Some writers have gone so far as to set Paul’s “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,” (Eph 2:8–9) against James’ “What good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14), as if the two were contradictory. Abraham, says Paul, was justified by faith, not works (Rom 4:2–9) but James says Abraham was justified by works, not by faith alone (Jas 2:24). Is this a contradiction? A closer look at the context of both passages, however, will solve the impasse.
The wider context of this passage in Ephesians is that salvation is entirely of God, foreordained, purposed and accomplished in Christ (Eph 1:3–5) with no contribution from us. We were dead in our sins (Eph 2:1–5) and have been raised up in Christ to the heavenly places (Eph 1:19–20; 2:6). There is no room for boasting. Christ did it all, out of the sheer grace and love of God (Eph 2:8–9). Not only did he adopt us as his children(Eph 1:5) but he indwells us and strengthens us (Eph 3:16–17) empowering us to live according to the Spirit. We are his workmanship (Eph 2:10). Everything we are and have and do that is of any worth, is from God, not from our dead, sinful, fleshly selves. He is forming Christ in us (Eph 4:12–13; 24) “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus” — for what purpose? for good works! Whose good works? Not something we are intrinsically capable of, but “which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). Without Christ’s saving and enabling work, we not only cannot save ourselves, we can’t even do any good works, for all our righteousness is filthy rags (Isa 64:6, Rom 3:9–12).
It is on the basis of Paul’s exposition of the divine initiative and all-sufficiency of Christ’s saving work, his creating us anew, that he can follow up with the imperatives to good works. The works do not save us. They are the grateful and loving response of those whom Christ has saved and created anew. We have been saved to serve, for Christ is not only our Saviour, but our Lord. We are to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called (Eph 4:1). We are to “put off the old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”(Eph 4:22–24). We are to be imitators of God, as beloved children (Eph 5:1). “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God…” (2 Cor 5:17–18)
James’ argument is complementary to Paul’s. Having explained that sin comes from within us, from being enticed by our own desires, he states that every good and perfect gift is from above, and that “of (the Father’s) own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (Jas 1:13–18). We are to be doers of that word, not hearers only (v 22). We are not judged under the law of works, because to fail at even one point would result in our condemnation. Rather, we are to be judged under the law of liberty, wherein mercy triumphs over judgement and therefore we must speak and act accordingly (Jas 2:8–13). It is in this context that James exhorts against hypocrisy, for if we are all talk about love for our brother and yet don’t provide practical help, our “love” is questionable. James recognises that such an academic faith, adherence to a set of doctrines, without their practical application, is a dead faith. Faith by itself, without works, is useless. Because it is by our works that faith is demonstrated. “Show me your faith apart from your works and I will show you my faith by my works,” challenges James (Jas 2:14–18). Abraham’s works were the product of his lively faith; his faith was active along with his works, and completed by his works (Jas 2:21–22). Jesus taught that a tree would be known by its fruit, and that all men would know we are his disciples if we have love for one another. We are saved by Jesus in order to serve him and he expects that we will do so (Matt 7:18–24; 25:44–45; Luke 12:42–48) albeit imperfectly (1 John 1:7–2:1).
Just as Jesus warned that it was not enough to say “Lord, Lord,” and even do “mighty works” in his name, in Romans 6 the apostle Paul vigourously counters the charge that a doctrine of salvation by grace would mean antinomianism (lawlessness).
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:1–4).
It is because we have been raised with Christ that we can walk in newness of life. When we were dead in sins, we could only live in sin, we were sin’s slave. Christ bore our sins in his body, died for them, destroyed them, in his wonderful substitutionary work as the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world (Gen 22:8, Isa 53:4–6; John 1:29; 1 Pet 2:24). Christ has effectively re-created us, and risen with him we have new life (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15). Sin no longer has dominion over us. We are freed from its tyranny. Therefore we have been enabled to resist sin’s reign in our bodies (Rom 6:5–14). Paul in no way advocates a “set and forget” view of saving grace. For him, substitutionary atonement makes obedience imperative. Our lives must change, how can they not?
What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”(Romans 6:15–18)
The charge of antinomianism continues to be levelled by those whose discomfort with substitutionary atonement causes them to reject the certainty of salvation. One such writer was Christadelphian pioneer Robert Roberts in his republished work, The Blood of Christ, (Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 2006), 23.
The idea that Christ has borne our punishment and paid our debts, and that his righteousness is placed to our credit, and that the only thing we have to do is believe it, is demoralising. It nullifies that other most important element of the truth… that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God, and that he only is righteous who doeth righteousness. It draws a veil over the truth that we have to “work out our salvation” by a “patient continuance in well-doing,” and that he only that endureth to the end shall be saved. It undermines that most important testimony of the Gospel that Christ is the Judge of who is fit to be saved, and that he will impartially give to every man according to his works. These blighting results are to be witnessed in all communities where the doctrine of substitutionary sacrifice holds sway”
Roberts holds to a works-based view of salvation. He cannot accept that his own efforts to be righteous and obey God’s laws count for nothing. He finds that merely putting faith in Christ is demoralising, because, in an out-of context twisting of a few verses, he determines that it’s up to him to secure his own salvation. Fundamentally, he does not understand what “righteousness” means in Scripture. The Greek dikaios word group is the basis for all words translated righteous, righteousness, just, justly, justice and justification. It relates to a declaration of “not guilty” and being in right relationship with God. This righteousness is not our own; it is from God and it is apart from works, obtained only by faith.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.For in it the righteousness (dikaiosyne) of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous (dikaios) shall live by faith’ “(Rom 1:16–17).
Paul knows where his righteousness originates: “not having a righteousness (dikaiosyne) of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness (dikaiosyne) from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3:9 ).
The righteousness (dikaiosyne) of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified (dikaioo) by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness (dikaiosyne), because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness (dikaiosyne) at the present time, so that he might be just (dikaion) and the justifier (dikaoo) of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified (dikaoo) by faith apart from works of the law.(Romans 3:22–28)
I wonder if Robert Roberts ever read these passages, for if he did, he must have found them too demoralising to accept, as he wants to “work out his own salvation.” Yes, Christ is the Judge before whom we will all stand, and he will judge all people according to their works (John 5:22; Rom 2:16; 1 Cor 4:4–5; 2 Cor 5:10; 2 Tim 4:1; Rev 20:12) But those who are in him, whom he has justified (made righteous), have nothing to fear at this judgement; their works might be burned up but they themselves will be saved (1 Cor 3:11–15).
Jesus himself promises, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24)
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified (dikaoo), and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies (dikaioo). Who is to condemn?” (Romans 8:29–34)
So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:16-19)
There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1) because he has saved those who put their faith in him. We are justified, made righteous; we can have confidence in the day of judgement, precisely because we do not have to depend on our own works, our own strength, our own “righteousness.” Yes, we are saved to serve. Christ is to be Lord of all our life, we are bought with a price, be respond in love with the faith-activated works which he has prepared for us to do, by his strength. Salvation is all of God, from beginning to end, according to the Scriptures alone, through Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, to the glory of God alone.
Sola Scriptura — Solus Christus — Sola Gratia — Sola Fide — Soli Deo Gloria