Friday, September 19, 2014

James and Paul on Justification: An Introduction

Contrary to what is often said, James is not to be pitted against Paul, nor is Paul to be pitted against James, because they are not at odds.

It is to be noticed that the only time we see the phrase "faith alone" in the Bible is in the book of James. However, while it is true this is the only place we see the explicit phrase used, it would be nonsense to limit the idea of "faith alone" to this one place. The entire purpose of Romans 3:27, 4:2-6, 9:10-11, 11:6, and Ephesians 2:9, for example, is that salvation is by faith without works: i.e. faith alone.

There is a Protestant saying that has been around for a long time: "We are justified by faith alone, but faith is never alone". This saying explains how faith, not works, justifies us, while pointing to the obvious fact that faith always produces action. If it does not, this shows there is really no faith but only the untrue profession of faith. The action James is drawing our attention to is nothing more than the proof of faith, which, according to James, confirms the account of Genesis, that "Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness." This justification took place before Abraham did any work at all, but his faith was later tested and proved to be real by his action.

According to James, why was Abraham justified? Because he believed God (James 2:23). Yet by sacrificing his son Isaac, Abraham proved through this action that he believed God. Notice: he did not prove through his action that he was a good man, but that he believed God. His action, the necessary product of his faith, proved that he had faith in God's promise, that God would do what God said God would do, i.e. make a great nation through Isaac. Abraham proved that he really did believe God and therefore he was justified through faith alone, because his faith was real and was not alone.

It can now be seen how James stands firmly with Paul and not against him. James is not against justification by faith alone, but is against untrue professions of faith that are alone (that is, without faith-proving action). On the other hand, Paul writes against the idea that God justifies us on account of our works rather than on account of faith alone. To be specific, Paul is against the idea that when God judges the world in righteousness God will proclaim righteous (justify) those who are by their actions righteous. Paul is against the idea that people, by doing righteous deeds, are thereby righteous and will on this account be justified. To put it another way, he is against the idea that to be declared morally acceptable by God a person must by their actions be morally acceptable. But according to the Bible, as well as our experience, everyone is in fact unrighteous and sinful by their actions. Abraham was no exception. He, too, was a sinner - that is, a bad person - who did not achieve moral acceptability by his behavior.

Nevertheless, Abraham had faith in God's promise to him, which was given by God to him though he was a sinner, and he proved that he had real faith by his action. The most crucial thing to notice here - and the point that most people fail to notice - is that the action of Abraham which James draws our attention to was not action that showed he was a good person, but action that showed he believed God. Do you see the difference? James is not talking about good deeds that prove you are a good person, but action corresponding to your faith which proves that you believe. No one is good, and by works no one shows that they are good. We can only be justified through faith alone. But by our actions we can show that we believe.

Consider Abraham's faith-proving action which James points to. It was not a good deed. It had nothing to do with the law, nor was it an action that we would consider moral and universally obligatory. Abraham's faith was tested by God when God told him to extinguish the very son that God had promised would be the means of making for Abraham a great nation. God promised Abraham one thing, and then told Abraham to do something that would naturally eliminate all hope of fulfillment! This was a test to see whether Abraham believed God would fulfill His promise, despite all appearances to the contrary. Abraham believed! The Scripture tells us that he went to sacrifice Isaac believing God was able to raise his son from the dead (Heb. 11:17-19). When God saw this, He knew, not that Abraham was a good person, but that Abraham believed. It was not a moral deed which proved his moral worth, but a deed of faith which proved his faith.

James gives us a second example of justification through faith alone where faith is not alone. Who does he point to? None other than Rahab the prostitute! She, James tells us, was justified (James 2:25)! She was not justified (declared righteous) because she proved her righteousness by righteous doing. There is no mention of good deeds here. Rahab was a prostitute, and like everyone else in this world, she was not a good person. But like Abraham, Rahab had faith in God, and she proved that she had faith in God, not by performing any acts of righteousness, but by hiding the Israelite spies. That's all! She hid the spies, proving her faith was real and not an untrue profession, and therefore she was justified. It had nothing to do with being good.

This is where Mormonism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and even many Protestants misunderstand James, because they think he is writing about good works rather than about faith-proving action. They think James is saying that we need both faith and moral behavior in order to be justified, or that moral behavior is what proves that we have faith and are righteous. It is because they misunderstand James that they create conflict between him and Paul.

But, as the Scriptures tell us, God "justifies the ungodly", that is, the morally unacceptable, through faith alone (Rom. 4:5). Faith is never alone, for where there is real faith it is always proven by action, The two examples of Abraham and Rahab which James points to show us that this faith-proving action is not law-keeping or good works - not action that proves we are good people - but action that proves we believe. Thus this faith-proving action will be different depending on what our faith is. For Abraham, it was sacrificing Isaac. For Rahab, it was hiding the Israelite spies. For Christians, well, that's a topic for another article. The essential point to see in this article is: James is not talking about proving we are righteous by good works, but about proving we are believers by faith-proving action.

James and Paul have always been in agreement. It is their readers who wrongly pit them against each other.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Book Review: "Joy Unspeakable" by Martyn Lloyd-Jones

This book is a must read for anyone wanting to seriously study the doctrine of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. If you want a well-rounded view of the subject and want to learn from all sides of the debate, you simply cannot pass by "Joy Unspeakable". Lloyd-Jones is in an unique position to write on this topic since he is one of the most celebrated Reformed preachers of all time. Lloyd-Jones sees himself as defending the "old evangelical" view of the Holy Spirit against the modern view of his day which equated the baptism in the Spirit with regeneration. Whether Lloyd-Jones is correct about this or not is for you to decide.

Lloyd-Jones cannot be categorized with the Pentecostals, nor with the non-Pentecostals. For example, he argues in favor of Pentecostalism that the baptism in the Spirit is a subsequent and distinct experience from conversion. It is experiential and comes with evidences. However, also he argues against Pentecostalism that the evidences of the baptism in the Spirit have nothing to do with the gifts of the Spirit such as speaking in tongues. Nor does he agree with the Holiness camps that the baptism in the Spirit has to do with sanctification. He strongly denies this. Lloyd-Jones contends that the chief end of the baptism in the Spirit is to bring Christians assurance, which is the indispensable power to be witnesses of Christ. Therefore the evidences of the baptism in the Spirit will be a man empowered with assurance.

Lloyd-Jones argues that the baptism in the Spirit is not something one can work up or make happen, but rather that it is a sovereign work of God to happen in His timing and in His way. He emphasizes this greatly. It is not something man initiates, but something God initiates. It is not us doing things to fill ourselves with the Spirit (as in Ephesians 5:18, which Lloyd-Jones calls the normal way), but it is something different. The Spirit "falls on" people, and it is exceptional, an experience they do not make happen.

Throughout the book Lloyd-Jones repeatedly uses examples from history, seeking to prove his points not only from Scripture but from the lives of saints who have claimed a distinct experience with the Spirit. It sometimes struck me that what Lloyd-Jones is calling the baptism in the Spirit is nothing more than when a Christian catches a glimpse of the glory of the truth of the gospel. It is that experience that many of us have had that only seems to last for a brief moment, when you are overwhelmed with emotion due to a more vivid sight of the truth.

Finally, Lloyd-Jones is greatly concerned with the need for revival in the Church. He inseparably connects one's doctrine of the baptism in the Spirit with one's doctrine of revival. If you believe the baptism in the Spirit to be indistinct from conversion, you will therefore not believe in revival. To Lloyd-Jones, the Pentecostal experience is essentially revival, and vice versa. Revival is when God pours His Spirit upon the Church, giving them fresh power to proclaim the gospel.

This book is full of strengths and weaknesses. It is greatly challenging. It hardly deals with spiritual gifts. It constantly asks you to examine your own Christian experience. It doesn't fully satisfy the exegetical questions. However, the best part about Lloyd-Jones is that he actually attempts to prove his position from the Scriptures. He does not just say, as many do, "I can't explain it, you just have to experience it for yourself." Thankfully, Lloyd-Jones gives us more than that.

While I do not fully agree with Lloyd-Jones's conclusions, I consider this book an excellent contribution to the study of the Spirit. Want to wrestle with the doctrine of the baptism in the Spirit? You must at least read this book.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What Does "Jesus is Lord" Mean?

The following is a reply to a brother who asked about the meaning of the Lordship of Christ.

Hello N---,

John Piper, in his book "The Future of Justification" has a helpful reply to N.T. Wright on the relation between Christ's Lordship and justification through faith. It's worth reading. He basically asks the question: "Why is it good news that Jesus is Lord?" This question puts the weight upon our understanding of "Jesus" in the statement "Jesus is Lord". What's so good about Jesus being Lord? Piper argues as follows: because the one who is Lord (the supreme authority) is the one who justifies freely by grace. Wright misses this and thinks that "Jesus is Lord" is good news without giving thought to the question Piper raises.

For many Christians, "Jesus is Lord" is something disconnected and separate from the gospel. We know that we are justified through faith alone, but what about Jesus being Lord? We acknowledge that He is Lord, but it doesn't mean much to us (perhaps because we aren't a monarchical society), and comes out in the wash as: "I should obey His rules because He's the king". This misses the connection His Lordship has with the gospel. "Jesus is Lord" is a wonderful and powerful truth because it is the gospel. It proclaims righteousness through faith because of our understanding of "Jesus", and for this reason only "no one can say Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Spirit." (1 Cor. 12:3) Now the Mormons, for example, say "Jesus is Lord" all the time, but because they don't understand who Jesus is and the salvation He gives by grace through faith, they aren't really saying "Jesus" is Lord.

In Romans 10 I take note that the confession that "Jesus is Lord" is connected with what Paul said just a few lines earlier about "submission." Submission and Lordship are related concepts. Submission means subordinating oneself under another, ie. a lord. To say "Jesus" is Lord is to subordinate oneself to Him with an understanding of who He is. Consider Lordship in the light of Romans 10:3-4:

"For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes."

Here we see that the Jews have not "submitted" themselves to God's righteousness. And what is God's righteousness? It is "CHRIST, the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes." Thus to submit oneself to the Lordship of Christ is to submit to the Lordship of "Christ the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes". Without this understanding one does not understand Christ, and thus any submission to a false Christ is not true submission to Christ.

Seen from this light, the old Lordship debate between MacArthur and Ryrie was all wrong. They both had an insufficient definition of Lordship. They both saw Lordship as disconnected and separate from justification, as something additional and other than faith in Christ. With this faulty definition, MacArthur proceeded to argue that a person needs both faith and submission to the rules in order to be saved, and Ryrie proceeded to argue that a person only needs faith to be saved, and Lordship (ie. submission to the rules) can come later. They are both wrong about Lordship. Lordship isn't something other than faith in Christ and it is not separate from justification. The very essence of submission to Christ is submitting to the way of justification through faith! Thus MacArthur is right that in order to be saved we must submit to Christ's Lordship, and Ryrie is right that salvation cannot be conditioned on obeying rules in general. Both are seeing something true, but the definition of Lordship is their problem.

Instead, we should understand that when a person puts their faith in Jesus Christ for their justification (Gal. 3:16), they, by doing that, are submitting to the Lordship of Christ who is the end of the law for righteousness. All Christians confess Jesus is Lord by the Holy Spirit. All Christians are saved by grace through faith alone, and this is their submission to the Lordship of Christ. It is failure to trust in Christ--failure to submit to righteousness by faith alone--that is stumbling at the stumbling-stone and rock of offense, ie. Christ. No amount of trying to submit to rules in general and saying with our mouths "Jesus is Lord" counts. Only the Spirit wrought confession of Jesus is Lord, which is the confession of the true understanding of righteousness, counts.

Yours brother,

Friday, August 22, 2014

Book Review: "Straight Talk to Elders" by Frank Viola

Before reading this book I was not unfamiliar with Viola's message contained in it, having some experience with those who have been deeply influenced by Frank Viola and his teaching on house church. I have seen little-to-no good fruit on account of this mindset. It is, ironically, separatist and elitist.

To be frank, "Straight Talk to Elders" is poppycock. Frank Viola argues in it that the office and role of pastor as we know it is unBiblical and that there should be no official leadership in the Christian Church. Church meetings should operate "organically" without any official leadership--no person or persons in the front leading the congregation in worship. Each member is expected to function in an atmosphere of complete freedom from any human authority. Frank explains the Christian's "freedom in Christ" as freedom from all authority other than the authority of Christ. Now, says he, Jesus is our Lord, and no one else can have authority in our lives. When asked about the authority of fathers in families, the answer is unsettling: the New Testament doesn't mention it and it, too, is probably unBiblical. Thus a beautiful Christian truth, that Christ is Lord, is twisted into a kind of earthly anarchy that would make the apostles roll over in their graves.

Frank's error is that he defines freedom in Christ as freedom from all human authority rather than freedom from the law of God, as the Bible defines it (Gal. 5:1). True Christian freedom is not freedom from the authority of fathers, political governors, or elders in the church, but freedom from condemnation, fear, judgment, and wrath. If Frank had understood this moral/spiritual freedom that Scripture talks about, there wouldn't be books like this, and the damage they create. Frank fails to see that it is the message of the gospel that sets people free. It is the gospel that saves, heals and restores individual lives, not the method of our meetings. The gospel is completely absent from this book, not mentioned on any page. Frank argues that our method of meetings is wrong and if we fixed it then everyone would be set free. He fails to see that it's the message, not the method, that is ultimately important, and if it is the message that's crucial, then the method is less crucial, so long as the truth of Christ is being proclaimed (although I also disagree with his methodology). One may have all the right methodology, but without the gospel of Christ, it is death, not life. The reverse is also true. Frank's understanding is shallow and mechanical.

Frank attempts to provide a basis for his teaching in the New Testament, and in a short space leaps across the epistles, glancing here and there. His argumentation is scant and speculative and at times laughable. For example, in trying to explain away the qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy and Titus, Frank reasons that because Timothy and Titus had been in ministry for a long time already, and since Paul is only now telling them about the qualifications for eldership, eldership, therefore, must not be a big deal! That's right. Eldership is no big deal because the qualification for elders only appears in 1 Timothy and Titus, which were written later in their ministries. Upon this rock Frank builds his church. Frank also argues that Philippians 1:1 is proof that eldership is "no big deal", because elders and deacons are mentioned as a "footnote". "Oh, and by the way, greet those nobodies, too..." Can't you just see how unimportant they are? What then are elders, according to Frank? Elders are nothing more than people who've been Christians longer and have more maturity; they aren't serving in any official capacity; they simply are respectable members of the group, without any more responsibilities than anyone else. That's all. Ordaining elders simply means "acknowledging" them, but acknowledging them doesn't give them any special responsibilities. There are, under no circumstances, to be any leaders in the Church.

Except for one circumstance. Not only is Frank's case for leaderless Christianity weak, but he admits in the book that he himself is an exception to the rule! When asked how he practically operates in meetings, Frank explains that he is essentially an apostle who doesn't participate in meetings the way everyone else should, but hops around from meeting to meeting and provides much needed oversight and leadership. He is the exception. That's convenient, isn't it?

Frank fails to see the connection between leadership in the Christian Church and the Old Testament, where we find leaders who function as leaders within the people of God, and see promises that God will raise up leaders to feed His flock with knowledge and understanding (Jer. 3:15). It is in fulfillment of these promises that Christ gave to the Church pastors and teachers with the command to "feed My sheep". Frank misses this connection completely. He ironically fails to understand the organic nature of leadership in human affairs.

One other thing I will note about the book. As serious as the content of this book is, the entire tone of the meeting is flippant, cheeky, and glib--not the kind of atmosphere befitting the revolutionary subject matter it claims to be. If you're going to come to the Christian Church and tell her that everyone has been doing it wrong for the last 2000 years, you'd at least think to be sober about.