By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, "IN ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS SHALL BE CALLED." He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type. (Hebrews 11:8-10; 17-19 NASB)
I love the above passages as they marry both the New Testament accounts from other books that examine the most relevant facts of the life of Abraham in relation to the issue of justification by faith. These accounts are recorded for us in Romans chapter 4 and James 2:21-23.
Romans 4 is written in defense of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which is proven to be the only way of salvation for the whole world, both Jew and Gentile, by the example of Abraham. Abraham was justified by faith before circumcision, later becoming circumcised out of obedience to God.
James 2 is written in defense of the concept of living faith, proving that a faith that saves is a faith that never fails to result in good works.
In the past, some Christians- even some great thinkers in the Church history- have failed to take the contexts of Romans chapter 4 and James chapter 2 verses 21 through 23 into account and have imagined that these passages contradict one another. But upon careful reading, the Church has come to understand that these passages are guarding against two opposite deviations from the narrow path of the Christian faith. Because it is faith alone that justifies sinners before God, but the faith that justifies never remains alone, but is always accompanied by good works.
In thinking about the biblical view of the relationship between faith and works, I have found the following teaching of R.C. Sproul
to be especially helpful:
The difference between Rome and the Reformation can be seen in these simple formulas:
Roman view: Faith+Works = Justification
Protestant [biblical] view: Faith = Justification+Works
Neither view eliminates works. The Protestant view eliminates human merit [so that justification is "by grace through faith"]. It recognizes that though works are the evidence of true faith they add or contribute nothing to the meritorious basis of our redemption. [Quoted by John MacArthur, Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles, 1993. Emphasis added.]
Once again, when examining the biblical texts on these issues, context is key. This is a consideration that will save us a lot of headaches as we read through our Bibles. When we come to a certain Bible passage, we must be very careful to discern the overall intended point of the passage.
[The above blogpost was originally published on 11/26/05.]
Labels: Bible study, Reformation Theology