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When God rejected Abram’s suggestion that Eliezer become his heir, because he was childless, God assured him that one from his own body one would be his heir, and the record says “he believed the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).
Paul quoted this passage to prove that Abraham was not justified by works (perfect works), which would make salvation by grace through faith void. “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something of which to boast, but not before God...Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt” (Rom. 4:2,4). James quoted the same passage to prove that Abraham was saved by works (obedience), which makes faith perfect. “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? (Jas. 2:21,22).
In the New King James Version, the word works appears 128 times and work 70 times, for a total of 198 times. There are many different kinds of works discussed in the New Testament, but concerning the matter of justification, there are basically two classes of works - those excluded and those included. Notice first some that are not a part of justification: works of the Law (Gal. 2:16; 3:10), works of one’s own righteousness, or human merit (Tit. 3:5), works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21), works of the devil (1 Jn. 3:8) and works of darkness (Rom. 13:12). Now, notice some works that are included: belief in Christ is the work of God, because He has commanded it, not because He does it for us (Jn. 6:29; Rom. 10:17), works of righteousness (Acts 10:34,35; Ps. 119:172), works of faith (1 Thess. 1:3; Rom. 1:5; 16:26) and works of obedience (Jas. 2:21). Other passages could be given, but these are sufficient to show that if no work is necessary for justification, faith in Christ is not necessary, nor is obedience to the commands of God.
Some teach that Paul (Rom. 4) was talking about Abraham’s justification as an alien and James (Jas. 2) was talking about his justification as a believer. First, note that Abraham’s justification in Romans 4 is not discussing the action of an unbeliever. By faith he had left Ur (Gen. 11:31; Acts 7:2,3; Heb. 11:8), built an altar in Shechem (Gen. 12:6,7), and between Bethel and Ai (Gen. 12:8). Later, he returned to the same area and “called on the name of the Lord” (Gen. 13:3,4). He was also blessed by Melchizedek (Gen. 14:19,20) before the statement, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” was made (Rom. 4:3; Gen. 15:6).
Both Paul and James were talking about Abraham’s justification as one who was already a believer in God. James used three examples to show the necessity of works in James 2:21-26. First, Abraham was justified by works when he offered his son (vs. 21-23). Second, Rahab, a harlot and a Gentile, was justified by works (v. 25). Third, faith without works is like the body without the spirit - it is dead (v. 26). Faith without obedience (works) is worthless for one who is not a child of God as well as for one who has become a believer. If works of faith (obedience) nullifies justification by grace through faith for the non-Christian, why would it not do the same for the Christian? It did not nullify it for Abraham nor for Rahab! The fact is that if a person does not have enough faith to obey, he does not have enough faith to be saved by faith!
David W. Bercot, who identified himself as an evangelical, wrote a book entitled, “Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up (A New Look at Today’s Evangelical Church in the Light of Early Christianity)”. He researched what early believers (between 90 and 199 A.D.) wrote about various subjects, including what they taught about salvation. He said that he was surprised at what he found and for a while decided to scrap his research because their writings contradicted many of his own views, but later he continued his study. In the chapter on “What They Believed About Salvation,” he said, “If there’s any single doctrine that we would expect to find the faithful associates of the apostles teaching, it’s the doctrine of salvation by faith alone.” That is not what he found, rather he found that “the early Christians universally believed that works or obedience play an essential role in our salvation.” After quoting ten early writers he concluded: “In fact, every early Christian writer who discussed the subject of salvation presented this same view. No, the early Christians did not teach that we earn salvation by an accumulation of good works. They recognized and emphasized the fact that faith is absolutely essential for salvation, and without God’s grace nobody can be saved.” He quoted Ephesians 2:8,9 (we are saved by grace) and James 2:24 (man is justified by works) and concluded, “Our doctrine of salvation accepts that first statement but essentially nullifies the second. The early Christian doctrine of salvation gave equal weight to both.”
He said the problem arose because Augustine, Luther and other theologians “have convinced us that there’s an irreconcilable conflict between salvation based on grace and salvation based on works or obedience. They have used a fallacious form of argumentation known as the ‘false dilemma,’ by asserting that there are only two possibilities regarding salvation: it’s either a gift from God or it’s something we earn by our works. The early Christians would have replied that a gift is no less a gift simply because it’s conditioned on obedience.”
This man’s research surprised him, but the writings of the early Christians simply agreed with the teaching of the writers of the New Testament. When Paul said that Abraham was not justified by works (Rom. 4:1-5), he was talking about perfect works, which is the only kind that would justify a man. When James said Abraham was justified by works (Jas. 2:21), he was talking about obedience, and both are true. “Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Heb. 5:8,9).
Copyright Midway Church of Christ 2014 This page last modified July 03, 2014