Clearing Up Misconceptions About Salvation II

Title: Clearing Up Misconceptions About Salvation II

Text: Romans 1:14-17, 2:7-10, 3:21-22, 28; James 2:14, 17-18, 20-22, 24

Time: June 22nd, 2010

Last time I talked about the two big misconceptions concerning the gospel of salvation our generation has: first, that we can perform enough good deeds to inherit eternal life; and second, that we can make some pious profession of faith or carry out some public act of faith indicating our salvation. Both of these notions are false. The New Testament is very clear that we can’t save ourselves through good deeds, no matter how excellent. The Bible is also clear that we can’t be saved by simply saying something or doing something pious. Simply responding to an alter call, signing a decision card, raising one’s hand at the evangelist’s invitation, even praying the Sinners Prayer can’t save us. Salvation is a work of God in the heart; true conversion occurs distinct from any act or saying on our part because it’s an invisible transformation that changes us from self-centered into God-centered. We spend the rest of our life working out the implications of that spiritual change, but it begins at the moment of true conversion. Now these misconceptions have been thoroughly discussed and analyzed over the last 500 years since the Protestant Reformation, so much so that you’d think nobody could possibly get the matter of salvation wrong ever again – since so much print and words have been spent over this important subject. Yet today, hundreds of years after the Reformers and after the launching of thousands of Reformation churches within Protestantism all over the world, people are still very confused about the whole matter of salvation. The simple question, “What must I do to be saved,” asked in the New Testament (Acts 16:30) is still asked today by millions of people who are confused over this controversial topic. It doesn’t have to be if we simply turn to the Bible and simply read and understand what it says about the matter. I remember listening to a Roman Catholic writer attempt to explain why his church doesn’t embrace the obvious teaching of the Apostle Paul found in the Book of Romans concerning salvation by faith alone. His defense was that Roman Catholicism accepts and believes in the whole Bible, not just parts. While admitting that Paul seems to teach salvation by faith, he points out that other places in the Bible teach a slightly different thing concerning salvation, namely, for example, the Book of James – which he claims teaches salvation by faith and works, not faith alone. So his argument was that the Roman Catholic church teaches what the whole Bible teaches about salvation, which is more of mixture of faith and works, rather than merely faith alone for salvation. What are we to make of this kind of argument? It’s a popular understanding of the Bible – that it teaches salvation by faith and works; many people embrace just such a teaching. But is it true? Does the Bible actually teach that salvation is by faith and works, a combination of the two, and not just by faith? Probably most people are under the impression that this is what Christianity teaches about salvation. That’s why there is so much confusion today about the gospel. Well, which is it? Is God offering salvation by faith alone in Christ alone, or is he offering salvation through a combination of our good works and faith? In order to answer this question we need to turn to the Bible and let it speak for itself, because after all, it is the Word of God. It will tell us what we need to know about this and every other topic. Let’s look at three things.

First, in respect to salvation in the Bible, we must let clear teachings explain unclear teachings, never the reverse. Romans 1:14-17, “I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome. I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” So here we see the Apostle Paul introducing the Book of Romans with a clear indication of his intention – to preach the gospel. The Book of Romans is a lengthy explanation of the gospel of salvation coming from the pen of an authentic apostle. It is the clearest expression of salvation in the entire Bible. So when we look for a place to begin, a spot to start in our investigation of what is the gospel of salvation, we should look first to the Book of Romans because Paul specifically says he’s intending to explain the gospel in this book. That’s why we don’t start in other passages of the Bible. We don’t start in the Old Testament, neither do we start in some other passages in the New Testament that might seem to suggest or imply that salvation is by works or is a combination of faith and works. No. We go to the clearest expression and explanation of the gospel of salvation in all of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, and that’s the Book of Romans – and we work our way out from this center toward other teachings. The Roman Catholic theologian I mentioned above says that his church teaches from the whole Bible not just a part of the Bible, but we have to start somewhere, someplace. Where should that be? Do we start in the Book of James? Do we start in the Old Testament? Do we start in the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke or John? That might seem a logical place to begin, since these books are called “gospels.” But here’s the problem with starting in the Gospels – while they describe the gospel in detail, they don’t necessarily explain it in detail. They record the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but it takes the Apostle Paul to step back from these events and explain what they mean and how they relate to our salvation. There is nowhere better to go to understand the gospel than the Book of Romans. So this is where we must start. What we find in Romans is the teaching of salvation by faith alone – “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law,” Romans 3:28. And it’s not in just a few verses but throughout the whole book. But what about other verses in the Bible that seem to teach something different? Let’s look at some of these next in light of the Book of Romans.

Second, there are passages that seem to teach salvation by works and not faith alone. Romans 2:7-10, “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” In this passage Paul seems to be saying that eternal life or salvation is through a persistent doing of good. The actual Greek word used here is ergou, which means work or deed. The most popular misconception concerning the gospel of salvation is that it’s a synergy or “co-work” between God and man, God brings grace and we bring faith and works to the equation – salvation results. Is this what the Apostle Paul is teaching here? From this isolated verse it would be easy to conclude this is what he’s teaching. But whatever he’s teaching, it can’t be salvation by works because in the very next chapter, three, of Romans he explains salvation by faith alone in the clearest terms. For example, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe,’ Romans 3:21-22. And, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law,” Romans 3:28. Remember the principle – start from the clearest teachings and interpret the unclear teachings in light of the clear teachings. The clearest teaching on salvation is found in the Book of Romans where Paul teaches salvation by faith alone, so that is where we start and understand everything else taught in the Bible in its light. What is Paul trying to say in Romans 2 where he teaches, “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life?” In light of the above solid principle of Bible interpretation, we know that he can’t be teaching salvation by works, because that would imply a direct contradiction to what he teaches in the very next chapter – and it would contradict what he teaches in the entire Book of Romans. So then, what could Paul be taking about here? One commentary suggests that maybe he’s setting up a scenario for God’s judgment and stating for the record that if one does good he will inherit eternal life, and conversely, if one does wrong then he’ll receive damnation. But of course, as Paul argues elsewhere, nobody does good and therefore nobody will in fact merit eternal life. So then the passage is simply setting up the conditions of God’s judgment, not actually describing an actual way of salvation. But what about other passages that imply some kind of works-righteousness? Let’s see.

Third, the strongest passage that seems to imply salvation by faith and works is found in the Book of James. James 2:14, 17-18, 20-22, 24, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? . . . In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. . . . You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the alter? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. . . . You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” It’s easy to see why this passage in James confuses many people concerning the topic of salvation by faith alone. It seems to teach just the opposite of the Apostle Paul in the Book of Romans. It seems to directly contradict Paul in a number of places. For example, the most seemingly contradictory verse says bluntly, “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” If that’s not bad enough, a verse before it says, “You see that his (Abraham) faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” In this verse the Greek word sunergei – or synergy, is used. This is exactly what Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians argue is the salvation process, a co-work between God and man, and a joint process of faith and works. Is James arguing in contradiction to Paul? Did James know of Paul’s teachings on salvation? Did Paul know of James’ teaching on salvation? Was one trying to correct the other – or correct distortions of a true teaching? We can see why people are confused because we seemingly have a contradiction between two teachings in the New Testament. But is it really a contradiction? No. And here’s why. To begin with James is correct that a faith without works is dead. Faith will produce works, period. Genuine saving faith will produce the fruit of salvation. Anybody lacking the evidences of salvation, including good works, probably doesn’t have real saving faith. James is addressing salvation from the perspective of human observation or verifying evidences, while Paul is addressing salvation from God’s perspective, the invisible reality of saving faith in the heart of a trusting person. James says, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” – again, the perspective of public verification of saving faith. The justification James is talking about is before the court of human observation, the church community, within the fellowship of believers. Paul is talking about faith before God alone.

It’s hard to know it but perhaps James is trying to correct a distortion of the teachings of Paul on faith that may have gained popularity among some Christians, especially Gentile believers. We don’t know the details. But if you look carefully at the passage in James you’ll see that he’s talking about a different aspect of salvation than Paul. He’s talking about the corresponding evidences of faith, the verifiable fruit of salvation that should exist in every Christian’s life. The Apostle Paul says himself, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith,” 2 Corinthians 13:5. So Paul himself believes that it’s possible to make an empty profession of faith without the corresponding evidences of true conversion. If we could only have these two, Paul and James, together to discuss and dialogue and define what they mean and clarify themselves in light of each other’s teaching, then I’m sure we’d find them both compatible with one another. Unfortunately, we can’t have that discussion and so there is some confusion. The justification that James is talking about is justification before man, the justification Paul is speaking of is justification before God; two entirely different perspectives. James is concerned about people giving empty professions of faith while lacking the compassionate works of holiness that should accompany every true Christian life. Paul, on the other hand, is not concerned so much about how things look before men, but he’s more concerned about how things look before God, from God’s perspective. In other words, Paul and James are talking about two different aspects of salvation, not the same thing. If they were talking about the exact same thing, then there’d be a direct contradiction and the confusion within Christianity would be justified because the Bible would be in error. But that isn’t the case. It’s easy to see why there would be confusion, it’s easy to see why there has been confusion throughout the history of the church – and why there is still confusion today over faith and works in salvation. But we need to return to the principle I explained earlier – we should always explain difficult passages by clear passages in the Bible. The clearest explanation of salvation is found in the writings of the Apostle Paul, so we start there. He teaches salvation by faith apart from works. From this foundation we then expand out and try to understand other passages in the Bible concerning salvation, including the Book of James. By following this simple principle, we interpret James in the light of Paul, not Paul in the light James. James is a minor writer; Paul is a major writer of scripture. We should proceed from the clear truths of salvation to the unclear truths of salvation; never the reverse. In this way we can deal with everything the Bible teaches about the gospel of salvation in a consistent way. The Bible teaches that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. It also teaches that true saving faith will produce evidences or fruits of salvation in expressions of love and good works.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: