A Christian is a sinner who, through God’s grace, has been regenerated from spiritual death and given the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:1-10). What I would like to talk about here is how this ”born again” experience relates to Paul’s ”justification by faith,” and James’ ”justification by works.” I shall use and explain the following three terms in the discussion: ”salvation,” ”righteous(ness)” and ”justification.” These three overlap, but they are not synonymous. Salvation subsumes the other two.
Paul refers to the ”justification by faith,” while James speaks of the ”justification by works.” ”Righteousness” (being made right) refers to both kinds of ‘justification. Here is an example of righteousness with the meaning of justification by faith; ”For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The meaning here is that through faith we have been made right(eous) with God, that is, we have been justified through faith. Here is an example of righteousness with the meaning of justification by works: ”For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). In Hebrew, ”justified” means made right(eous); צָדַקTsadak; in Greek δικαιόω dikaioō. Here is a verse in Proverbs (17:15) that contains tsadak twice where the one instance refers to ”justifies” and the other to ”righteous.” מַצְדִּיק רָשָׁע וּמַרְשִׁיעַ צַדִּיק תֹּועֲבַת יְהוָה גַּם־שְׁנֵיהֶֽם׃ matsadik rasha oomarshia tsadik to’avat Adonai (YHVH) gam sh’naihem Pro 17:15 He who justifies TSADAK the wicked and he who condemns the righteous TSADAK are both alike an abomination to the LORD.
Let us now go to the heart of the matter. Consider the following passages: Romans 3:28 ”For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. James 2:24 ”…a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Let’s bring Abraham into the picture: Romans (Paul) 4:2 ”For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.” James – 2:21 ”Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” How can the Abraham of faith also be the Abraham of works? I suggest that James gives a clear explanation: ”So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:17-24).
James seems to be contradicting Paul and promoting the Jewish idea that faith means faithfulness (emuna), and emuna for the Jew means nothing more, nothing less than (faithfully) fulfilling the 613 plus commandments (mitzvot). James and Paul, however, are not contradicting each another?James emphasises that good works are the evidence/fruit of faith, and so if there is no evidence of faith, this means that one wasn’t justified (made right with God) in the first place. The Lord Jesus makes the same point as James: ”…for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). So, not one but two apostolic hammers are needed to hammer home the Gospel into immature Christian minds. Paul’s letters emphasise what it means to be saved. Here is Paul (or more precisely, the Holy Spirit) in his workshop, hammering away (through Paul): 1Cr 6:11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. Gal 2:16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. Gal 2:17 But if, in our endeavour to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! Gal 3:11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” Gal 3:24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. ”Enough already, protests my works-orientated friend, what about the ”working out your salvation” bit? “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” …Phil 2:12 Although Paul is sometimes hard to understand (as the apostle Peter points out), he doesn’t talk in riddles (there’s little of the Talmud in his letters).
Paul’s letters teem with the conjunction ”for,” for it is an important linking word in logical argumentation. Good (and irritating) Bible teaches warn you to take special note of what the ”for” is there for. How many times have I heard the first half! of that verse to justify (sic) the argument that one cannot be justified (they mean ”saved”) by faith ”alone,” where the meaning is that salvation consists of faith plus works? They mean by that if you have faith, you need works as well to be justified/saved. Let me answer by examining the ”for” in the Philippians verse above. Why should Christians work out their salvation, and also work it out in fear in trembling? The ”for” in ”for it is God who…” answers both questions. Your body, dear Christian, is the temple of the Holy Spirit; God is in you. This indwelling is more astounding than God appearing in front of you. But, we don’t ”see” it. Recall Isaiah 6: ”In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” ”And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:1-5). So, work out your salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you.
The reason why true Christians should tremble with fear (awe) is because the Holy Spirit of God indwells them. ”For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:14-19).
Here is the blessed assurance of the believer: Romans 8:30 ”And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” So those who have been justified by faith will do good works. Good works is the evidence that the sinner has been justified, that is, made right with God. Good works are generated by the faith that brought about the initial regeneration of the dead soul from dead thoughts and dead works. If you have been justified, you will be glorified, from glory to glory, and you will receive eternal life, indeed you have received it – at the new birth. And finally a question: ”How can you have the assurance of Romans 8:30 (above) if you believe that God needs you to save yourself, for If you choose to be saved then you can choose to be unsaved again, as many times as your decide. Today, you may be dead in sin, tomorrow you’re alive in Christ. The next day (year/decade) you’re dead again, and so on.
“If in the last analysis, says Edwin J. Palmer, our salvation depends upon our free will to accept Christ, and if God provides the substitutionary atonement of Christ but not our faith, then we are in a miserable situation. Think of it – whether we say Christians or not depends on us! What a frightful thought! Salvation depends on us, who are by nature rotten and do not love God? On us, who as Christians still have the old man in us. On us who doubt waver and sin?” (Edwin J. Palmer, “The five points of calvinism,” p. 38. Baker books, 1972). God forbid! And so He does..