On the surface, there seems to be two seemingly contradictory ideas between: 1/ James and his faith proved by action in James 2, and, 2/ Luther’s doctrine of justification that we cannot be saved by our good works. I’ve heard Christians present James as a counter-argument to the doctrine of justification by faith.
The Reformational teaching of justification by grace thru faith says that we cannot be saved by our good works because we are all imperfect sinners at heart. Our works will never be good enough for God. We can only be saved through our faith in Jesus. The Apostle Paul taught, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28). Ditto in Rom. 4:5; 11:6; Gal. 2:16, 3:5-6; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:9, plus many more.
James 2:20-24 seems to juxtapose an alternate view of faith and action:
“20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”
These are two different ideas. There is no contradiction here but it seems so easy to confuse these two ideas.
I believe in a monergistic view of justification (the forgiveness of sins) — that is, Christ is solely responsible for giving us faith to believe in Christ, and we contribute nothing to our spiritual regeneration.
“I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith“. (Martin Luther, Small Catechism)
“Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe even more boldly and rejoice in Christ, who is victor over sin, death, and the world”. (Luther)
For me personally, the issue of justification is not an issue. The issue is sanctification. My question is whether sanctification is merely a question of semantics, or is there a big difference? [ first a definition: ] Sanctification is the being made holy. It denotes the inward spiritual transformation of the believer, whereby, one is made holy. Justification is the source of sanctification. Sanctification comes as a result when one becomes justified in Christ Jesus.
Evangelicals seem to focus on sanctification but it is also what trips us up. Sanctification can also be somewhat of a tricky issue to define—is it monergistic or synergistic? I’ve been searching but this is some of what I’ve found (Puritan Board; Monergism). Some see sanctification as a something we do in cooperation with God. Some see it as something that God alone does for us. If we see it from a horizontal basis, then in this sense, you could say it’s synergistic, or cooperative; but on a vertical basis, it is monergistic. It can be seen as being both; and this is why this can be a little confusing. What is it–monergistic, synergistic, or simply cooperative?
In Scot McKnight’s article in the December issue of Christianity Today [ HatTip: TC ] I think he is really onto something big here. He is bringing up an issue that is just on the cusp of really becoming a major issue within evangelical Christianity, especially amongst younger evangelicals. People are finding that they can resonate more with Jesus’ kingdom vision rather than Paul’s message of justification. For those who don’t think so, just wait and see. Today, there is a disconnect between our inability to connect Jesus’ language about the “kingdom of God” with Paul’s language of justification, says McKnight. What McKnight wants us to see is that the two can be reconciled.
This article has caused me to become more self-aware of the change in my own theology. In coming out of a Lutheran seminary two years ago. I have been more storied in the justice/kingdom language in the gospels of Jesus rather than the justification language of Paul’s epistles. As a result, I have been preaching more from the gospels–actually more than double the number of sermons on Paul’s epistles. Why? Perhaps I just feel more comfortable with Jesus’ kingdom of God, and less comfortable with Paul’s justification. I am an evangelical, but am I a typical evangelical? Perhaps…perhaps not. However, I think this may be representative of many recent seminary graduates, especially those coming out from more liberal seminaries where social justice is sometimes over-emphasized.
During my seminary days, I have heard far more sermons in chapel on the gospels of Jesus rather than on Paul’s epistles….in church too. What will be a consequence of this change? Our sermons will become more justice-oriented rather than justification-oriented. Perhaps this may have contributed to the mainline denominations emphasis on justice in their theology. . Perhaps I need to be re-storied in Paul’s language of justification rather than Jesus’ justice language on the kingdom of God? Where is the balance in my life? Perhaps this is why I’ve decided to take continue education classes at an evangelical seminary because I feel that I am missing out on an evangelical slant on Paul’s understanding of the gospel.
In our evangelical minds, we may like to think of ourselves as pro-justification and on the side of Paul, but our theology may actually be more in line with the justice of Jesus’ kingdom of God. Regarding gospelling, McKnight says in the video interview, that we have moved into a persuasive rhetoric, whereas, we used to use declarative rhetoric. Persuasive rhetoric is open to manipulation so we should be more declarative in our gospelling. [ video here…]
In your church, are you hearing more sermons based on the gospel text? Or on Paul’s epistles?
Do Catholics and Protestants have a similar understanding of “justification by faith”? Some suggest that if we combine the Protestant and Catholic understandings of justification, we would have a more complete understanding of what justification means. Is this possible? Or are these two views necessarily exclusive views?
Catholics believe that serious sin breaks the bond of charity between us and God. When one commits mortal sins one in a sense, rejects God’s supernatural grace and is no longer in a state of grace. This state of grace can be reestablished by the sacrament of reconciliation: confession of the sin, repentance, and forgiveness. Catholics use the term “infused grace” (related to “effective justification”) to emphasize that in salvation, grace comes to be present in us. One remains in a state of grace only as long as by one continues to be reconciled with Christ, then this infused grace, which makes one righteous, continues to be present. It is still viewed as a supernatural gift that comes from God alone. For Catholics, justification is a sort of a process where one cooperates in maintaining a right relationship with God after one commits serious sin. Protestants fear that this process of cooperation can lead to “works righteousness”.
Protestants of the Protestant Reformation like Luther, Calvin, and Melanchton believe that one’s relationship with God continues in full force even after mortal sins. One has an unbreakable relationship with God. Sin can never break one’s relationship with God because of our bond with Christ. Even though sin may hurt the heart of God, our relationship is never broken. Protestants use the term “imputed righteousness” to emphasize the righteousness that comes solely from Christ and is not from human works (related to “forensic justification”). For Catholics, serious sin breaks the bond of charity between us and God. Catholics fear that one could fall into a moral and spiritual laxness because one might become complacent and doesn’t feel a need to maintain a right relationship with God. (photos: top: John Calvin; middle: Martin Luther; bottom: Philipp Melanchton)