Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I’M A MEMBER OF A VOTING BLOC?

Evangelical Christians have finally received the recognition we have desired.  We’re now considered a voting bloc.  Our votes and opinions affect election outcomes.  Prominent evangelical leaders are questioned by reporters regularly as to which (Republican) presidential candidate they are currently endorsing.  They are questioned as to their opinions about the genuineness of the faith of our President and that of the other candidates.  And they seem to always be eager to pass judgment on matters relating not only to these persons’ destiny in time, but also in eternity.

Political scholars and pundits see evangelicals as a powerful political movement.  We are given much of the credit for the rightward movement of the Republican Party.

Wow!  We’re right up there, running with the big dogs – the banking lobby, the health care lobby, the NRA and the Military Industrial Complex.  Now we have the power to bring America back to the state of righteousness from which she has fallen!

Is this what it’s all about?  Is this what we’re here for?  Is this what Jesus intended for us?  If so, we’re succeeding beyond our wildest dreams!  But if not …

My Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition defines evangelical in a number of ways, but I believe the following definitions describe how we have historically understood ourselves.

Evangelical:  1) of, relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel esp. as it is presented in the four Gospels.  3) emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual.”

There is no mention of a voting bloc, or of anything political.  I’m sure the 12th Edition will correct that oversight?

The twelve apostles were concerned about greatness and apparently its accompanying power, as well.

“There arose a dispute among them as to which of them would be considered the greatest” (Luke 22:24).

“And He said to them, ‘The kings of the nations lord it over them, and those who have authority over them are called Benefactors.  But it is not this way with you!  But the one who is greatest among you must become as the youngest, and the one who leads as the one who serves.  For who is greater, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves?  Isn’t it the one at the table?  But I am among you as the One who serves!’”  (Luke 22:25-27)

This was not the first time Jesus had told them this, and if my chronology here is correct, He said this right after He had got up from the floor from washing their feet.

Jesus did promise power.  But it’s the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8) – power for witness, power for service.  He didn’t promise us political power.  And if my understanding of history is correct, the spiritual power of the church – her witness – is in inverse proportion to her political power.   I believe what’s happening today demonstrates this.  As we become more and more enthralled with political power, our power for witness becomes more and more diluted.

So what kind of power do we want?

Monday, February 27, 2012

GRACE, VII

Grace and Suffering

“You are born, you suffer, you die.”
– Old proverb of uncertain origin

Suffering seems to be the lot of the human race and has been with us, to some degree, from the beginning.  History and the Bible are filled with it and philosophers have pondered it.  Most of us do our best to avoid it and not even think about it until it hits us, as it inevitably does in one form or another.  And we usually do not accept it as matter-of-factly as the proverb seems to do.

In fact, it seems to me that we who are followers of the suffering Savior are often those who have a difficult time resolving ourselves to suffering.

And yet, Jesus warned us that we would suffer.  He predicted His own sufferings and death and warned His followers they could expect the same.  Usually the sufferings He spoke of are those that accompany discipleship – insults, persecutions, hatred, strained relationships.  The New Testament writings, especially those of Paul, are filled with similar warnings.

But we’re not told that all of our sufferings are caused by direct persecutions related to our discipleship.  In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of the “narrow” or restricted road.  The Greek word used to describe the road is thlibo, which is often translated “afflict” (Matthew 7:14).  The road of discipleship is a road of affliction.  Paul gives a similar warning in Acts 14:22, where he tells the new disciples “…through many afflictions we must enter the “Kingdom of God.”  In neither passage is the manner given as to how these afflictions take place.

Perhaps one thing that bothers us about suffering is that most of our sufferings seem unrelated to our discipleship.  Most American Christians are not being persecuted for our faith (despite much rhetoric by preachers and politicians).  We suffer pain and illness and loss – both our own and that of our loved ones.  We suffer broken relationships.  Our suffering seems pointless and this pointlessness only serves to intensify our pain.  And as we look around, we must admit that most, if not all of the suffering in the world seems pointless.

Isn’t this what Paul was talking about when he said “…the creation was subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20a), and “…the whole creation groans and suffers birth pains together until now” (verse 22)?

The entire passage reads:  “For I consider that the sufferings of the present time aren’t worth comparing to the glory that is going to be revealed in us.  For the anxious longing of the creation eagerly awaits the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility – not willingly, but because of the One who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from the slavery of corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God.  For we know that all the creation groans and suffers birth pains together until now.  And not only that, but also we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly awaiting the redemption of our body!” (Romans 8:18-22)

Our suffering, says Paul, has purpose; it is something that we share with all creation – a fallen creation.  It is anticipatory – there’s something better coming.  And it is preparatory for that something better.

And this is where we must see grace.  It is grace that permits the sufferings in our lives and it is grace that carries us through those sufferings.

In Philippians 1:29, Paul has some strange counsel to give to a church that was undergoing persecution of some sort.  “…to you it has been given on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him but also to suffer for Him.”

The Greek word translated “given” here is charizomai, which is related to our word charis – grace or favor.  We could translate it “given as a favor” or “graciously given.”  What?  Is Paul telling these folks that not only is their faith something that they receive graciously from God, but that their suffering is as well?

Without getting too deep in a discussion about the sovereignty of God, it seems that we’d have to admit this to be true.  Suffering is part of God’s plan for us.  It is of His grace.  This also appears to be what Paul means in 1:7, where he says that even in his imprisonment his readers are “partakers of grace” with him.

But it is also grace that carries us through suffering, when we pray for relief and it doesn’t come.  We see this in Paul’s account of his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.

I am not here going to attempt to determine what Paul’s “thorn” was.  I have read too many commentaries and graded too many inane papers on this subject.  All we know for sure is what is given in the text.  Paul tells us that it was “a messenger of Satan,” that it “buffeted” him (literally the idea is of beating with the fist – cf. Matthew 26:67).  So we can conclude that this thorn was an affliction – whether physical, mental, emotional, relational or whatever.  And Paul tells us that it had a purpose – “to keep me from exalting myself” (2 Corinthians 12:7).

Then he tells us “I entreated the Lord three times concerning this, that it might go away from me” (verse 8).  And he received an answer, though not what he had asked for.  “And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness’” (verse 9a).

I believe we can conclude from Paul’s experience that while God does not always answer our prayers for relief, He always gives His grace to see us through.

There are numerous passages that reinforce this idea.  Hebrews 4:15, 16; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5 all speak of the supply of grace in our time of need.

God’s purpose in our lives is that we should be “conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29) – to make us like Christ.  And since Christ suffered, we suffer as well.  We may pray for relief – Jesus Himself did.  God may choose to answer our prayer in a different manner.  But He always provides grace.  And grace, as Paul says “is sufficient.”

Thursday, February 23, 2012

THE LIE

Though the word “lie” is found 10 times in the New Testament, it has the definite article only four times in Greek, and I believe should be translated the lie, though most of our English translations do not do so, at best placing this translation in a marginal note.

The definite article in Greek, even more than our English “the,” has many uses, but like our English word, it is usually used to point out a definite or particular person, place or thing.  So when we translate “the lie” we are not speaking of just any lie but of a particular lie.  What is this particular lie?

The first place we read of “the lie” is in John 8.  Jesus has been carrying on a heated discussion with the Jewish religious leaders as to who is who’s “father.”  They had claimed Abraham as their father or ancestor, both physical and spiritual (8:33-40).  Jesus rebuts this and they then, claim God as their Father and that Jesus is of illegitimate birth (41-43).  Jesus then hits them with the statement recorded in verse 44:

“You are of your father the devil and you want to do the desires of your father.  He was a murderer from the beginning and has not stood in the truth, because truth is not in him.   Whenever he speaks the lie, he speaks from his own, because he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44).

It is not simply that the devil speaks an occasional lie, or even that he continually speaks lies, but that he, Satan speaks the particular lie, which comes from his own nature and that he is the “father” of this lie, in the sense of its originating with him.  Perhaps we could even call it the original lie.

If this is a correct inference, we might want to go back in the biblical record to find this lie, which we find recorded in the first book of the Bible.

“And the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die, because God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’” (Genesis 3:4, 5).

Like many lies that have followed, this original lie contained a germ of truth.  The eyes of the woman – and the man – would “be opened” and they would know “good and evil,” but not in the way implied (verses 6 and 7).  They would not be “like God.”

And this is what the lie really is – that a human being could be “like God” or even be God.

In the second use of “the lie” in our New Testament, it is found in the words of Paul.  In Romans 1:18-32, Paul is describing “the descent of man” from an original knowledge of God through the evidence of creation, into idolatry.

“Such ones exchanged the truth of God for the lie and worshipped and served the created thing rather than the Creator --Who is blessed unto the ages.  Amen!” (Romans 1:25).

Here we see that deity is ascribed to what is created.  Not only has man exalted himself to being God, but also “birds, four footed animals, even reptiles” (verse 23).

The fourth use of “the lie” (I’ll get to the third use later) is found in Paul’s prophetic description of the great apostasy of the last days, when a man, whom Paul calls “the son of destruction” will actually “take his seat in the sanctuary of God, showing himself as being God” (2 Thessalonians 2:3, 4).

“And because of this, God is sending to them the operation of deceit so that they will believe the lie …” (2 Thessalonians 2:11).

And so the history of humankind is filled from beginning to end with “the lie.”  Whether pagan idolatry or modern philosophy, mankind is worshipped in the place of God.  A human being is exalted or exalts himself to the status of God.

But the lie is always presented in contrast to the truth.  Man cannot become God – but God became Man.  Jesus said, “I am … the Truth …” (John 14:6).  This is the great truth of history – the ultimate truth.  And those who have put their faith in this Truth do not need the lie.

There is one more use of the term “the lie.”  It is found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  In chapters 4-6, Paul is explaining how the believer is to “walk” or behave in the light of his position in Christ.  It is to be by a renewing of the mind, a laying aside of the “old self” and his habits (4:22-24), and along with this “the lie.”

“Therefore, laying aside the lie, each of you speak truth with his neighbor, because we are members of one another” (Ephesians 4:25).

Our “old self” – our pre-Christ personality, has been characterized by that self-deification tendency that has ruled in us since the garden.  And it still keeps asserting its influence on us even after we have come to Christ.  We are now to be characterized by truth in our dealings with each other – truth in our conversation and also truth as to who we really are.

God is God and I’m not!

See:    WHAT IS TRUTH?
            BE REAL

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

GRACE, VI

God’s Gracious Choice

I wonder – are my fellow believers and I really able to comprehend God’s grace?  I mean, yes we can recite Scripture passages and can give reasonable definitions, but can we really get our heads around it?  It seems we want to insert ourselves a bit too strongly into the process, when it is all of God.

One of the biblical teachings that many object to is that of God’s choice of us – or to be a bit more “theological” – the doctrine of Election.  Now I grant this doctrine has been abused by many and that many of us have a weird picture in our minds of God randomly selecting some for heaven and some for hell by some eeny, meeny, miney, mo process.

But I also suspect that one reason we object is that we like to think that we are the ones doing the choosing, or at least having some influence on God.

The Apostle Paul seemed to have the most to say about grace.  Nearly two-thirds of the word’s uses are found in his writings.  And he frequently ties the two concepts of election and grace together.  One of the better known passages is Romans 11:5, 6:  “So then, even in the present time, there has come to be a remnant in accordance with the election of grace.  And if by grace, no longer from works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.”

It’s in the first chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, however, that Paul makes clear that God’s salvation plan begins with His choice of us, and concludes with praise to each member of the Trinity for His part in that plan.  Ephesians 1:3-14, is one big long sentence in Greek, abounding with subordinate clauses, though our English translations break it into smaller bites.  (Even my Nestle’s Greek text adds a few periods.)  Its principle clause is “Blessed is the God and Father …”

Ephesians 1:3-8:  “Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world … having predestined us to adoption … according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace with which He graced us in the Beloved One, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our transgressions according to the wealth of His grace which He abounded to us …”

Then again in Ephesians 2:5, 7-9:  “ … and when we were dead in our transgressions, He made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved -- … so that in the coming ages He might show the surpassing wealth of His grace in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that is not of yourselves, it’s the gift of God, not of works, so that no one can boast.”

The phrase “you have been saved” in 2:5, 8 is translated “you are saved” in the KJV.  It is composed of a present tense verb with a perfect participle in Greek.  I suppose we could translate it more literally (though awkwardly), “you are in a state of having been saved.”  It speaks of a past act with continuing results.

The pronoun translated “that” in 2:9, is neuter in gender and so has no clear antecedent.  The words translated “grace” and “faith” are both feminine and the participle translated “saved” is masculine.  [Those readers who remember their English grammar will remember the rule that a pronoun must agree with its antecedent.  If you don’t remember, just trust me!  :^)]

Why is this important?  Because' with no clear antecedent we’re forced to see the word “that” as referring to the entire preceding clause.  Paul is not simply saying that the grace is not of ourselves, or that the faith is not of ourselves, but that the whole process is not of ourselves.

These passages affirm to us that every aspect of our salvation is of God’s grace.  It originates with Him.  The Father chose us, the Son died for us and the Spirit sealed us when we believed.

But, “Wait” we might say.  “It says faith.  We’re commanded to do something.  We’re commanded to believe.”

Well, yes, but even that faith, Paul tells us, is “not of ourselves, it’s the gift of God.”  We can’t take credit for it!  In this Paul is in total agreement with the words of his Lord and Savior.

“No one is able to come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him …” (John 6:44).  The word translated “draw” is used in this same Gospel in the sense of “hauling” or “dragging” a fishing net (21:6, 11).

We need to be careful in our understanding of God’s choice.  This does not mean that we are merely passive in this matter, or as someone claimed, “robots.”  Faith is an active conscious decision on our part.  It is a total reliance on Jesus.  But our faith is brought about in some way by the action of God.  And it has been predetermined by Him in eternity past.

Though we may not be able to explain this to our own satisfaction, those of faith are able to grasp this concept.  Perhaps the best illustration is that given by the preacher H. A. Ironside in his commentary on Ephesians, written nearly 75 years ago.

“Here is a vast host of people hurrying down the broad road with their minds fixed upon their sins, and one stands calling attention to yonder door, the entrance into the narrow way that leads to life eternal.  On it is plainly depicted the text, ‘Whosoever will, let him come.’  Every man is invited, no one need to hesitate. … as the invitation goes forth, every minute or two some one stops and says, ‘What is that.’  ‘The way to life,’ is the reply. …And such an one draws near and listens, …and he says, ‘I am going inside:  I will accept the invitation; I will enter that door,’ and he presses his way in and it shuts behind him.  As he turns about he finds written on the inside of the door the words, ‘Chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world.’”  (In the Heavenlies, pages 27, 28.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

MARTYRS

Today, February 14, we celebrate Valentine’s Day, a day dedicated to a third century Christian martyr of whom little is known and of whom what is known appears to be legendary.  In fact, there seems to be a number of Saint Valentines who were martyred and who appear on various lists in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.  A visit to the site on Wikipedia should add to the reader’s confusion as to who this guy really was.

But no matter;  it’s highly probable that he really existed and really was martyred for his faith in Christ, along with thousands of others from the first century on.

Early in my Christian life I was exposed to the accounts of the sufferings of the first century church that were given in the book of Acts.  I read of the persecutions and numerous arrests of the apostles and of the martyrdoms of Stephen and James, the brother of John.  I read of the harassment of the early church by Saul of Tarsus, who later became Paul, the apostle and was himself persecuted by those to whom he presented the gospel, and finally died for his faith.  I read of the warnings Jesus gave to His early disciples.  As I read the epistles, I found them full of allusions to and warnings of, sufferings and persecution, even possible death.

Later I read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs with its accounts of the sufferings of those in the early church, as well as throughout the centuries since.  I read of martyrs burned at the stake or slaughtered in the Coliseum because of their faith in Christ.

It’s easy for us 21st century American Christians to see these accounts as just ancient morality tales or tales of long ago heroism, simply given to inspire the readers.  We are tempted to regard them as far removed from our enlightened age, or on the other hand, to regard them as metaphors for the minor discrimination or taunting that we may experience.

But these are real stories about real people!  And similar stories are being repeated today!

Our English word “martyr” is directly related to the Greek word martus (plural martures), which originally had the meaning of “witness.”  A martus was one who had seen an event occur and who then would testify, often in a legal sense, to its having occurred.  The word had this meaning in the New Testament and is still used in this way in modern Greek.

This is the most common use of the word in the New Testament.  Matthew 18:16:  “…by the mouth of two or three witnesses, every matter will be established.”   26:65:  “Why do we have further need of witnesses?”

In Luke 24:48, however, the word takes on a particular specialized meaning, that of a witness to Christ’s resurrection.  When Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection and explained how the Old Testament Scripture applied to Him, He commanded them to proclaim these truths to all nations and said, “You are witnesses of these things.”

It is in the book of Acts that this specialized meaning becomes almost a theme.  Of the 13 times the word martus is used, it is used in this way 11 times.

So in Acts, the word has taken the meaning of:  “A person who has seen Christ risen from the dead, and who has taken the assignment of proclaiming this truth.”

“…you will be My witnesses, both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and until the end of the earth” (1:18).

“This Jesus, God raised up, of which we are all witnesses” (2:32).

However, in Acts 22:20, the word begins to take on a new shade of meaning.  The apostle Paul in relating his prayer after his conversion speaks of Stephen, the first “witness” to be put to death for carrying out his assignment.  “…and when the blood of Stephen, Your witness, was shed, I also was standing and giving approval …”

In the book of Revelation, this idea was carried even further.  The risen Christ speaks in 2:13 of:  “Antipas, My faithful witness who was killed among you …”

In Revelation 11:3, He speaks of:  “My two witnesses …” who are later killed (verse 7).

In Revelation 17:6, John sees the scarlet woman “drunk from the blood of the saints, and the blood of the witnesses of Jesus.”  Some English translations (the KJV for one) even translate the word here as “martyrs.”

Jesus Himself is called “The faithful Witness” in 1:5 and 3:14.  It has been thought that here there may be a subtle reference to His death.

Anyway, we can see that by the time of the book of Revelation, which is dated at the latest in the mid-90’s, the word martus had taken on this new shade of meaning:  “One who has borne witness of Christ, even to the point of death,” although the original meaning was also retained.

By the mid-second century, the word was clearly being used of those who were put to death for their faith in and witness to Christ.  One of the most well-known documents from that time period is a letter to which has been given the title, “The Martyrdom of Polycarp.”  In this account, we are told of a bishop or overseer named Polycarp, who was burned at the stake for his refusal to recant and to confess Caesar as Lord.  He is included among a number who were martyred (19).

But, as mentioned earlier, martyrdoms of followers of Christ were not simply events of the past.  Down through the ages people have been put to death for their faith.  Sometimes sadly, even by those who have claimed that faith as their own.

It has been claimed by some that the 20th century saw more martyrs than all previous centuries put together.  I can’t say so for sure, but certainly it had more than its share – the purges by Stalin and Mao, the slaughter of Armenian Christians by Turkey, come to mind.

And martyrdom is still going on today, as well as other persecutions.  Though there are few nations where it is blatantly against the law to even be a Christian, many Muslim nations have “blasphemy laws” which demand a sentence of death for those who reject Islam.  Many Hindu states have “anti-conversion laws.”  And, of course, there are the Communist and Atheist regimes.  And even where persecution is not government sponsored, in many countries, government simply looks the other way when family or village members kill and persecute followers of Christ.

And some of the worst persecutors are allies of the U.S.!

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:26:  “… if one member suffers, all the members suffer together.”  I urge that we who know Christ pray regularly for those members of Christ’s body who are suffering and speak out as we have opportunity.

For further information on today’s persecuted church, see:  http://www.persecution.com/.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

WHY CAN’T ATHEISTS LIGHTEN UP?

“I am very fond of humor and laughter … Materialists, humanists and atheists all take this world too seriously because it is the only world they are ever going to have.
But he who possesses faith knows that this world is not the only one,
and therefore can be regarded rather lightly.”
-- Fulton J. Sheen

I’ve had this bit of wisdom hanging on my wall for years.  It’s on a little plaque given to me years ago and I can’t remember by whom.  Possibly this person appreciated my attempts at humor in my teaching; and beneath my apparent lightness he or she saw a genuine depth in my faith.  I’ve always taken it as a compliment.

And as I have encountered materialists, humanists and atheists, I’ve come to realize that this quote tells me as much about them as it does about the person of faith.

Now I recognize that Bishop Sheen was speaking in generalities, and not all in these categories fit his descriptions.  At least not on the surface.  And in the past I would have questioned his conclusions, or recognized that there are many exceptions to the rule.

Though I have personally met few, if any atheists, I have read some of them, and to tell the truth, have often been impressed with their logic and clear thinking.  People like the brilliant philosopher Thomas Nagel, or the writers Susan Jacoby (See:  DEALING WITH DUMBING DOWN.) and Chris Mooney.  (See:  DON’T CONFUSE ME WITH THE FACTS.)  These and others are a delight to read and often add immensely to my store of knowledge as well as forcing me to clarify my thinking.

However, atheists (like Christian thinkers) who simply write learned tomes expounding their views apparently don’t sell many popular books.  It seems that the books that really sell are “attack” books.  I recognize that there have been many in the past who attacked religion, especially Christianity, but I don’t remember as many attacks till recently.  (See:  THE ATHEISTS ATTACK.)  These guys seem to be at war with the God whose existence they deny.

Please excuse me for implying that they do this merely to sell books.  I’ll concede that their motives are genuinely sincere.  They speak from a belief system that colors all their thinking and it is this belief system which causes them to (as Bishop Sheen said) “take this world too seriously.”  I suppose that I would too, were I in their position.

Perhaps the words of Thomas Nagel are true of many atheists.  “I am talking about something much deeper – namely, the fear of religion itself.  I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself:  I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.  It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief.  It’s that I hope there is no God!  I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”  (The Last Word, page 130.)

Are professing atheists perhaps not really atheists but theophobes?

A few words to my atheist friend:  Please don’t be like your mentors Dawkins, Hitchens and the rest, unable to lighten up.  Don’t be incapable of looking with an open mind at views which cast doubt on your beliefs.  Don’t simply resort to ridicule toward those matters with which you disagree or simply do not understand.

And yes, I’m still praying for your conversion!  :^)

(P.S.  I’m still not able to get any of my comments published on your blog.

Monday, February 6, 2012

GRACE, V

Paul and James

Every four years the American people are subjected to the presidential primary races with all their trimmings.  We get to watch and hear candidates and potential candidates in conflict.  It happens in both parties, though the incumbents are sometimes spared.  Men, and occasionally women, tear apart each others’ proposed policies and programs, and often each others’ characters and ethics.

Then when a candidate is finally chosen, the combatants become instant allies.  All is forgotten (if not necessarily forgiven) and the chosen one is backed up in his or her attacks on the candidate of the opposing party.

Many people view the Bible in similar fashion, as though it is some sort of political campaign.  Biblical writers are seen as holding opposing views on historical and theological essentials, though they usually stop short of calling each other names.  Yet, though they disagree, somehow they have all united in their claims to speak God’s truth and have been combined together in the Bible.  These supposed conflicts have provided the grist for many “learned” studies made by theological liberals or “higher critics.”  They have also been the source of heated discussions in many Bible studies and Sunday school classes, often ending with a choosing of sides and a battle of proof-texts.

The most well-known of these supposed conflicts in the New Testament is that between Paul and James over the question of faith and works and their place in the salvation process.  A superficial reading of some chosen texts could possibly lead to the conclusion that these men were arguing with each other.

Paul:  “Knowing that a person is not declared righteous by works of Law, but through faith in Jesus Christ, we also have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be declared righteous by faith in Christ and not by works of Law, because no flesh will be declared righteous by works of Law.”  (Galatians 2:16 – written somewhere around 48 AD.)

James:  “What’s the profit if someone says he has faith, but doesn’t have works?  The faith isn’t able to save him, is it?  …Even so, faith if it doesn’t have works is dead, by itself.

But someone will say, ‘You have faith.’  I also have works!  ‘Show me your faith without the works.’  And I’ll show you the faith by my works!  ‘You believe that God is one; you’re doing well.’  Even the demons believe and shudder!

Do you want to know this, you vain man, that faith without works is idle?  Wasn’t Abraham our father declared righteous by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that faith worked together with his works, and by works faith was perfected.  And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘And Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend.  You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone…  For even as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead!  (James 2:14, 17-24, 26 – written about 48.    The “straw-man” dialog translation was suggested to me years ago by a professor at seminary – Zane Hodges.)

Paul:  “What then shall we say that Abraham, our father according to the flesh has found?  For if Abraham was declared righteous by works he has a boast – but not before God!  For what does the Scripture say?  ‘And Abraham believed God and He credited it to him as righteousness.’  Now to the one who works, the wage is not credited as grace, but as something owed.  But to the one who doesn’t work, but believes in the One who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness.”  (Romans 4:1-5 – about 56/57 AD).

We see the same expressions used over and over by James and Paul:  “declared righteous” (or “justified” – dikaioo), “faith” (pistis), “believe” (pisteuo), “by works” (ex erga).

We also read in Acts and Galatians 2 of a conflict going on.  But we should notice that nowhere is there any mention of a direct conflict between Paul and James.  And the conflict is not between “faith and works,” but rather over whether non-Jewish believers in Christ should become Jews and observe the Old Testament Law, as well as over whether Jewish believers should associate with non-Jewish believers.

So how do we deal with this apparent conflict?  Well, first of all, as those who accept all Scripture as “God-breathed,” we need to start with the assumption that any conflict between Paul and James is only apparent, that in some way these passages are consistent with each other.  I know this criterion won’t please those who don’t accept the doctrine of inspiration, but it is the same criterion we’d use when reading any book or article.  We’d assume that it was self consistent.

We should also recognize that these passages must be read in their contexts.  Pulling lines and even paragraphs out of context may be a great debating technique, but it is a poor way of ascertaining truth.  A check of the context should show that, in spite of appearances, James and Paul were not writing to each other or with each other in mind.  In fact, it is highly probable that each was unaware of the others’ writings, at least in the earlier letters.

Paul, in Galatians (if my dating is correct) had recently returned to Antioch from his missionary trip to central Asia Minor (present day Turkey).  He had made converts mostly of Gentiles (non-Jews), and planted a number of churches (Acts 13 and 14).  It wasn’t long after this that he heard of what he termed “a different gospel” being preached among these new converts (Galatians 1:6-9; cf. Acts 15:1ff), teaching that faith in Christ was not enough – they must also practice the Old Testament Law.  It was (among other things) to counteract this teaching that he wrote Galatians.

Paul’s later letter to the Romans was to a mixed church, composed of both Jewish and Gentile elements.  His main purpose seems to have been to reconcile differences between the groups.  His argument was that all – Jews and Gentiles were in need of God’s grace for salvation.  Romans in many ways restates the arguments of Galatians, only in a much more orderly and logical form, perhaps with a bit less of the passion he showed to the Galatians.

James, on the other hand, was not a missionary.  He was apparently the chief elder, or pastor of the church in Jerusalem.  His letter was sent to the Jewish believers in Christ who were scattered due to the early persecutions (James 1:1; Acts 8:1; 11:19; see also the word “synagogue” used for their assembly in James 2:2).

Since both Paul and James center their arguments on Genesis 15:6 (see Grace IV), it seems to me important that we note how they use the word dikaioo (“justify” or “declare righteous”) as well as when in Abraham’s story this justification occurred.  Paul takes the Genesis passage literally, that this justification took place immediately.  Abraham heard the LORD’s promise; he believed; God declared!  That’s all there was to it!

Does James disagree?  No.  James knew the story.  He read the same Scripture.  But James adds a new angle to the story.  It’s what happened later that he’s concerned with.

Abraham was about 80 years old when the events mentioned in Genesis 15 occurred (compare Genesis 12:5 and 16:3).  But James fast forwards his readers about 30 years to Genesis 22.  Abraham’s promised son Isaac, who was born when Abraham was 100 (21:5) is grown.  He was weaned (21:8) and was able to carry wood and to carry on a conversation with him.  It is at this time that the LORD calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  And it is by this act, this “work,” as James tells us, Abraham was “justified.”

There is no contradiction here.  These are two totally different acts of “justification,” separated by 30+ years.  When Abraham was about 80 years old, the LORD declared him righteous on the basis of his faith.  But when Abraham was over 110, he declared himself righteous by his works.

This act, James sees as “perfecting” Abraham’s faith, bringing it to completion.  By this act Abraham “fulfilled” God’s pronouncement that he, Abraham, was righteous.  The judicial act is treated by James as though it were a prophecy which took 30+ years to fulfill.  Though James places faith and works together, the works follow faith in order.  Faith comes first; works perfect the faith.

We should also notice that James’ examples of works are not “works of the Law,” such as Paul was arguing against, but works of simple obedience.  In James 2:15, 16, he speaks of feeding and clothing the poor; and in 2:25, he gives the example of Rahab protecting the spies.  And if we check out her story in Joshua 2, this “work” followed her confession of faith (Joshua 2:9-11).

So when James speaks of works, he is not speaking of works as required along with faith for justification, but as that which follows naturally from faith and “perfects’ faith.  In this he is in complete agreement with Paul:

“For we are His design (poiema) created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

Though the word “save” (sozo) is usually understood to be speaking of our initial “salvation,” i.e., our justification by God, it has a broader range of meanings.  James uses the word 5 times (1:21; 2:14; 4:12; 5:15, 20), and though in 4:12 it is contrasted with “destroy,” in 1:21 and 5:15 and 20, it is applied to the “brothers.”

“So then my beloved brothers … receive the implanted word which is able to save your souls” (1:19, 21).

“… and the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick” (5:15).

“My brothers, if any of you should wander from the truth and someone should turn him  around … the one who turns the sinner from the error of his way, will save a soul from death …” (5:19, 20)

So when James questions whether faith can save someone who doesn’t have works, he is not speaking of God’s justification of the believer, but of what happens after that.  He is speaking of faith and works in the life of the justified believer, of salvation as it is worked out in our daily lives.

Compare what Paul says in Philippians 2:12 and 13:

“So then my beloved ones … with fear and trembling, work out your own salvation; for God is the one who is working in you, both to desire and to work for His good pleasure.”