Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Anonymous Asks (6)

“How do you reconcile Ephesians 2:8-9 with James 2:24?”

Well, let’s take a crack at that. First, the apostle Paul in Ephesians:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Then James:

“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

I’m going to assume the bone of contention here is the two phrases “saved through FAITH” (i.e., not as a result of works) and “justified by WORKS”. These statements appear to be contradictory.

But are they?


When we get confused by apparent contradictions in the Bible, it is often because we have grabbed a verse or two and are reading them completely disconnected from their original contexts.

Taking these verses out of their settings and sticking them side by side may lead us to assume that, from a theological perspective, the words “saved” and “justified” amount to roughly the same thing. Of course, we know they are technically different: “saved” describes the effect of an action on me personally, while “justified” has to do with someone’s verdict about me. But very broadly speaking, both indicate that I am off the hook so far as hell is concerned, and in a place of God’s approval rather than under his judgment. So we tend to gloss over the differences in emphasis between “saved” and “justified”.

But we shouldn’t. They are indeed very different. We need to look more closely at what Paul and James are referring to when they use those terms.

“Saved” in Ephesians

First, Paul. When we see the word “saved”, we should always ask ourselves “Saved from what?”

In Ephesians, Paul is using “saved” as a synonym for “made alive”. He contrasts “saved” with “dead in trespasses”. Dead in trespasses means blindly following Satan’s lead into rebellion against God, motivated only by our own feelings and opinions, unable to respond rightly to God’s instructions, and, so far as God is concerned, a rightful object of his wrath.

Thus, when the apostle speaks of us being “made alive”, he is not merely concerned with the fact that we are no longer under God’s judgment and are instead objects of his grace and kindness, though that is a wonderful and important truth. Rather, he is also pointing out that we are now in a position to live our lives from an entirely different motivation; with an entirely different life-energy driving them. Instead of being pushed around here, there and everywhere by our own feelings and ideas (which were heavily influenced by Satan in any case), we are now alive to God. Our intellects are alive, our feelings are alive and our spirits are alive. We are equipped by Heaven to do good things in this world, rather than selfish, unprofitable things. We are not just saved from hell, but from futility and uselessness to God.

This is how Paul finishes:
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
In short, God didn’t just save us to keep us from burning in hell, but to turn us out into this present world to do things that please him in the strength of the life-energy God provides. Paul calls these things “good works”.

“Justified” in James

James uses the expression “justified by works” three times. He says that Abraham was “justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar.” Here it is clear that James is using the word “justified” to mean “declared righteous”.

Now, James is NOT saying that Abraham’s good deeds made him righteous. Abraham was already counted righteous way back in Genesis 15, when God first appeared to him and promised him his offspring would be as difficult to number as the stars. That statement is followed by this: “And he [Abraham] believed the Lord, and he [God] counted it to him as righteousness.” So Abraham was already right with God, and right by virtue of believing God, not by doing any works at all.

Rather, Abraham’s works were the crowning evidence that he was already righteous. Offering up his beloved son on the altar in obedience to God didn’t change Abraham in any way; rather, it showed his faith for what it already was. It declared him righteous in front of the entire universe. In those actions, “the scripture was fulfilled” that had, years before, acknowledged Abraham as a man made righteous on the basis of faith.

Then James adds that Rahab the prostitute was also “justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way.” Rahab too was already righteous. She was a woman of faith. She told the spies she hid, “The Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.” She was a believer. Her faith, being real, resulted naturally in good works when it was tested: when the king of Jericho commanded her to bring out the Israelite spies who were lodging with her, she risked her own life and lied to save them.

Declared to Be What You Are

Now of course we wouldn’t know Rahab was righteous if she hadn’t had her chance to do good works. But we do now, because God gave her the opportunity and she seized it with both hands, and her works declared her to be righteous. They “justified” her.

This is the meaning of “justified” in James: shown to be what you already are. So when he tells us “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” we must read it the same way we read his statements about Abraham and Rahab. James is telling us that our works declare our righteousness, not that they play any part in creating it. They are the evidence of our faith.

When read in their contexts, I cannot see how these two passages disagree.

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