Saturday, January 12, 2008

Justified by Faith -- with or without Works?


But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, (Romans 4:5)

You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. (James 2:24)

If a person believes that these two passages of Scripture contradict one another, then one has to decide which one to accept and which one to reject. If, however, you are a sola scripturist, and even if you are not, rejecting either passage is unacceptable, since both are inspired by the Holy Spirit, who does not contradict Himself.

If we are not Orthodox, what often happens in such cases is, we acknowledge that these Scriptural sayings cannot really be contradictory. Yet only one or the other passage really makes sense to us and we are unable to explain how they fit together – or perhaps we have an explanation, but not a very satisfactory one. One or the other of these verses will not fit very well with our theology. We will work with the passage that does and will largely ignore the other. That is a de facto rejection of the virtually ignored Scripture.

In this case, though, the answer to the apparent dilemma is very easy: St. Paul is not making a contrast between faith and works in general, but specifically between faith and lawkeeping. St. Paul, after all, is the Apostle to the Gentiles! He spends chapter after chapter telling them, contra the Judaizers, that they do not have to be Jews to be Christians, they do not have to be circumcised, they need not and must not rely upon the Law of Moses for salvation. St. Paul emphasizes this point all the more because the idea scandalizes his Jewish-Christian readers – and frightens them, since this is the Law God Himself has ordained. They must have felt approximately the way a Catholic might if you tried to persuade him there is salvation apart from the pope. Salvation apart from the Law of Moses was very difficult for them even to imagine.

Salvation, says St. Paul, is by grace through faith, apart from the Law of Moses. You do not have to enter into the Old Covenant, do not have to keep kosher, do not have to offer sacrifice in the Temple, indeed must not offer it (and a good thing, too, as within a couple of decades the Temple and the nation of Israel were destroyed, and with them, the ability to keep huge portions of the Law of Moses).

The Apostle does not specify each and every time that works of the Law of Moses are what he is contrasting to faith, but he does specify it enough times to let his readers know that this is what he means, e.g., Romans 3:28, 9:32, Galatians 2:16, 3:2, 5, 10. Even the verses such as the one under consideration here (Romans 4:5), in which St. Paul does not add “of the Law”, are set within the context of discussion of the Mosaic Law’s place in the scheme of things. Read all of Romans 3 and 4 to see what I mean.

You do not need to keep the Law of Moses to be saved. In fact, if you rely upon that instead of upon Christ, you have negated the Christian faith. That is what St. Paul is saying. He is contrasting faith with the works of the Law, and by extension, with with any kind of “dead works,” that is, works outside of faith -- but not at all with faith's own works!

Faith’s works, prompted not by Moses but by the Holy Spirit, not by obligation but by love, done not by us but by Christ through our flesh and our effort, faith's works are the very soul of faith, says St. James; they are what animates faith and makes it to be faith. “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” (James 2:26)

Even the repentant thief crucified beside Jesus, the moment of his repentance, began to live and die according to faith, that is, unto God, instead of according to whatever had been his impetus before. Faith instantly made good works of his thoughts and words, of his breathing and sweating, of his living and suffering, and even of his dying.

This is how, in the thief, in Abraham, in all the saints, “faith collaborated with works, and by works faith was made perfect.” (James 2:22)

And the works of faith, making it faith, are those to which St. James refers when he says we are justified (made righeous) by them, and not by “faith” alone.