Of Justification, and the Language of James
Divide and Conference
This post on justification may be really boring for some of you since I'll be saying no more than has already been clearly stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Unfortunately, for a few reasons, I need to restate it in the tongue of a lumberjack. It will be valuable, for me at least, to have my convictions on record and available to others.
With my recent blogs about the necessity of a living faith for salvation, some have persisted with the charge that I have an unorthodox view of justification. If that was as far as it went, I'd be okay with it. I'm not surprised when Martin Luther Wannabes imitate Martin Luther poorly.
What is new though, is that the same people are now saying publicly that all faithful Christians ought to separate themselves from those who believe as I do. For them, this is THE application of Paul's instruction in 2 Corinthians 6:17 to our day, which says,
"Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you."
Yes...at a recent conference, the people of God were encouraged to apply this verse to people like me.
Intentional Friendly Fire
From my perspective, these brothers hold the same view of justification that I do. They are cutting me out of the covenant people without cause. So for their sake, I am going to prove how much we do agree.
Why do they believe we do not share the same convictions? They are running on assumptions about my previous posts. These assumptions are easy to point out.
To prove the need for living faith, I gave my interpretation of James 2— a passage that contains the word "justification". Though I did not discuss how that word should be understood there, my discussion on the faith that justifies led them to assume something other than my understanding of justification.
What they have assumed does not necessarily follow from my interpretation.
So the first order of business is to say what I believe about the doctrine of justification. From here I will be a little more formal. Here we go.
By the Father's sovereign decree, there is a definite number, secret to us, and as innumerable as the stars (from our perspective), who are justified based on the finished work of Christ. This number are justified individually and irreversibly at the point of their conversion when God imputes the righteousness of Jesus Christ to them. The ground of their justification can be nothing more than this righteousness since his righteousness is perfect and cannot be added to. The legal demands for every sin were met, and his perfect righteousness is accounted to us. All the elect are given this righteousness through the sole instrument of faith when God gives it to them as a gift of his grace.
Therefore, one is justified when they are "receiving and resting [in Christ] and His righteousness, by faith" (WCF XI.1). Those that God justifies can never lose their legal standing before Him since it has been accomplished in the past through a previous work. Forensic justification is, therefore, not dependent on any action beyond the cross, but is imputed to us by faith.
Sound legit? I thought so (back to Lumberjack Speak).
James and Justification
So what does James mean when he says we are justified by works?
"You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." (James 2:24)
Well... most people put forward one of two options. Going from worst to not-as-bad:
You can go full Catholic and say that your legal standing before God depends upon your works being added to Christ's works. This option clearly destroys the possibility of any human receiving justification. And more importantly, it is unbiblical. The merits of Christ are sufficient, and any added works are menstrual rags in comparison. The Catholic view diminishes Christ and causes the sinner to strive for what will always be beyond his reach.
You can understand justification as “vindication.” True saving faith is vindicated by what accompanies it— the conviction and willingness to act upon your beliefs. James calls these actions works. Paul calls these actions fruit.
I believe everything that this second option teaches. This passage does teach that faith is vindicated by works. "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works." (v.18) But that is not all that it teaches. The issue I have with this interpretation is that it does not properly reckon with the way James uses the word justified.
James does not say that Abraham's faith was justified (or vindicated) by works. It says, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?" (James 2:21, emphasis added). Abraham himself was justified when he offered up his son, not his faith.
Taking James' language seriously, how can we reconcile it with the view of justification that the Westminster Confession and I have suggested above? Like this:
In the same way that Paul is not saying a woman is saved the moment she bears a child in 1 Timothy 2:15, James does not have the timing of justification in view here. He speaks freely of justification as something that can be seen in time through a living faith in operation. He teaches us that justification is so inseparable from faith that it can be pointed out in every expression of it.
This is why James could so freely say that Abraham was "justified by works". Because James presupposes we are justified by a living faith, he can emphasize that it is in living out our faith that we are justified. Abraham's works were his faith in action. He was justified when he obeyed, not because obedience earned him anything with God, but because it was the "obedience of faith" (Rom 1:5; 16:26).
James says that Abraham was justified "when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar." Was he not justified before that? He certainly was:
"Was [righteousness counted to Abraham] before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised." (Romans 4:9–10)
There is a sense in which justification was Abraham's before he had offered his son. That is the sense that Paul is concerned with. And there is a sense in which Abraham was justified by the obedience of faith later. Faith united Abraham to Christ throughout his life, granting him all of Christ's merits all of the time. A faith that sprang up from the rocks and now lies shriveled and worksless is disconnected from Christ, and therefore, not a faith that justifies.
Reformed Jail for Those Using James' Rhetoric
I have submitted all along that we must be free to speak as the biblical authors do. Systematic theology must not have authority over our hermeneutics, and by extension, over what speech is permissible for the Christian. Our Reformed theology should never be so narrow that it would exclude biblical ways of speaking.
Though justification, rightly understood, is possessed by the Christian at the moment of conversion, we can speak about it as something being possessed throughout time. God-wrought faith will continue to the end, and the obedience of faith will be a continual witness to our possession of justification.
Some will inevitably say that the third option I'm proposing is just a more confusing conception of justification. But I would ask, which takes the words of the text more seriously? Does not the bible speak about our justification being dependent on an ongoing faith?
"And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith." (Colossians 1:21–23a, emphasis added)
Then I Will Welcome You
Though we may continue to disagree on what James 2 is saying about justification, practically speaking, are there any substantial differences in how we understand how one receives Christ? We agree we receive Christ at any and every point of our lives because of the work of the Spirit in us. We are dependent on God for our reception of Christ from start to finish. He is the author and perfecter of our faith. None of us disagree on this.
My original blogs were not needlessly provocative. A large portion of the visible church believes repentance and good works are nice-to-haves, not necessities. For the sake of the bride, they need to be firmly corrected. Sola Fide, as it was originally understood, was Sola Fides Viva (Living Faith Alone).
"Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love." (WCF 11.2, emphasis added)
All this to say, we shouldn't be dividing over this.
A Final Plea
So my final plea would be, once again, that we do not slander and separate from those for whom Christ died. He died so that we as a body would be united in one spirit. May God be glorified in his church through the restoration of true repentance and love.
"I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." (Ephesians 4:1–6)
A Final Word to My Readers
I realise this post could come across as defensive. In fact, I know it will be taken that way by some. At this point, I'm less concerned about looking defensive than having my ministry suffer because of a simple misunderstanding. Christians could distance themselves from me because of this, and as I've stated above, they are being strongly encouraged to do so. I've had personal conversations with people who have been genuinely confused about my view of justification and wanted me to clarify my position. With false reports circulating, what would it say to God if I did not defend myself and my ministry? It would show I do not care about what he has given me. My ministry is not my own, so I better not leave it undefended.