A Contradictory Gospel?
The fight to clean ourselves up is a common struggle that paralyzes both believers and unbelievers alike. We’re constantly wrestling with the law of righteousness and where that righteousness is found. By birth, we’re self-saviors. We look to ourselves for the peace and prosperity we crave. In our pride, we deem ourselves better God’s than even God himself. We set about justifying ourselves through endless schemes of fabricated religiosity and piety. We act as our own foreman in the construction of our deliverance. Unbelievers do this too, they just don’t have the Spirit’s whisper gnawing at their hearts as they crawl back to the dung from which they were redeemed.
Even still, unbelievers would have to admit that this endeavor is unfulfilling and, ultimately, leaves you feeling emptier than before. True life can’t be found in bettering yourself because you are your own worst critic. While we talk ourselves up the most, we also talk ourselves down the most. There will always be something we can change for the better or a need that was left unmet. And despite Christians understanding that salvation isn’t just being a “good” person or doing “good” things, this doesn’t hinder most of us from trying that route anyway. Since the compass of our hearts naturally points to self-justification, our tendency is to rest on our own laurels for our salvation, instead of the laurels of Christ.
But aren’t we commanded to do “good works”? Aren’t we supposed to have laurels to rest on? Isn’t it required that we “bear fruit”? Certainly, the apostle James seems to uphold a clear indictment of the belief in salvation solely by grace, when he says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone . . . For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (James 2:24, 26) And this is where skeptics and critics pounce. The detractors skim the surface of Scripture, desiring only to find a speck of contradiction in order to disclaim the entire Word. And, at first, if you were to compare the above verses from James’s epistle with that of Paul’s letters, it would seem these disparagers have become whistleblowers of some secret biblical controversy, of a contradictory gospel.
Remember what Paul says in Romans 3? “For we conclude that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” (Rom. 3:28) And not only there, but throughout his letters to the Romans, Galatians, Corinthians, etc., the apostle is adamant and definitive when it comes to the faith that saves. How, then, do these verses not rebut one another? How are James’s sentiments not at variance with and, indeed, in collision with the likes of John 3:16, Romans 3:22, 26, Romans 5:1, Galatians 2:16, 21, Ephesians 2:8–10, and 1 Timothy 1:15–16? All of which articulate that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, wholly apart from our works and merits? How are we to combine the truth that “faith without works is dead” with that which says that salvation “is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace” (Rom. 11:6)?
Ostensibly these verses conflict with one another, sparking confusion and controversy, doubt and debate. But the truth is, there’s no contradiction at all. There is no opposition. There is no conflict. These seemingly divergent principles are actually in complete and perfect harmony.
To understand the melody of the gospel, you must understand the harmony of James 2:24–26 and Romans 3:28. Therefore, we must begin by looking at the context. In chapter two, James begins by addressing the person who claims to follow Christ, but has no works. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him?” (James 2:14) James is confronting the matter of a flimsy believer, a fragile Christian. The sort of Christ-follower that praises the name of Jesus on Sunday but then lives wickedly and immorally Monday through Saturday, without regard for how God might be magnified and glorified by his life, or how he might have grieved the Holy Spirit with his actions or inactions. (Eph. 4:30) Faith of this sort is nothing more than words, meager sentences, hot air with no meaning, no life, no ground upon which to stand. This faith is baseless and gratuitous. God hates the faith of this caliber. “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15–16)
You see, James isn’t indicting salvation by faith alone, but rather, faith that has no fruit, faith without proof. He’s seeking to expose the belief that’s proclaimed but not lived out. He’s calling into question those who say they affirm the truths of God but bear no evidences of, or testimony to, their hearts being captured by the radical saving, forgiving grace of the gospel. What’s more, take special notice that both apostles make reference to the same Old Testament passage. In Romans 4:3 and James 2:23, they cite Genesis 15:6: “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Both writers believed and understood the nature of salvation to be one of a gift, given freely to all with no expectations, regulations, or conditions. Their message of redemption remains the same and the intrepid missive of the gospel stands as stouthearted and free as ever. There’s no strings attached. There’s no fine print. It’s not a checklist. It’s not some sort of divinely-sent to-do list, when, if followed, will automatically render our lives holy. Neither is it a supernal recipe which, when mixed properly, suddenly makes the piddling sinner devoutly pious. This salvation is all gift, all grace.
The truth propounded by both Paul and James is that verbal assent is of little value. The old adage is accurate: actions do speak louder than words. The apostle John states as much in his first epistle, when he writes, “This is how we have come to know love: He laid down his life for us. We should also lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has this world’s goods and sees a fellow believer in need but withholds compassion from him — how does God’s love reside in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in action and in truth.” (1 John 3:16–18) Let your love for God be real and visible, not theoretical. This is what the gospel liberates us to do. The freedom of grace is the freedom to be living and breathing reflections, walking and talking proofs of the same grace that saved us. Salvation means that we’re no longer living for acceptance but from acceptance. “Do not work so that you may be saved,” declares Charles Spurgeon, “but serve him because you are saved, for the covenant has secured your safety.” (28)
You see, the good works you now perform after being saved aren’t a cause of your salvation. They’re not the impetus of God’s love and grace, rather, they’re an evidence, a fruit of the abounding mercy and forgiveness that has been poured out for you on the cross. The demonstration of our salvation is displayed by how we live. Proving God’s love and demonstrating to the world the miraculous power of grace is what the Christian life is all about. Our outward lives will testify of an inward transformation. You are not saved by good works but for good works (Eph. 2:10), so as to give all credit to Christ’s mercy, further magnifying his illimitable grace. (Eph. 2:7–9)
We bear witness to our knowledge of grace and truth, to our apprehension of our forgiveness, in the manner in which we live. “This is how we know that we know him: if we keep his commands. The one who says, ‘I have come to know him,’ and yet doesn’t keep his commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, truly in him the love of God is made complete. This is how we know we are in him: The one who says he remains in him should walk just as he walked.” (1 John 2:3–6) Our entire lives are to be an outward display of what God has done in us through his Son.
A saint is not one who serves God in order to be forgiven; but one who, having found forgiveness, serves God in love and liberty as a forgiven soul, and with an enlarged heart. (Bonar, 22)
Horatius Bonar, The Grace, the Service, and the Kingdom (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1851).
Charles Spurgeon, Grace: God’s Unmerited Favor (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1996).