be forgiven? The issue of justification is huge. And so if there's a disagreement between Paul and James on this, the whole Bible falls apart, we don't have anything. We have nothing to stand on. And so, therefore, we need to return to our doctrine of scripture. And the doctrine of scripture teaches very plainly that every word of scripture's from the mouth of God.
II. The Nature and Purpose of Scripture
The church itself is built, it says in Ephesians chapter 2:19-20, on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone. What does that mean, built on the foundation of apostles and prophets? Well, what is your access to the apostles and prophets? Here it is. Apostles: New Testament. Prophets: Old Testament. Here's the scripture. Scripture provides a solid foundation for the church with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone. And Jesus Himself said, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, He said, "Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a man who built his house on the rock. Rains came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house. But it did not fall because it had its foundation on the rock." What's the difference between rock and sand? Permanence. Permanence stands firm. The doctrine of scripture. 2 Timothy 3:16, "All scripture is God breathed." I like to think of it as exhaled by God. All scripture comes from His heart, and it's exhaled. And it goes into the mind of the prophet, and the prophet just writes, according to the wind of the spirit. He's just led by it. 2 Peter 1:21, "Prophesy never had its origin in the will of man." A man never got up and said, "I'm going to write this prophesy today. It's a good day for writing prophesy. I'm going to write prophesy today."
No, but the Holy Spirit came into him and he wrote words from God as directed by the Holy Spirit. It's the doctrine of scripture. And so Saint Augustine put it this way, "What scripture says, God says." Can you say it any better than that? What scripture says, God says. The scriptures are perfect. They're unbreakable, and they are permanent. They are perfect. Psalm 12:6 says, "The words of the Lord are flawless, like silver, refined in a fire, purified seven times over." There's nothing on Earth that you can find that's perfect, so the Psalmist chooses the silver that's been gone over seven times. But even that's not as perfect as the scripture. Absolutely perfect. The scripture's unbreakable. Jesus said so in John 10:35. He said, "The word of God cannot be broken." The scripture cannot be broken. And so it still remains, two millennia later, and it will remain when all of us are dead and gone, if the Lord doesn't tarry. For the scriptures are permanent, and Jesus said it this way, "Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my words, my words will never pass away."
Not just "my word," a sense of God's communication vaguely. No, "my words," the record of which we have right here in the scripture. My words will never pass away. You'll still be reading them a thousand years from now if the Word doesn't return. Still here and they will be here, that He will make sure that they're here.
Now, what is the purpose of scripture? Why is the scripture here, this book that we've all kind of stumbled upon in our lives? We've moved along and then here it is. Why is it here? 2 Timothy 3:15 tells us that all scripture is given to make us "wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus." It's given to lead us to salvation in Christ and it testifies to that. And therefore, the scripture cannot contradict itself. You remember in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "Let your yes be yes and your no no." Don't contradict yourself. Don't say one thing and do something else. Well, in 2 Corinthians 1:18, Paul writes this, "As surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not yes and no." Do you know what he is saying there? God never says yes and no to the same thing. It's a principle of non-contradiction. He does not contradict Himself. We contradict ourselves all the time because we're of a divided mind, but God's not like us. And so He never speaks yes and no to us.
III. The Challenge of Language
For God is one and speaks one message to us. The fascinating thing, though, about the scripture is that God has taken the messages of salvation and encoded it. Put it into verbs, nouns, adjectives, sentences, paragraphs, which must be read and understood. And that's when you get into difficulties. Words are tough things, aren't they? Any of you who are married, have you ever had words with your spouse? And when you're having words with one another, have you ever noticed that there's a kind of a problem with the words? A person is saying something, the other person doesn't understand what you mean, back and forth. Just missing one another. And the problem is this slippery things called words. I looked up in the Webster Unabridged Dictionary, and I knew there was a certain word I was looking for and I found it. It's the word "set." Do you know that there's 114 different uses or definitions of the word "set" in the English language? That is a tricky word. You have to look in context all the time to try to understand what it means. 114 different uses, 57 of them are verbs, 16 of them are adjectives, the rest are nouns. And then we get a bunch of idioms, like "set out" or "set apart," or "set back," just for the word "set."
And then this one, I was looking for this, and I didn't have to work too hard to find it. This is a contest from Pepperidge Farm, I don't know if any of you saw this in the Sunday morning paper… You enter to win prize packages and all that, what is all this stuff alongside? See this little stuff here? Does it look little to you? It looks little to me. If it looks little to me, it must look little to you. 1,295 words describing the rules of the contest. The lawyers got hold of it. And when the lawyers get hold of it, you've got 1,295 words to try to describe a simple thing like a contest. And what is it they say? Well, I chose one sentence, a representative sentence here. This is one sentence now, "Neither sponsor, Pepperidge Farm, their respective parent companies, management companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, nor their respective officers, directors, shareholders, employees, or agents, nor any telephone network, service providers are responsible for any incorrect or inaccurate transcription of entry information or for any interruption, deletion, defect, line failures of any telephone network or problems relating to computer equipment, hardware or software, inability to access any website or online service or any other human or technical or printing error or malfunction or for lost, late, illegible, misdirected, mutilated, stolen or postage due entries or mail."
What are they saying? They're saying, "If you don't get it in on time, it's your fault, not ours. So don't come and bother us." But they to say it will all these words. That's just the nature of words. But God was willing to do this. He entrusted the message of our salvation to words. He's the first one that did it. You remember, He inscribed the ten commandments with His own finger and gave it to Moses. He started the writing thing. Moses picked it up and started writing the first five books of the Bible, and on we go. He put the words, His words in Jeremiah's mouth and then commanded him, that he write them down on a scroll. And so He bequeathed words to us, and we have to read them and we have to understand them and work with them. And it's not easy, is it? In the new covenant, praise God, He gave us the indwelling Holy Spirit to illuminate his Words, so that the words, which were dead words on a page, come alive for us. They come alive for us. Praise God for the indwelling Holy Spirit to teach us and to guide us into all truth.
But we know that even that Luther understood that we could give the scripture to the common man and woman, and they would read it and they would get the basic message. Does that mean that they would understand everything in scripture? No. There is still need for teaching and the reason is that there are two different kinds of truths in scripture. There are milk truths and there are meat truths. The milk truths are so simple. The child, children at VBS can understand them. God is, exists, He is big and powerful. He created all things. He loves us. He provides for us and gives us food. Our mommies and daddies are part of God's provision for us. People do bad things. God sent His Son. These are basic milk truths. But not everything in scripture is like that. Some things are, some things are high and lofty, as the heavens are higher than the earth. So are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts. And Paul says in Romans 11, "O, the depth of the riches, the wisdom, and the knowledge of God, how unsearchable His judgments and His paths beyond tracing out. Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor?" See, the scripture is high as the heavens or high above the earth and it's deeper than the deepest ocean. This is the nature of scripture.
IV. The Central Issue in Paul: How can a Sinner Be Right with God?
And so it shouldn't surprise us when we come to something like this in scripture where we've got something in Romans and something in James and there seems to be a contradiction, but we have to dig a little deeper to find out what's going on. But God's message to us is not and never will be yes and no. Now, Paul's central message, as Luther understood, is that we cannot stand before God on the basis of our works. We are not justified by works. God is not going to look at your works and assess them and declare you to be righteous on the basis of how good your works were. No, we're waiting for a righteousness that comes from God by faith through Jesus Christ, and that alone, and we look to that by faith. Simple faith, childlike faith. We just trust in Jesus.
V. The Central Issue in James: What Kind of Faith Justifies?
And James comes along and says, "I agree. I agree, Paul, we're justified by faith, but what kind of faith is it that justifies?" And that's the issue that he's dealing with.
Look down. Look with me at James chapter 2. In verse 14, "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds, can such a faith save him?" So he's dealing with the issue of salvation, isn't he? Can such a faith save him? When he uses the phrase "such a faith" he's talking about what kind of faith saves. So he's dealing with the issue of what kind of faith is it that justifies us. In this case, there's a man who claims to have faith but has no deeds that come from the faith. And James asked the pointed question, "Can that kind of faith save him?" The answer is clearly no.
So we're dealing with the claim of faith. There's an underlying problem here, a discrepancy between life. The life and the claim. There's a claim of faith in Christ but the life doesn't live up to the claim. This is a significant issue. Jesus again addressed this in the Sermon on the Mount, "Not everyone who says to me, Lord, lord will enter the Kingdom of Heaven but only he who does the will of my Father in Heaven." Boil it down, not those who say, but those who do. Not those who say, but those who do. Isn't that what James is getting at? If you understand that, you understand James too. It's not those who say but those who do, that comes from true, saving faith. Well, this is a problem for the church today, isn't it?
We have lots of these claims without the doing. Lots of claims without the doing. So many issues the church is just like the world, on entertainment, how we spend our money, spend our time, issues of marriage and divorce, how we raise our children, no different whatsoever from the world, so the statistics say. So we have this claim problem without the deeds backing it up. And so James, we need to hear James, James is important for us today. Because James is asking, going right to the heart of the matter, saying, "What kind of faith is it that saves? What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds." Now, James gives us a negative answer in terms of faith. We're talking about what kind of faith is it that truly will save us.
And he says negatively, "It is not dead faith, it is not demon faith, and it is not useless faith." Those three things. So in this sense he's holding up the counterfeits so that you can look at the counterfeits. Now, Paul does the opposite thing. In Romans 4 we're going to bring up Abraham and he's going to hold up the true thing, the genuine article, so that we get to know what true, saving faith is like. Abraham received a promise from God, believed it and then acted on it based on his faith. Abraham looked at the obstacles, he saw that his body was as good as 100, dead, since he was about 100 years old. Sara's womb was also dead, but he believed that God would give him a child. And it didn't matter the obstacles because God can keep His promises. That's true faith. Then God tested that faith.
He called sometime later after Isaac was born. He said, "Now that you've got your son, the child that I promised, I want you to bring him to a certain mountain." Genesis 22, "And I want you to sacrifice him. Will you obey me?" And he did. And he brought Isaac up to that mountain, bound him up like a sacrifice, took that knife, just about to stick it into his son, in obedience to the command of God. Trusting by faith that God would raise him from the dead, he knew He would, that's what enabled him to obey. Just about to do it and God said, "Stop. Now I know that you fear God." Now, what does that mean, "Now I know"? "God, didn't you know me before? Oh, I knew it but I want to see it lived out. I want to see it in life." Now I know that you believe in Christ because you have done these things." That's what James is getting at.
And so, Paul holds up that genuine article, does the same thing in Galatians 5:6. He says, "Neither circumcision or uncircumcision means anything, counts for anything. What counts is faith working through love." Isn't that the message of James? Faith which works through love is genuine faith, and that's what counts. That's James chapter 2. Alright, let's look at these counterfeits.
Faith Counterfeit # 1: Dead Faith
First is dead faith, verses 15-17. Look at what he says, "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food? If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by deeds is dead." Nothing comes out of it. It's dead faith. It's a hypocritical faith, it's the kind of thing that says, "Oh, go, I wish you well, I hope everything's fine for you." It's all words; word, words, words. But there's no action, there's no life behind it. It's dead. Dead faith.
Paul had just said in Galatians 5:6, "What counts is faith that works through love." When you see a brother or sister in need, love just wells up inside you, and you say, "I want to meet that need. I just want to love him, I want to care for him." That's genuine faith. A faith which never moves into an outward show, into works is dead.
Faith Counterfeit # 2: Demon Faith
The second thing he says in verse 19 is demon faith. You believe that there is one God? Good, even the demons believe that and they shudder, they shudder. Oh, they've got the spiritual facts right, those demons. As a matter of fact, demons, which perhaps surround us all the time, just like the angels, they may be more orthodox in terms of doctrinal facts than many of the people sitting in this room today. They've got the facts straight. You remember that Satan quoted scripture from memory to Jesus in the desert?
Psalm 91. He knows the scripture, got the facts right. Good evidence of this was in Luke 4:33-34. "In the synagogue, it says there was a man possessed by a demon, an evil spirit. And he cried out at the top of his voice, 'What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. The holy one of God.'" That's orthodox. He called him Jesus of Nazareth, fully man, and he says, "I know who you are. The holy one of God." He's fully God. He's got it right. But he shudders. "Have you come here to torture me before the appointed time?" So what is demon faith? Having the orthodox, right answers on a test, but there's no love for God. There's no yearning to please God. It's demon faith.
Faith Counterfeit # 3: Useless Faith
And the final is useless faith. Verse 20, "You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did or justified for what he did when he offered his son, Isaac, on the altar. You see that his faith and his actions were working together and his faith was made complete by what he did." You see, useless faith is the opposite of Abraham's faith. True, saving faith is effective. It produces an effect. In this case it produces obedience. There is an obedience that comes from faith. And so God testified about Abraham's faith, said it's genuine, "Now I know that you fear God because your faith has led you to obey me."
As I look at this issue, as I look at the relationship between James and Paul on justification, I get an image of the Empire State Building. I don't know if any of you have been there, but there's an observation, at least there used to be an observation platform on the top of the Empire State Building. And if you were to walk in one direction as far as you could go on that platform, you would meet with a fence. And the fence is there for your protection, or perhaps the protection of the people walking down below. But they're thinking first of you. And the fence prevents you from going too far in that direction. And Paul erects a fence and he says, "Don't believe for a minute that your energetic obedience to your reading of scripture will pay for your sins because it won't." What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. And so he puts up that fence.
Now, you turn and you walk the other direction on the Empire State Building, as far as you can go, and you get a different view and it's beautiful, and it's majestic, and you meet with another fence, and the fence is there also for your protection. And this is James, and he says, "Don't think for a minute that you can kick back and be lazy and self-indulgent in your Christian life and think that your works mean nothing in your salvation, because your works are evidence that your faith is genuine." You see the protection that God has put up in James and in Paul so that we understand justification properly? The faith which justifies always produces good fruit. God is going to bring you back in salvation to the spiritual law that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and you will love your neighbor as yourself. True faith works itself out through love.
VI. Luther’s Take
Let's let Martin Luther finish up for us today. Luther resolved this with this phrase, "We are truly justified by faith alone, apart from works, but the faith which justifies is never alone, it always results in works." Well, how do we apply the scripture to ourselves? We're about to come to the Lord's Supper, and Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 13:5, a verse that I would like all of you to take into your hearts now as we prepare. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul says that we should examine ourselves before we go to the Lord's Supper, we should test ourselves. He says the same thing in 2 Corinthians 13:5. This is what the verse says, "Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith. Don't you know that Jesus Christ is in you? Unless, of course, you fail the test." Modern evangelicalism hates this verse. They say that we should never ask this kind of question, that we should never look inward and say, "Is there fruit coming from my faith? Is something coming out of it? Is there obedience, is there love, is there a change in me?" We should do that and we should do it now.