The Kingdom of God - Missing the Point

The Kingdom of God is a rich biblical topic and concept that has a very direct bearing on Christianity as a whole. Mistakes have been made in the past and mistakes are being made in the future regarding the Kingdom. Hopefully, we will be able to see that the topic at hand is not as difficult as Christians have made it and are making it. This treatment of the topic is very brief, but will suffice for the point I am making.

Mistake #1 - Confusing the Kingdom With Particular Nations, Rulers, and/or Leaders.

The theocracy or ‘Christendom’ error has been made numerous times in Christian history. Basically, this mistake confuses church and state into a type of ‘church-state’ that is governed by Christian leaders. I will be quick to point out that this is not a bad thing. After all, should even we as American Christians be casting our votes in elections for Godly candidates when there are Godly candidates available to vote for? I certainly think we should. However, the specific error I am referring to here is the confusion of a certain state (or kingdom, if you will) as being the Kingdom of God. The Church has laid this brick a few too many times in her history. Neither Rome nor Protestants are immune from this error historically. The Roman Emperor Constantine (4th century AD) promised his army victory if they all emblazed the cross on their shields and armor. ‘Christ is Lord’ became their battle cry. The ancient church historian Eusebius remarked, regarding Constantine, “Our divinely favored emperor, receiving, as it were, a transcript of the divine sovereignty, directs, in imitation of God Himself, the administration of this world’s affairs.” St. Augustine heralded a different view in his brilliant work “The City of God,” written in the 5th century AD, which incidentally is the view I am espousing here. Rome was eventually sacked and fell. However, this model continued to live on. Numerous monarchs over the next 1200 years or so considered themselves to be models of King David of Old Testament fame. Pope Urban II famously quipped, “If you must have blood, bathe in the blood of infidels,” referring to Islam. This was in 1095 AD, and of course if you know your history, the Crusades also happened in this era. Somehow, despite the failures of the Christendom idea, we still have clung to it, even to this day. Protestants are not immune either. Recently in American history, we’ve pushed through the dogma of Manifest Destiny. This resulted from the idea that the United States and its religious freedom was the Kingdom of God. But how free was it? Even recently Roman Catholic scholar Michael Novak said regarding the Pope (2006), that “His role is to represent Western civilization.” But is it? Does the Pope himself subscribe to that idea? I find it doubtful that he does. For one reason or another, Christians have not fully relinquished this idea, despite there being little biblical support for it; none in the New Testament. Thus, the confusion of the Kingdom of God with particular regimes, rulers, and leaders lives on, even now.

Mistake #2 - Liberation Theologies and Protestant Liberalism - Associating God’s Kingdom With Social and Political Activism

The first mistake sounds bad enough (and it is), but the second one isn’t any better. Protestant liberalism has a decided tendency to replace and/or redefine the entire gospel with ideas such as “incarnational living.” Essentially, the risen Christ is replaced by us, who now complete His work through social action and sometimes political action. Our loving God and loving others has somehow now become the Gospel. Brian McLaren is normative in this regard, as he delivers an increasingly well known quote from his book entitled “A Generous Orthodoxy.” McLaren opines, “I must add, though, that I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents of the Christian religion…It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish contexts. I don’t hope all Jews or Hindus will become members of the Christian religion. But I do hope all who feel so called will become Jewish or Hindu followers of Jesus.” But McLaren’s opinion here misses the point and in effect changes the entire gospel. Instead of the gospel being a proclamation of Jesus Christ’s work on behalf of sinners, it now morphs into our living in imitation of Christ. There is an element of truth in this idea, but it isn’t the gospel, and it’s certainly not how the Kingdom of God is advanced. In short, God’s Kingdom is not advanced by our living like Jesus. In essence, this idea echoes Jesus’ statement “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” made in Matthew 22:37. The problem with making this the gospel is that Jesus wasn’t even talking about the gospel here. He is responding to the Pharisees (Matt 22:36) when they ask Him what is the greatest commandment. Thus, this is law (imperative), not gospel (indicative). Thus, this is not good news, but rather, a command that fallen man is incapable of obeying perfectly.

Closely related to this redefinition of the gospel is the ever increasingly popular idea of inclusivism. That is the idea that a person need not repent and believe the gospel to be saved. Incarnational living and redefining the gospel into law based on the “law of love” (incidentally, found in some form in every religion) are obvious bedfellows. You do not need the indicative of the gospel if the gospel is nothing more than following Jesus’ example, even though following Jesus’ example is only very partially doable at best. Can you atone for sin, for instance? Therefore, those within other religions need not convert to Christianity to be saved, as McLaren has opined above.

What is God’s Kingdom and How Does It Advance?

It’s terribly important to understand what the Kingdom of God is and how it advances, especially in light of the prevalent errors of not only our forbears, but of many people today. Although the incarnational living error is the prevalent one today, the confusion of the Kingdom with nations, rulers, and leaders is not dead either. It is interesting to point out that both errors are along the lines of confusing the Kingdom of God with an earthly political Kingdom. No matter what your view on the millennium, both amillennarians and premillennarians will agree on two things. First, that the Kingdom of God here. John the Baptist announced it and Jesus Christ brought it. Second, both will agree that right now, the Kingdom is not earthly and political. Beyond that, there are differences, but those differences involve what the Kingdom will look like post-Second coming. Therefore, since it is here and it is not earthly and political, it must lie somewhere else. Jesus gives us a big clue as to where the Kingdom is in John 3:3, when He says to Nicodemus, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Those who are born again see it and those who are not born again cannot. If the Kingdom of God was earthly and political now, it would follow that it wouldn’t matter if one was born again or not. People would see it. Yet, this is exactly what the two errors propagate. In the first case, everyone ought to see God’s Kingdom through the advancement of it via holy wars, conquest, and the supposed Godliness of its leaders and rulers. In the second case, the Kingdom would be seen clearly by the social activism of the incarnational living of Jesus’ followers. Yet, Jesus says that a person must be born again to even see it. Therefore, the Kingdom cannot possibly be earthly right now. If it’s not earthly and physical and a person must be born again to even see it, it must therefore be spiritual. Those who are born again are part of it right now. The book of Hebrews gives us some insight, saying, “But you have come to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb 12:22-24) A few verses later, we get more information: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb 12:28-29) Paul’s discourse found in Galatians 4:21-31 is also helpful in this regard. The Kingdom of God is not something we are building through our conquest or social action. It is a kingdom that we receive. The kingdom is not built by us, but by God. “For he (Abraham) was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” (Heb 11:10) “The heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:22), “Mount Zion” (Heb 12:22), that no one can even see unless they are born again (John 3:3). The same kingdom that God has promised to build (Heb 11:10, Mat 16:18-19).

How then, does it advance? Very simply put, it advances through the work of the Holy Spirit via the means of preaching the gospel. The Great Commission, found primarily in Matthew 28:18-20 (also Mark 16:15-16, Acts 2:38-42), tells us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you.” This is precisely able to be done because of what Jesus states in verse 18, that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” The Great Commission is not the cultural mandate found in Genesis 1:26-27, which says, “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” The Great Commission is not a mandate to take dominion. Jesus Christ, as the second Adam, has come and taken dominion. Even now, Christ has dominion, which will not be fully brought to fruition until His glorious return. Only those in Christ will ultimately have dominion along with our risen Head. The Great Commission is first a foremost a command to make disciples by baptizing and teaching. Michael Horton comments that “The Great Commission is a mandate to gather, feed, and protect Christ’s sheep until the Great Shepherd Himself returns.” Thus, the Kingdom advances by the Holy Spirit’s work through the proclamation of the gospel. The gospel of the kingdom (Matt 24:14) is identical with the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16:19). Both of them refer to the building of the kingdom by God through the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins, and the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) encompasses both of these.

Although it has been a staple of theological liberalism to pit Jesus’ words against the words of the apostles, especially Paul, in later books of the New Testament, interpreting Scripture in this manner drives a wedge between the apostles and Christ. Who better than the apostles to interpret Christ’s teachings? Michael Horton addresses this problem, saying, “However, the ‘red-letter’ method of interpretation assumes a deficient doctrine of Scripture. Jesus’ words, teachings, and actions were remembered, related, and interpreted by his apostles. Just as He had promised in the upper room, Jesus sent the Spirit so that they would remember everything that He taught them and would be able to pass it on to others…The whole bible is canon, and Scripture interprets Scripture. Besides revealing a seriously deficient view of Scripture, this contrast between Jesus and Paul rests on a misunderstanding of our Lord’s teaching concerning the kingdom. Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom is identical to Paul’s proclamation of the gospel of justification. Contrasting the kingdom with the church is another way of saying that the main point of Jesus’ commission consists in our social action rather than in the public ministry of Word and Sacrament. In other words, it’s another way of saying that we are building the kingdom rather than receiving it; that the kingdom of God’s redeeming grace is actually a kingdom of our redeeming works.” As Horton points out, this misses the point. Namely, that Jesus’ message of the kingdom was the forgiveness of sins and the beginning of the new creation, and these things cannot be separated from His promises to build his church (Matt 16:18) and give the keys to the kingdom to the apostles (Matt 16:19). The apostles clearly thought that this entailed preaching, sacrament, and discipline, not social action or confusion with the state or a certain leader. Acts 2 records what the apostles thought Jesus’ kingdom is. Peter’s sermon was hardly about incarnational living, but rather, to repent and believe for the forgiveness of sins. Peter gave the people at Pentecost the gospel (Acts 2:14-36), not a plea for imitation of the risen Christ. This is repeated by the apostles in Acts 3 as well as Acts 17. Likewise, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, pitched the same thing. See 1 Corinthians 15. Therefore, we surely do not need the advice of rehashed theological liberalism coming from men such as McLaren and Rob Bell (whose idea of the kingdom is bringing heaven to earth via loving action) to tell us that the Kingdom of God is here, since as we have seen, when they use this phrase, they mean something completely different than what Scripture does. Instead of finding something positive in the messages of these men, we ought rather look to Scripture, for a little leaven leavens the whole lump. Why praise them for one particular aspect when they have the gospel wrong? Is what they are pitching even Christian? J. Gresham Machen answered with a decisive “no” in his book “Christianity and Liberalism,” written in the early part of the 20th century. It’s amazing how the vast majority of what Machen wrote against nearly a century ago we are battling today in the form of the Emergent Church. It is no more than rehashed Protestant liberalism that the church fought against in another era.

God’s Kingdom will advance, for God Himself has promised to build it. Not by force, not by activism, but by God’s Word. The Kingdom of God continues to advance as the gospel is proclaimed and the Holy Spirit raises dead sinners to life.


Psalm 1

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in due season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1 ESV)

Psalm 1 has always been one of my favorite Psalms, and with the rest of Scripture, there is a whole lot of theology packed into this short first Psalm. Scripture itself is inexhaustible. That is to say, even the most learned theological scholar is constantly learning more and more each day from the Word of God. There is truly no limit to Scripture’s teaching. Psalm 1 is certainly no different in this regard. I shall do my best to make sense of it here!

The obvious comparison being made by the Psalmist here is between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. There is a lot of good theology packed in to these six verses. The Psalmist uses God’s law as a marker of sorts here that distinguishes between the righteous and the wicked. The righteous man loves it, the wicked hates it. In fact, the wicked person can be described here as having no regard for God’s law and is one who is standing on his own merits. I think back to the book of Judges and the wicked rebellion of the Israelites, where the author of Judges concludes the book (as well as mentioning it another time) by saying “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25) And isn’t that exactly the case? The wicked (best described here as the unregenerate) always do what is right in their own eyes. They follow sin, since they do not follow the law, and sin is defined by the law. It is the normal comparison made in Scripture - my way (wicked) versus God’s way (righteous). Simply put, the regenerate man (the righteous) loves God’s teaching and desires to follow what He commands. The unregenerate man (the wicked) could care less. He follows himself and does what is right in his own eyes.

The Righteous Man

We see from the Psalm a few things that mark the regenerate person. First, we see that he is blessed. (Ps 1:1) He is blessed not because of what he does, but because of what God does. The rest of the description of the righteous man describes what that righteous man’s response is. What does a righteous man look like? We see first a downward progression of sorts. Walks not in the counsel of the wicked. Nor stands in the way of sinners. Nor sits in the seat of scoffers. From walks to stands to sits. The man who is righteous avoids these things precisely because they are sinful and wicked in the sight of God. But, says the Psalmist, the righteous man also delights in the law of the Lord. In this instance, “law” is best described as “teaching” or “instruction,” which would include the whole of Scripture. In the broader sense, we can use the term “law” in Scripture (and it is employed as such) as “God’s commands.” Notice that the Psalmist never says that the man is righteous *because* he follows the law. Such is not the biblical report. In fact, the law can only command. It has no inherent power to save or to make a person righteous. However, I see clear evidence here for the third use of the law, as a norm for Christian life. There has been a lot of attack on the third use of the law in recent years, as if desiring to follow God by obeying His commands is somehow unspiritual. But this forces a false choice. Basically, they are saying that anyone who desires to follow God’s commands is not following the Spirit. But Scripturally, this is patently false. The regenerate man has the law burned on his heart and desires to obey God. Obeying God is only found in his commands (law) not by some anti-intellectual false spirituality. Flesh this out far enough and the result is relative truth and religion based on inner experiences and subjectivism. Oh wait, that's pretty popular now days isn't it?

That is not to say we follow the law in order to be sanctified (or worse, to be saved, since that would be salvation by pure works), but that the result of our being saved is a love for God’s commands, precisely because the Spirit that indwells us will lead us to desire to obey God’s commands. Verse two tells us as much. The righteous man’s delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His law he meditates day and night. The righteous man will desire to obey God. Even in the New Covenant this is the case. Ezekiel pictures it this way: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Eze 36:26-27) The regenerate person loves the law (teachings) of God. This of course does not put us under the law, for that would mean we are unregenerate in the first place. To be under the law is to have to perfectly keep it to gain any favor before God. Just breaking it once, and you’re guilty for breaking it all (Jam 2:10). Thus, God requires perfect obedience to His teachings precisely because God cannot command anything less because He is perfectly holy. We are not saved so we can live how we want to, for that is precisely how the wicked live. Rather, God ensures and promises in Ezekiel to give us a new heart and His Spirit, which will cause us to walk in His statutes, since we are unable to do so without God’s intervention through His descent in grace. Paul says that “on the contrary, we uphold the law.” (Rom 3:31) Thus, the third use of the law stands. It is a biblical idea and is in fact the result of a regenerate heart.

The choice forced is a false one (spirituality vs. your mind) precisely because of what following the Spirit looks like. When we follow the Spirit, He engages our mind and conforms us to the image of Christ. Christ perfectly fulfilled the law and obeyed God's commands to perfection. Therefore, to follow the Spirit will cause us (Ez 36:27) to walk in God's statutes. Forcing a choice between "Spirit" and "mind" is not the report of Scripture. The two go together and cannot be separated. Christianity is not based on inner mysticism and experience. It is based on God's Word. Therefore, when we follow the Spirit, we are driven to the Word of God (Joh 17:17), delight in His commands (Ps 1:1-2), and desire to obey Him since we have the law burned on our hearts (Ez 36:25-27). Our mind is renewed and engaged (Rom 12:1-2), not disengaged in favor of some higher false spirituality.

The Psalmist then makes an analogy, one that is repeated in a very similar manner in the New Testament. He compares the righteous man to a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in season. Water is used all over the New Testament not only as the means of baptism, but also as a reference to regeneration. So says Ezekiel just one verse before the previously quoted ones: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.” (Eze 36:25) The author of Hebrews picks this up in Hebrews 10:22: “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” And Paul says much of the same in 2 Corinthians 7:1and 1 Corinthians 6:11, and picks up a similar vein in Titus 3:5. Washing and water are very important analogies drawn in the New Testament. I don’t think this is exactly what the Psalmist is trying to say here, but washing and water and sprinkling with it are all ideas that Scripture is full of.

What comes next is a teaching picked up later in Scripture by Christ Himself. That righteous tree that is planted by streams of water bears fruit. Matthew 12:33-37 gives a good example of this. How can a bad tree bear good fruit? Jesus teaches more of the same in Luke 6:43-44. We know that in both places He also states that “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Mat 12:34, Luk 6:44) Whatever is in your heart will come out of your mouth. The mouth follows the condition of the heart. Therefore, a regenerate person (good tree) will bear good fruit (desire to follow God’s teaching and will do so) and the unregenerate (bad tree) cannot even bear good fruit, precisely because even our best efforts are polluted garments. (Isa 64:6) Thus, we can see a defense of the third use all over this passage (Psalm 1). The righteous man bears good fruit because He loves God’s law and meditates on it, precisely because he has a new heart and is regenerate. The best analogy we can draw in this instance is that the righteous man bears fruit like a tree in a stream because he is planted by God and always watered by the Spirit. Even when the tree is in the desert, if the stream waters it, it will bear fruit. The righteous man is like this. No matter where he is, the Spirit goes with him, and he bears fruit.

His fruit does not wither away and he prospers. Now, we must be careful here, since numerous false teachers (*cough* Creflo Dollar *cough*) would have us believe that the word prosper here refers to financial prosperity, but such cannot be the case, especially in light of all of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels. Christians, simply put, are never guaranteed financial or worldly prosperity. To teach such is heretical nonsense. On the other hand, the Christian is said to prosper. Spiritually, that is. We prosper precisely because we are right with God. No longer judged by the law and held under its curse, we are now free to obey God in the law’s greatest intent by following the Spirit, who has put the law on our hearts.

The Wicked Man

You see from the Psalmist that the wicked man is quite the opposite of the righteous man. Verse 4 begins the short part on the wicked man, after seeing briefly what the way of the wicked is like in verse 1. There is a downward progression of sorts. The way of the wicked goes from bad to worse. Spurgeon had a great comment regarding this:

“When men are living in sin they go from bad to worse. At first they merely *walk* in the council of the careless and ungodly, who forget God -the evil is rather practical than habitual- but after that, they become habituated to evil, and they *stand* in the way of open sinners who willfully violate God’s commandments; and if let alone, they go one step further, and become themselves pestilent teachers and tempters of others, and thus they *sit* in the seat of the scornful. They have taken their degree in vice, and as true Doctors of Damnation they are installed.”

The progression ends, sadly, with sin being the way of life and being comfortable, evidenced by the sitting in the seat of the scornful. Sin has become comfortable and the way of life to the wicked.

The wicked do not delight in God‘s law, says the Psalmist. They have no desire for the law of God which essentially means they have no desire to obey God. They are like chaff that the wind drives away. Chaff is useless. After chaff is separated from grain it is blown away to be either trampled underfoot or burned. There are obvious correlations to judgment here. The wicked will not be able to stand before God, since they are doing what is right in their own eyes and have no desire to obey God. They have followed the way of the world and the way of sin that tells us that righteousness is no fun and that God is wrong. Just like Satan in the garden, the world preaches to us that we ought to do what we want and have fun! We will not surely die and we shall be as God! Not so, when we live worldly, and follow our own fleshly desires and vices that are sinful and disobedient to God, we are actually being as Satan and not as God. That road leads to death. We will surely die! Their own righteousness is filthy and is as useless as chaff in the wind before God. They hate His teaching, evidenced by the fact that they do not meditate on it and obey it. The New Testament picks this idea up as well, saying “Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.” (Eph 6:13) The wicked will fail at this precisely because they do not have the armor of God and want nothing to do with it. Their eyes are blinded and their foolish hearts are darkened. (See Rom 1:18-32)

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

The Psalm is concluded with this thought. Very simply put, there are only two types of people and two ways of life. Either a person is in Christ, who fulfilled the law of God so we can be raised in newness of life, or a person is in Adam and still under the law as pertaining to salvation. In essence, the two ways of life are determined completely by one’s relation to Christ. Everyone has a relationship to God. Either they are in Christ and are regenerate or they are in Adam and are unregenerate. There are no stages of this and no third option. As Psalm 1 points out so clearly, it is completely an either/or question. Is the person regenerate, and therefore declared righteous, released from the law’s curse, raised in newness of life, and have a desire to obey God in the law’s ultimate intent, to please God? Or is a person bound to keep that entire law through their own merit and thereby unregenerate? Ironically, the wicked have no desire to do this anyways and others rely on their own works to merit favor before God, making their obedience wicked since it is done out of the wrong motive.

King Solomon commented on the way of the wicked, saying: “There is a way that seems right to man, but in the end it leads to death.” (Prov 14:12)

There are a few things that are easily pointed out in summation.

1. The righteous man loves the teachings of God. Oh how I love God’s law! Is the response of the righteous.
2. The righteous man does not gain favor from God by their obedience to His teaching, but loves to obey His teaching out of sheer love and thankfulness to the Triune God who saved him.
3. The righteous man bears fruit which will not wither away.
4. The wicked generally have no desire for the teaching of God. They in fact hate it.
5. Even those wicked who attempt to follow the law to gain favor from God (legalism) are still wicked in that they are required to keep it perfectly. They cannot do this as they must keep it perfectly. However, since they are attempting to keep it in order to merit before God, even that is regarded as wicked, as the heart and motives are wrong.
6. The righteous will prosper, but the wicked ways will be driven away like chaff in the wind.
7. The righteous will be able to stand in the judgment as declared righteous, the wicked will not.
8. The difference between righteous and wicked depends on one’s status with God. Are they regenerate or unregenerate? In Christ or in Adam?
9. The righteous are heirs according to the promise (See Gal 3:29, John 3:16, etc), the wicked will perish.

There is no in between, as Psalm 1 points out. A very beautiful and clear Psalm that we can all learn from as Christians. The way of the righteous is the way of Jesus Christ, who tells us plainly that He IS “the way and the truth and the life.” (Joh 14:6) The only way to be counted as righteous is through Jesus Christ by the descent of God in grace, not by law-keeping in order to gain favor. Such has always been the way. More than just poetic, it is packed with theology. Let us hear the Word of God and learn from it.


Prayer, Evangelism, and...Predestination? What?

Prayer, Evangelism, and…Predestination?

One of the more interesting topics in theology is to analyze the relationships between prayer and predestination and evangelism and predestination. Numerous theological writers past and present have assumed that the Calvinistic view of predestination is simply inconsistent with prayer and evangelism and thus have led these theologians to deny the doctrine of predestination either directly or indirectly. These denials have taken numerous forms, from Pelagianism to Semi-Pelagianism to Socinianism (or Open Theism), and to a lesser extent, Arminianism. Let us then examine the arguments these theological camps put forth and answer them accordingly.

Faulty Idea #1. Our prayers change God’s mind. If they don’t, why pray?

This type of argument is put forth mainly by Socinians or Open Theists, such as Greg Boyd or Clark Pinnock. These men will point to passages where God appears to change His mind and they reason from this that God’s mind changes because He does not know the future exhaustively. A prime example they use for this idea is the story of Jonah and Ninevah found in the Old Testament. They then reason that if our prayers do not change God’s mind, there is no point in praying at all. There is obviously no room in this scheme for any sort of predestination at all.

Biblical Response:

God never changes (Mal 3:6, Jam 1:17) and His mind does not change either (Num 23:19). If He does change, the doctrine of God’s immutability is destroyed and stretched our far enough, the very existence of God becomes threatened, since a changing God would mean a God who changes for better or worse. If for the better, He was less than what he is after the change for the better and if for worse, He is now less perfect than He was before. Thus, God cannot and does not change. Essentially, this idea of a changing God tends to paint God in the image of man.

So how do we answer these passages where God is said to change? First of all, we must recognize that God descends to us and relates to us in ways that we can comprehend. It is amazing that our canon of Scripture is written in human languages in terms that we can understand - and all without contradiction to boot. Thus, when Scripture records God as changing His mind, very simply put, He is relating to us in terms we can understand, since God has not only ordained the beginning and the end, but also the means to that end, and He is pleased to include all creation as part of those means.

We likewise can assert (as long as we’re not Open Theists!) that God’s omniscience is complete and perfect. God knows exactly what will happen with perfect precision. If this is true, why would God ever change His mind? He doesn’t need to, since he knows with absolute precision what will happen. Changing His mind is a nonsensical idea if God’s omniscience is true. The only way to affirm a changing God is to affirm a future that is unknown to God. If this is the case, how then can we trust God? Wouldn’t it therefore be true that there are certain situations that leave God in the dark, so to speak? Certainly it would be.

We also must say that we are not God and never will be God, and therefore delving into God’s eternal predestination as it pertains to the future is a bad idea when things are not explicitly written in Scripture, since we cannot know God’s predestination before it occurs. There are certain things we know with certainty will happen in the future that are recorded for us in Scripture that have yet to occur. The second coming of Christ is one such thing that would fall into this category.

Relating to prayer, we can say this: That an eternal, all-knowing, and all-wise God has indeed predestinated the beginning and the end but also the means. Therefore, not only does God know what we will pray and how we will pray, but also has ordained exactly how He will answer those prayers. We also know that God always answers prayers with the best possible answer and always according to His purpose and His will, since we know that God works all things together according to His purpose (Rom 8:28) and all things according to the council of His will (Eph 1:11) and that God’s plan is the best plan, not ours. Therefore, we can fully trust God in every area of life, since He knows exactly what will occur and has determined for it to occur, and we know that His plan is a perfect one and is therefore the best one. When we pray, He has known since before the foundation of the world exactly how that prayer will be answered, and we know that His answer will be in accordance with His perfect will and in accordance with answering for our good as well. That is powerful prayer.

The “why even pray” argument is equally nonsensical, for the reasons mentioned above. Many people speculate that prayer would be pointless with an unchanging God since we cannot change His mind. But God changing His mind presupposes that God cannot know the prayer or your needs until you actually pray. On the contrary, a God who knows exactly how you will pray and knows exactly how He will answer it is a God who is omniscient, all-powerful, and all-wise, since we know that those prayers of His saints will be answered according to God’s will absolutely 100% of the time because God’s will does not change either. God may act in different manners towards His creation at different times as He descends to His creation in grace and judgment in ways we can grasp, but His mind is not changed, He is not changed, and His ultimate plan is the best one. For Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Heb 13:8) Thus, God is as well, since Christ is the eternal second person of the Trinity. He has always been God, eternally existent in three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. He is God existent in three persons, and He always will be God existent in three persons.

Finally, I cannot for the life of me figure out why people pray on behalf of other people (intercession) and direct their prayers to God if it is ultimately not God, but rather the person who must make the final decision regarding salvation. Nonsensical is a good word here, since it is nonsense to pray for God to intervene and save them if that's not what the folks doing the praying think actually saves the person. Why not direct the prayers to the person and not to God?

Faulty Argument #2: We evangelize because everyone has the inherent ability to accept Christ. If predestination is true, the elect are saved anyways, so why evangelize at all?

Biblical Response:

Both of these arguments fall into the same faulty line of thinking, but ironically on two very different sides of the theological spectrum. The first statement is pushed by those who deny the doctrine of predestination in favor of free will, while the second is asked by those who hold to a fatalistic doctrine of predestination that affirms that God decreed the beginning and the end, but somehow they lose sight of the means. Generally, we would call the “no evangelism” stance Hyper-Calvinism, which is not Calvinism at all.

The first line off thinking fails to recognize that God’s absolute sovereignty and predestination are the very grounds on which evangelism can have a hope and be guaranteed of success. To appeal to dead sinners free will is to miss the point and deny everything Scripture says about the human condition since Adam’s fall. Since God has guaranteed that He will save all of his elect persons, our evangelism has a hope and a success that is guaranteed. God’s Word will never return void, as Isaiah tells us (Isa 55:11). And if Scripture is correct regarding the human condition post-fall, then God’s election to salvation from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4-6) is a necessary condition for anyone at all to be saved. Without God’s absolute sovereignty and predestination evangelism would run the risk of being an utter failure where nobody at all would believe, since people in their fallen state do not seek after God (Rom 3:10-12, 1 Cor 2:14). As St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, people seek after the benefits that only God can give, but they do not truly seek after God. The difference between the two is vast. And as Jesus reminds us: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (Joh 3:3) Thus, a person cannot even see the kingdom of God unless they are first born again. This first faulty scenario has people seeing the kingdom of God and then being born again after. It is in essence a putting of the proverbial cart before the horse, turning faith (or at least the initial choice) into a meritorious work. They are saved because they first believed, thus making human assent the cause of regeneration. Likewise, where in Scripture does it ever say that everyone has the inherent moral ability to receive Christ and thereby add a meritorious work to Christ's finished work? I fail to find even one such passage. Such is not the biblical report.

If the first objection is true (that we evangelize and everyone has the inherent ability to accept Christ) then our evangelism inevitably ends up falling into unbiblical methods. In effect, our evangelism can degenerate into a festival of emotionalism or attempted persuasions that appeal to the human emotions. It becomes a free-for-all of efforts as to who can come up with the best techniques, catch phrases, and contrived methods in order to make Christ and Christians more appealing to the general populace. This is precisely the problem in the churches that call themselves “Seeker-Sensitive.” But this is not the way evangelism is to be carried out. To do so is also to usurp the role of the Holy Spirit in evangelism. I've heard it said, and it is spot on - that our role in evangelism is to bring Christ to the sinner. How is this accomplished? By the preaching of the Gospel. The preaching of God's Word is the method prescribed by God Himself. It's terribly presumptuous to think we can improve on the method God gave us. Secondly, the Holy Spirit's role in evangelism is to bring the sinner to Christ. The sinner himself cannot do this. This is precisely where all forms of synergism err. They assume the dead sinner is able to bring himself to Christ. Scripture disagrees. It is the Holy Spirit who brings us to Christ. God is pleased to use the preaching of the Gospel by His vessels of mercy to carry out this role (Rom 10). The preaching of the Gospel is the means by which God builds His church, not by our pragmatic efforts that seek to make the Gospel more palatable, softer, easier, or more conformed to a particular listener’s preferences. This is not the God-ordained method of evangelizing. It is simply a process of preaching the Gospel (as well as properly preaching the Law). The Gospel then, has it’s own method which God has ordained. And who can invent a better method of presenting God’s good news than God Himself? To invent all of these pragmatic efforts is in effect to distrust God’s method as outdated or irrelevant for our age. Indeed, it is to distrust it as inferior to humanistic ideas designed to appeal to popular culture and feel good emotions. St. Paul summed this up the best, speaking to the church in Corinth in his letter of 1 Corinthians, when he said “For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:2) And earlier in the epistle he states this: “For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the  power of God, and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor 1:22-24) No contrived methods, no emotionalism, no seeker sensitive techniques. Christ and Him crucified. That’s what the apostle preached. God’s method, not St. Paul’s ideas that he thought might work and get more butts in the pews.

If the second objection is true (why evangelize at all?) we dismiss as inconsequential everything Scripture says about preaching the Gospel and in effect eliminate the means God has ordained to reach His ordained end. God is pleased to use these preachers of the Gospel in order to bring about the end He has decreed. Folks who support this idea are generally Hyper Calvinists. They affirm that God predestines the end (correctly) but they get rid of the idea that God also predestines the means to that end (incorrectly). Namely, the preaching of the Gospel.

It is again worth mentioning here that God’s predestination involves everything, but it involves things only known to God (Deut 29:29). Thus, if we are to be sure of our election and predestination unto salvation, we cannot base that as such on our election per se, but only on Christ and the Gospel. Christ is visible to us, God’s predestination is not - until it happens. Therefore, we can only be sure of our election by our being in Christ and looking to His work on Earth. It is also worth mentioning that God’s predestination is the best possible plan, worked together for His ultimate glory and for our ultimate good. Thus, we can fully trust in God in every area of life. A denial of predestination would call this into serious question. In effect, to deny predestination at this juncture also denies that God's infallible plan is the best possible plan and substitute our own plan according to our own will and purposes as a better one. Nonsense. If there are areas that God has not predestined, we should and would be terrified that something other than God is controlling that situation and as such His purposes could be thwarted, or perhaps He has no purpose at all in the situation. That is to say, there would be areas of life where God is not sovereign. More nonsense.

Let us therefore be very clear. God’s sovereignty and predestination are both to be adored and to be thankful for. As R.C. Sproul reminds us: “If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled. Perhaps that one maverick molecule will lay waste all the grand and glorious plans that God has made and promised to us.” In short, in order for God’s promises to be absolutely certain, His absolute sovereignty is a necessary attribute and His predestination is a necessary condition. If His sovereignty is not absolute, then His promises run the risk of failure. Our prayers run the risk of not being answered, and our evangelism runs the risk of being based on a false hope that may not come to pass. Open Theism not only opens up the future, casting ignorance on God (or God casting ignorance on Himself in order to protect their precious central doctrine of free will), but it defeats the absolute certainty of His promises. The two cannot coexist. May it never be so.

Therefore, pray fervently with the expectation of the absolute truth that God is working all things together for the good of those that love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom 8:28), even evil acts (see Gen 50:20, for example). God Himself does not and cannot sin, but He orchestrates even sinful actions ultimately for His glory. God will answer your prayers according to His good and perfect will. He always does, and He knows what you will pray and exactly how He will answer you before the thought of praying even creeps into your head. And His answers are always the best ones, since they are part of His plan, which is perfect. Likewise, evangelize fervently with the hope that God has promised to save a multitude that no man can number from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Rev 5:9), since we know that God has ordained the foolishness (to the sinful world, see 1 Cor 1) of preaching Christ crucified as the means He will use to save His sheep; none of whom will be lost (Joh 10:26-30). Even though we do not know the identity of God’s elect persons, we know that there are still elect persons to come into the fold, else Jesus Christ would have returned (see 2 Pet 3:1-13). Therefore, our evangelism is still guaranteed to be successful. Some people will receive Christ. Thus, preach Christ crucified to all persons, knowing with certainty that some will come to faith in Christ. And continue to pray fervently and evangelize fervently until our Lord returns in glory. God has guaranteed them both to be successful according to His will.


Works of the Law

One of the hottest discussions in Christianity throughout the ages has been in reference to the relationship of “works” in the book of James (Js 2:14-26) and the phrase employed by St. Paul “works of the law.” Some Roman Catholics, at least since the middle ages, have argued that the phrases are completely different from each other. Many Roman Catholics today favor this interpretation, even some apologists. After all, this is one of the direct interpretations of Scripture that the Reformers were fighting against. This interpretation, if correct, has direct bearing on the Protestant (and biblical) doctrine of sola fide (justification by faith alone), denying it outright. The Reformers held that man is justified before God by faith alone and only on the merits of Christ’s work alone. Rome countered that this was not the case, and that man is justified by faith plus works; made official Roman dogma at Trent. To understand the Roman Catholic view on justification, we must go to the Council of Trent, which speaks at length regarding justification.  Therefore, the Roman Catholic view of justification is that we are not justified by faith alone, but rather, by faith plus works. A cursory reading of Scripture should show us quite conclusively that this is not the case and indeed is literally impossible, unless we are willing to allow for God accepting less than perfection. Hence, Rome solves this dilemma in that they deny the imputed righteousness of Christ to all who believe with the doctrine of purgatory, which is a perfectly logical doctrine if imputed righteousness is false and a person can be partially justified. As an aside, it is quite ironic that Rome denies imputed righteousness while a person is yet alive on Earth but in essence affirms it in purgatory, after death.

It is also quite right to point out that Protestants do not deny the importance of good works in the life of a Christian. We simply deny that these good works are capable of meriting anything before God, who demands absolute perfection. Protestant doctrine holds that we are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. It will result in good works springing from a changed nature that desires to please God. Therefore, since God still demands absolute perfection and conformity to His law since He hasn’t changed, it is literally impossible for a person to be justified on these grounds, since not only have all sinned (Rom 3:23), and all are born sinful (Ps 51:5, Rom 5:12-21), but one transgression of God’s Holy Law renders us guilty of breaking all of it (Js 2:10). Simply put, if mankind must stand before God on account of their own righteousness, nobody can possibly be justified, since none have fulfilled the Law in its entirety. If we claim we have no sin, we are liars, according to St. John (1 Jn 1:8-10). Save for one. Jesus Christ.

Let us examine all of the passages that are relevant to the topic at hand. Namely, those which use the phrase “works of the Law” and those that speak about justification and works.

All Scriptures quoted from the ESV.

Romans 3:20: For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Romans 3:27-28: Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Romans 4:2: For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.

Romans 4:4: Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.

Romans 4:6: Just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works.

Galatians 2:15-16: We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Galatians 3:2: Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?

Galatians 3:5-6: Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith - just as Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness?

Galatians 3:10-14: For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the law, and do them. Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for the righteous shall live by faith. But the law is not of faith, rather The one who does them shall live by them. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us - for it is written, Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree - so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Ephesians 2:8-10: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

And then, James 2:14-26.

Thus, Scripture gives us tons of passages that speak about works. To gain an understanding about what the Scriptural teaching is on the topic, we need to define a few things, or else we end up in limbo and the conclusions we come to can easily be refuted on Scriptural grounds. But before we do that, let’s check out all the passages that speak of “works of the law,” since that ultimately is the phrase that gets  isolated by those who will in the end disagree with the conclusion that will be drawn here.

Per Scripture, the works of the law will not justify anyone. The question then becomes: what does “works of the law mean?” Generally, there are two main options put forth in regard to this question. First, we have the Roman Catholic idea that “works of the law” refers to Jewish ceremonial observance. Quite often, they appeal to circumcision and other ceremonial rites. Indeed, in Galatians, Paul is rebuking the Judaizers for adding Jewish rites to Christ alone for salvation. They appeal to James chapter 2; especially when James says that works justify a person. The second explanation is the Protestant one, which I will be defending here. That is, that “works of the law” refers to trying to merit any favor before God by good works of law-keeping, which includes of course, the ten commandments. In this interpretation, James is not speaking of the doctrine of justification that declares us righteous before God, but rather, speaking of the difference between a false and spurious faith and a real faith. Faith without works is dead, says James.

Scripture gives us numerous clues as to what the works of the law are. We are told that: No one will be justified by the works of the law…Since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom 3:20), and instead through faith in Christ. (Gal 2:15-16)

We also know that the Spirit is received by faith and not works of the law (Gal 3:2), all who rely on works of the law are under a curse (Gal 3:10), no one is justified before God by the law (Gal 3:11), and the one who relies on works of the law must keep the entire book of the law and live by them. (Gal 3:10-11) Hence, we need Christ (Gal 3:12-14), who fulfilled the law on our behalf by becoming a curse for us through His crucifixion (Gal 3:12-14).

We also have the following information regarding works:

If Abraham was justified by works, he could have boasted (Rom 4:2). If works are what justify us before God, we are given our due and not a gift. (Rom 4:4) And we are saved by grace through faith, apart from works. (Eph 2:8-9)

When we boil this down, what we need to determine is if works of the law refers simply to Jewish observance and ceremonial actions or if it refers to doing any work that is in line with the law for justification. Some Roman Catholic apologists take this line of thought. I am convinced that this is not the official position of Rome on the issue though, and we will get to that later. But, we must refute this as well, since it would seem that this interpretation, although not the official Roman Catholic one, is a very popular one used by Roman Catholics. Romans 3 and Galatians are the places we need to go to determine this. And to get a clue as to which answer is proper, we need to examine what St. Paul says regarding works of the law and the reasoning he gives as to why these works of the law cannot justify us.

We first can see that in Romans 3, St. Paul tells us that no human being will be justified by works of the law because through the law comes knowledge of sin. That is, the law is what shows us what sin is. It is to break God’s law. We therefore cannot be justified by these works, since the law shows us what sin is and we have knowledge of this sin through the law that God has given. We also know that St. Paul gave us more reasoning in the same passage, contrasting faith and works at the conclusion off Romans 3. He states here that “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28) and then “since God is one - who will justify the circumcised (Jews) by faith and the uncircumcised (Gentiles) through faith.” (Rom 3:30) He likewise was not an antinomian as he stated the next verse: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” (Rom 3:31) The point here is that St. Paul is talking about upholding the law as someone who is already justified. Thus, in essence, what he is claiming, as he also does in Galatians, is that following the law is not the manner in which a person is justified before God.

He goes on in Galatians 2 with more of the same, saying that “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law.” (Gal 2:16a) This coming directly after saying that he is a Jew and not a Gentile, and neither of them will be justified by law-keeping. He concludes his thought in verse 21, saying “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Gal 2:21)

But Galatians 3 is really the killer for the Jewish observance interpretation, as St. Paul states that “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal 3:10) And then, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for the righteous shall live by faith.” (Gal 3:11) And then of course continues on to explain the removal of the law’s curse through Christ’s crucifixion, precisely because we are incapable of being justified by law-keeping.

All of this is fine and dandy, but we also need to answer the question, “how are good works defined?” Because good works must be defined according to something. If they lie outside of God’s law, then in fact an argument could be made for the Jewish observance argument. However, this argument implies that the law itself is only for Jews, and only Jews in the pre-Christ era will be judged according to God’s law. I find this line to be problematic for this interpretation, since everyone universally is considered to be “in Adam,” precisely because Adam sinned and we are born sinners and we also sin, which is simply put - breaking of God’s law. Thus, by definition, sin is defined by God’s law. When we sin, that is exactly what we are doing - missing the mark of God’s holiness. Now I ask then - what answer does Scripture give us in regards to what sin is? The law, of course. Likewise, to not sin would then also be to adhere to the law, which of course means that we are not justified by not sinning. But we also must insist on taking this even another step further. That is to say, that good works are defined by the law as well. Jesus Christ Himself states in Matthew 22:37-40: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the prophets.” This answer our Lord gave was in response to the question “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” (Matt 22:36) This answer that Christ gave is often called the Great Commandment (not to be confused with the Gospel or the Great Commission). Therefore, Christ sums up the law itself by loving God and loving neighbor. Now, good works must be defined in this manner. The works that are done that please God fall in these two categories. Thus, good works themselves are defined by following the law, since the summary of the law is found in Matthew 22:37-40, given by Christ. Thus, our good works cannot justify us, since good works are in essence following the law, since that is the answer Scripture gives us as to what pleases God. Therefore, it is spurious to create a category of good works apart from the law of God, since God Himself is the only one who defines what a good work is, and the answer Scripture gives us as to what actually is a good work is essentially a work pleasing to God that is in line with His law. That (His law) is what He has given us that to define what sin is, and by correlation, what sin is not.

We also must say a couple other things, because all of this could lead us to believe that our sanctification is done by law-keeping, even though our justification is clearly not. Some would affirm this idea. I must reject it for a couple reasons. First, we are conformed to the image of Christ by following the Holy Spirit, not doing works. We do works, yes. But we do not do works just to follow the law. That would be absurd. St. Paul had something like this in mind in the beginning of Galatians 3, when he states “Let me ask you this only: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:2-3) In essence, God does not save us from the curse of the law and justify us apart from our works just to drive us right back to the law to be sanctified.

Second, we also must say that the law is good, righteous, and holy, and there is nothing wrong with the third usage of it. That is, the law gives us a norm for Christian life. Specifically, the Decalogue (ten commandments). But, we do not follow the law for law-keeping sake, as St. Paul rejects in Galatians 3:2-3. On the other hand, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, we now, as New Covenant believers, have the law written upon our hearts (see Eze36:25-27), and we are conformed to Christ by following the Spirit, who brings us to Christ through grace and drives us to desire to please Him. But we also must guard against inventing our own laws that add to God’s. God has given us His, and His is what He has said is pleasing to Him. How presumptuous of us to add our own laws that we think should please Him and neglect the one He has given us!

This all brings us to James. What was James talking about? We have already shown above that good works are best defined on a Scriptural basis ultimately by keeping God’s law, and we have numerous clear statements from St. Paul that no one will be justified by works of the law (Rom 3:20, 28, Gal 2:16, Gal 3:10-14) and that, in more general terms, the biblical report is that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, and this is not of ourselves, but is rather God’s gift - which then drives us to good works. (Ephesians 2:8-10) James however, at first glance seems to disagree with Paul. This is not possible of course. As an aside, even a great man of God and theologian Martin Luther had problems reconciling Paul and James. Luther was unsure as to the canonicity of the book of James. But, perhaps Luther simply may not have seen James’ passage in the right light. Digging in, it’s pretty clear what James is trying to say. James makes such statements as “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (Jms 2:14) “Show me your faith apart from your works and I will show you my faith by my works.” (Jms 2:18) And then, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” (Jms 2:21) And, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (Jms 2:24)

The point we need to recognize here is that James is not erecting a false dichotomy between faith and works and separating them to the point of being completely different. If this is the case, then faith becomes no more than mental assent, and Scripture, specifically the New Testament, denies that idea everywhere else. Likewise, faith and obedience are treated as essentially the same in numerous other places in Scripture. They can be distinguished, but never separated. For instance, John 3:36, Hebrews 5:9, Romans 1:5, and Romans 16:26. The biblical report is that true faith will obey. The fruits of the Spirit will be borne, and good works will be the result. Thus, we can discern that even in James 2, that what James is contrasting is not faith and works, but true faith and false faith. He makes this clear by using demons as an example. Even they believe, he says. (Jms 2:19) When viewed in this light, Paul and James are completely consistent with each other. Paul was fighting against legalists in Galatians - those who would add works in order to be justified, while James was fighting the opposite battle; antinomianism. That is, faith with no works, which is a false and dead faith. Our faith needs to be shown by our works, and if our faith is real, it will be. Likewise, James cannot be blasting the Reformation distinctive of justification by faith alone in verse 24, for then he would not only be contradicting Paul, but also creating a new category of works that are classified outside of God’s law, which, as seen above, is very unlikely. Proponents of justification by works love to point out that the only time the phrase “faith alone’ appears in Holy Writ is in James 2:24, when James says that we are not justified by faith alone. But James does not mean it in the same sense that the Reformers and St. Paul meant it. That is, he is not creating a dichotomy between faith and works to the point they are separate, but rather, he is fighting against antinomianism, those who have a false profession but a lifestyle that contradicts what they say. This is the epitome of lying, obviously. The people James is referring to are clearly people who have the same “belief” as the demons he mentions in verse 19. That is, they believe Christ is who he claimed, but they do not possess a faith given by the Spirit of God and do not have the law written on their hearts, evidenced by their lack of works. Therefore, these people are not shown to be just simply by their profession of faith. They may even be part of the visible church, but their professions are severely lacking. Hence all the warnings in Hebrews. There were numerous people in the visible church who had false professions then, and numerous ones who have false professions now. We see that what James is saying here is not that man is justified by doing good works, as if they are a cause for merit, because Paul plainly rebukes that idea, but rather, that a true profession of faith will result in a desire to follow God and obey. A true faith will work.. It’s that simple, especially in numerous other places in Scripture the just are said to “live by faith.” (Rom 1:17, 2 Cor 5:7, etc) Therefore, the works that we do come from our faith, which is the result of a new nature implanted by the  Holy Spirit through regeneration. It is precisely in this light that Paul can command us to “work out our own salvation” (Phi 2:12) because “it is God who works in you.” (Phi 2:13) God has worked it in, therefore, we need to work it out, through our obedience and works. This working out can only be done because we already possess salvation, not in order to earn it. If we did not possess it, Paul could not say that “it is God who works in you.” We know, only the adopted children of God have God working in them, since only the saved are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. (Rom 8:7-10)

But it is also quite important to point out that I just spent a bunch of time refuting the position of *some* Roman Catholic apologists and of *some* Roman Catholic parishioners. On the other hand, I am convinced that this position is NOT the official position of the Roman Catholic church, as evidenced by the Council of Trent. Therefore, I desire to be very careful not to misrepresent the Roman Catholic position on justification, lest I attempt to refute a straw man, which is absolutely not what I desire to do. As a Reformed guy, I recognize the annoyance of straw men and recognize that refuting a straw man doesn’t really refute anything. Dr. Robert Sungenis, perhaps the most formidable Roman Catholic apologist of the day (seriously - chew on some of his arguments some time, they‘re very well done in many cases), agrees with Reformed Theology in the sense that “works of the law“ cannot be referring to ceremonial observance. Sungenis quotes: “Various Catholic apologists today, when teaching on the meaning of the "works of the law," will often explain it as referring to the ceremonial law of Israel, to the exclusion, or the virtual exclusion, of the remaining law in Israel. (The ceremonial law refers to all the ritual religious practices, such as circumcision, eating kosher foods, priestly sacrifices, seventh-day sabbath observance, etc). Sad to say, that answer is at best a half-truth, and at worst, it is a distortion of the Catholic teaching on Justification.”

He continues “One of the reasons these apologists categorize "works of the law" as referring to the ceremonial law is that they have found it to be an easy polemical tool against Protestants. Protestants say that St. Paul condemns ALL work as having any part in Justification. The Catholic apologist counters by saying that when Paul uses the phrase "works of the law" he does not mean ALL works; he only means the works of the ceremonial law of Israel.”

Now, granted, I think the above arguments I made are a fairly decent refutation of that “easy polemical tool.” I believe that Dr. Sungenis would most likely agree with what I have written above regarding the works of the law (although he would disagree with my explanation of James 2). Sungenis then concludes (regarding this works of the law interpretation): “…the answer he gives as to the distinguishing characteristic (the ceremonial law) is only partially correct, and in being such, it is the wrong answer to this most crucial question.” He also points out, rightfully so, that the biggest Roman Catholic authority on justification, the Council of Trent, never uses that argumentation, and never even went so far to even speak of the ceremonial law regarding justification. Earlier theologians such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas agreed with Dr. Sungenis in this regard, and it would seem, most relevant theologians claimed by Rome. Thus, Sungenis, after a long and drawn out argument, says this: “In other words, "works of the law" are precisely what the phrase says - they are works performed in a system of law; works performed under a legal contract; works wherein legal payment is expected. The moral and ceremonial laws, as well as the civil laws of Israel, were all part of the legal system of the Old Covenant -- a legal system that had to be set aside in order to make room for the New Covenant, a system of grace.”

In the main, his arguments seem satisfactory to me as regarding what works of the law are. Sungenis also has some excellent insight when he says the following: “It is important to note that in Romans 4 Paul is teaching that Abraham was Justified by means of the New Covenant of grace, which, because of Christ's anticipated sacrifice, could stretch all the way back to the time of Abraham and beyond, in order to save men. That is why, for example, Hebrews 11:4-7 mentions the prominent saints of old, beginning with Abel and Enoch and Noah, who were saved by faith -- the faith required by the New Covenant in Christ. It is the same reason that Hebrews 11:26 says that Moses "considered the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt," or why 1 Corinthians 10:4 says that of those who left Egypt "a spiritual rock followed them; and that rock was Christ." The only way anyone was justified in the Old Covenant was on the basis of what Christ would do in the New Covenant.”

But I do not quite understand how the next statement he made can be drawn, when he says: “On the other hand, the circumcision Paul mentions in Romans 4:9-12, and the circumcision in which Abraham and his progeny received, represent the Old Covenant, a covenant of law which had no power to save anyone.” It is important to point out, in this case, that the circumcision Abraham received could not have been a circumcision putting him into a system of law, since the covenant made with Abraham came 430 prior to the giving of the system of law at Sinai that Israel was under. (Gal 3:17) Therefore, the sacrament of circumcision given to Abraham was in essence a sacrament that pointed to circumcision of the heart, which is the result of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant by Jesus Christ. (See Gen 17:1-14) It is no wonder then, that Reformed Theology, as well as Roman Catholicism, sees baptism as the sacrament that replaces circumcision, although the conclusions they draw beyond that are different. Likewise, baptism then symbolizes circumcision of the heart. This of course is to assume that the promise made to Abraham is not the Old Covenant, per se, as that phrase is commonly used too refer to the law given at Sinai, but rather, is the promise of the New Covenant in its pre-Christ form. Thus, to echo Sungenis, even Abraham and all the other elect of God that lived before Christ were indeed justified by grace and not by law keeping of any form.

All of this leads Trent and Dr. Sungenis to answer the question “But aren’t we supposed to obey the moral law?” With an answer that goes like this: “If the moral law is included with the ceremonial law as that which condemns mankind, how does that square with the fact that we are supposed to obey the moral commands of the Old Testament, but not obey the ceremonial commands? The answer is very simple. We are not obeying the moral laws of the Old Covenant. We are obeying the principles of the moral laws found in the Old Covenant. More than that, we are obeying the much improved moral laws, which God placed in the New Covenant. The New Covenant of Jesus Christ borrows from the good laws of the Old Covenant and makes them better.” He then continues: “But notice this important point: It is the WHOLE system of the Old Covenant that must go, not just a part here or there. Those who teach that "works of the law" refers only to the ceremonial law are essentially teaching that only PART of the Old Covenant was set aside. What about the ceremonial law? Isn't it true that we are not to obey the ceremonial law any longer, and didn't Paul make that clear in, for example, Colossians 2:16; while also teaching in Romans 13:9 that we are to obey the moral laws? Well, we already answered the "moral law" question above. We are obeying the principles of the Old Covenant decalogue, but we are no longer under the Old Covenant itself. As for our not obeying the ceremonial laws any longer, that is true, but it is true in the same way that we are no longer obeying the moral laws of the Old Covenant. Rather, we are obeying the principles of the Old Covenant ceremonial laws.” Of course, these ceremonial laws that are now in effect are represented in Catholicism by the seven sacraments.

This brings us to the Roman Catholic view on justification, as articulated by Dr. Sungenis. Sungenis argued at length that the works of the law cannot save us and that the entire law has been set aside. Then he argues this, regarding justification, after using James 2:24 and Romans 2:6-13 as his support: “The reason these works can be rewarded with justification and eternal life is simply that they are NOT rewarded on the basis of debt or law, but on the basis of grace. The only kind of works Paul disallows for justification are works performed in the system of Law, which is a legal system totally devoid of grace. Works performed in the system of grace are always meritorious, because God, by His very nature, seeks to reward those who do good. So notice that its not the KIND of works that is at issue, but the SYSTEM in which one performs those works -- a system of Law (the Old Covenant) or a system of Grace (the New Covenant). One gets into the system of grace by accepting God in faith. Once one believes, then he can work for God, and as he works God will reward him graciously for his efforts. The more one believes and works, the closer he comes to God until, one day, his life is over and God takes him home. There, in heaven, he will receive the ultimate reward of grace.”

And now, it would seem, we have a fuller definition and idea of what the Roman Catholic view of justification is. We must, however, point out some inconsistencies with this view. First of all, after arguing that the whole law has been set aside by the inauguration of the New Covenant and therefore doing the works of the law in order to be justified, Sungenis then argues in the above paragraph that since we are not under the law, we CAN be justified by performing the works that are set forth in the law, or at least, the principles of them. It is important to point out here that Protestants do not reject what we refer to as the third use of the law (also called the normative usage). What we mean by this is that the law can provide the “norms” for Christian life. When we look in Scripture and ask “What pleases God?” The answer Scripture gives us is His law. It would seem then, that the main difference between our two schools of theology revolve around the idea of merit. In Protestant Reformed Theology (including Lutherans, Reformed, Presbyterian, and Reformational Anglicans), good works are not spurned and licentious living is not endorsed. In fact, we would put forth the argument that such fruits are an indication of a person who is unsaved and therefore not justified. Contrary to popular straw man-ology, Reformed Theology does not promote vile living and antinomianism, and contrary to some dispensationalists, Reformed Theology likewise does not put the Christian under the law. Both of these charges are false. In the same manner, I do not wish to misrepresent Rome; hence my reading of Trent and Dr. Sungenis (who, as I mentioned above, I hold in high regard as a quality theologian - in the sense that he is very thorough, honest, and difficult to refute in many cases). However, at the risk of gaining howls of protests from my Roman Catholic friends, I will state this: If we are attempting to be justified by our works, whether they be from the law or from the principles of the law, it is difficult for me to conclude that we would be under grace, no matter what we call it. In short, it is difficult to see much difference between works justifying us in a system of law or in a system of grace. In both cases, we make God our debtor and attempt to be justified by something we do. If our works are done to gain merit from God and to justify us, it seems to me that grace is completely undermined. The argument quickly degenerates into something like this: Well, we cannot be justified by the works of the law if we are under the law, but we can be justified by the works of the law if we are under grace. Same works, different systems. Thus, the phrase works of the law, to Sungenis, does not mean simply the works done that align with God’s law, but rather, the works done that align with God’s law for people that are under God’s law. Therefore, these same exact works of the law are meritorious for Christians who are not under the law. Same works, same law, but the status of the person is what makes the difference. Thus it would follow that it would not matter much if we claim to be in the New Covenant if we are relying on our works to justify us, especially if those are the same works that are sharply defined by the law of God, since, as Sungenis has claimed, “that its not the KIND of works that is at issue, but the SYSTEM in which one performs those works.” It is, however, pertinent to this topic to point out that St. Paul uses the phrase “works OF the law.” There is no mention by St. Paul in any of these specific passages to “works done UNDER the law” or “works done in a SYSTEM of law.” He simply points out that the works of the law cannot justify. This would imply that the system one is under is irrelevant, since the works OF the law would be the same in either case. Sungenis is forced to change St. Paul's words from works OF the law to works done IN A SYSTEM of law or works done UNDER the law.

Sungenis then concludes: “So, we see that the New Covenant, even though in some respects it is a much improved covenant, in another sense it is even more demanding, for with much freedom comes much responsibility. Now, as opposed to the Old Covenant Law being our judge, such that it could convict us for murder but not be able to peer into our heart to see if we actually hated our brother (cf., Matthew 5:21-24), God, in the New Covenant, is able to peer into our heart and know our most secret motives. And it is upon this basis that the New Covenant judges us (1 Corinthians 4:5; 9:27). Fortunately, God infuses grace into our soul upon confession of sin so that when He looks at us He sees a purified being, justified in His sight. But if we spurn his New Covenant graces, then we will receive the "severer" punishment, a punishment even harsher that what was given in the Old Covenant.”

Looked at in this light (and I would agree with this), Christ’s definitions of the law are even more demanding. It’s also important to note that Christ did not abolish the law, but rather, abolished the theocracy that swore “all this we will do” and failed to do it - namely, because it was impossible for Israel to perfectly obey on a national level, thereby gaining the promised land, and by extension, the eternal rest. Another thing is that since God is an unchanging God, He likewise does not change His law. Granted, more of it is revealed in different books of Scripture, but His entire law remains the same. God’s law is still God’s law and no one has ever been justified by it (because the law can only command) and no one has been justified by doing the works of it, since once again, the law can only command. Therefore, it is impossible to be justified before God by doing, since when God commands us to “do” His requirement for justification based on that doing is nothing less than perfect obedience to all of His precepts. God cannot command anything less. Such would be a violation of his holiness and a compromise on His part. God, by His nature, does not and cannot do this. This was one major point of giving Israel the law and having Israel herself swear the oath, thereby calling the curses on herself for violation, precisely to point us to Christ, who is the law keeper and fulfiller.  However, the Abrahamic promise is not like that. God Himself and God alone passed through the halves of the slaughtered animals and not Abraham, thereby calling the curses down on Himself for violation. (Gen 15:12-17) Likewise, God made good on this promise by sending Christ to bear the sins of His people, as Christ took the curse upon Himself by hanging on a tree. (Gal 3:10-14) God alone took the oath for the Abrahamic promise and also the fulfillment thereof - the New Covenant, since God had already taken the oath and promised to take it once again in the ultimate fulfillment thereof. Abraham himself swore nothing. This is completely in contrast to Israel swearing obedience at Sinai and in the numerous renewals of the law found throughout the Old Testament. (Joshua 24, for one) Therefore, how is it possible to be justified by our swearing and doing via doing the works of the law, (even under grace) if we are part of a covenant of grace which God Himself has sworn upon Himself the curses? As Horton has pointed out quite well in his excellent work “Introducing Covenant Theology,” the Sinai covenant given to Israel is a classic suzerainty treaty, where the great King (in this case God) initiates a covenant with a people (in this case Israel) because the great King had done something on their behalf. This is why the giving of the law at Sinai begins with “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exo 20:2) It begins by stating what God had done for them, and therefore, since He did this, He can then command the following stipulations. In this case, God goes on to give Israel the Decalogue, followed by other various laws that take up Exodus 20-23. When we get to Exodus 24, we see that Israel confirms the covenant by swearing “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.” (Exo 24:3) The covenant demands perfect obedience on a national level in order to inherit the promised land. Of course, Israel failed miserably on numerous occasions, precisely because perfect national obedience was impossible. God cannot command anything less than perfect obedience, as has been pointed out. Yet God did not cast off Israel. However, God never remembered Israel based on the covenant given at Sinai, since they continually broke that covenant and God Himself swore nothing and therefore was not obligated to remember them at all. In fact, they deserved death and nothing less.

But He remembered Israel based on the covenant He made with Abraham, which was not a classic suzerainty treaty where the great King commanded and the vassal them swore, but rather, it was much closer to another type of covenant called a royal grant. God unilaterally promised and then took the oath Himself. As opposed to Sinai, when God said do all this and only then you will live, the promise given to Abraham was different. God in essence said: “I will do this and you will live.” Quite different. God therefore, dispenses His grace on the basis of His promise (the covenant of grace) and not on the basis of obeying His law, since the works of the law cannot justify, but only God’s grace can. Setting up a new system based on seven sacraments (new and better ceremonies, per Sungenis) is in essence to set up another legal system of ceremonial observance with grace dispensed through these ceremonies and likewise comes very close to denying that there was nothing in God’s law that was gracious, which would be false. On the other hand, we can also observe that in essence Rome has set up the New Covenant as nothing more than a better system of law, and per their definitions, I would agree that it is better. But it still has the form of law in many ways; namely, as it pertains to justification, where Rome claims we ARE justified by obedience to the law (or at least, to the better principles of God’s law), and this is possible only because we are under grace, or in a different system.

This however, confuses works and grace, one of the very things Sungenis labored to point out that the contrast of the two is Paul’s major emphasis in Romans. Another way of saying this is that it confuses law and Gospel, or imperatives and indicatives. This leads Rome to claim, per Sungenis: “In the Old Covenant the ceremonial laws were merely signs and seals of God's promises. But in the New Covenant the ceremonies, that is, the seven sacraments, are not only signs but they do the very thing that the sign signifies! For example, the sign of Baptism replaced the sign of Circumcision. Circumcision was a sign of the Old Covenant but it had no power to save. But Baptism is a sign of the New Covenant that actually saves us in the act of being baptized! Not only that, but baptism can be given to Jew and Gentile, male and female, child and adult. It is universal and salvific.” I do not deny that God does work through the sacraments as means of grace, and I do not view the sacraments as works of man, but rather, as gracious works of God as He descends to us, but I have a hard time accepting a system which holds to infused grace, basically turning grace into a metaphysical substance, and salvation through a sacramental system and justification with works of the law (even though we are under grace, per Rome) involved.  It is a basic confusion of works and grace, turning works into something meritorious that can gain us more grace, but only if we are under grace in the first place. It almost makes one wonder -and this is a mere observation on my part- if there is some sort of sliding scale of justification in this system, where grace is infused via the sacraments and by good works of the principles of the law, and if non-Catholics need to do that much more good works to have the grace infused that they aren’t receiving through the sacraments. I do know that Roman Catholicism does open up ways of salvation for non-Roman Catholics, but I have to wonder as to how? Obviously, these people who potentially could die in a state of grace are not receiving the Catholic sacraments and therefore not being infused by grace via the sacraments. Therefore, the only option left is infused grace via good works, since the sacraments are ruled out and so is faith in Christ. This of course, overthrows much of the New Testament and it’s emphasis on faith in Christ and what you are left with is purely salvation as a reward for good works. I don’t see any way around this. I would argue that Rome was much more consistent before Vatican II, when they officially opened up salvation to Protestants, Muslims, Jews (by religion), and even Pagans. That said, I am sure Rome has some reason for dogmatizing such, although it would seem to not make much sense on a theological basis.

Therefore, our works and obedience show us to be true children of the King, and not antinomian (no works) or legalist (works to gain life and merit from God) posers. We do good works not to gain anything from God, but simply because we love God, being the recipients of a new heart, and desire nothing more than to please Him and obey his commands. Nothing can be more joyful. Both antinomianism and legalism are errors, and both are considered to be another Gospel. Legalism is condemned by Paul in Galatians 1:6-10,and antinomianism condemned by James in James 2:14-26. Therefore, our works cannot justify us, as this would make God a debtor to us, no matter what motive or reason or system we put forth, but rather, can only be the fruit of a real faith that God has so gifted to the believer. (Eph 2:8-9, Rom 12:3, Heb 12:2) God is no respecter of persons and we cannot, in our sinful fallen state, gain favor with God by anything we do, lest we overthrow God’s perfect holiness in the process. God has commanded perfection ever since the dawn of creation. He cannot command anything less, because anything less would be a compromise of His holiness. Thus, we must be in Christ, our sin-bearer, the perfect lamb of God, with His righteousness, which is perfect, imputed to us. Paul sums up the relationship between faith and works nicely in Ephesians, and on this note we shall be finished here.

Ephesians 2:8-10: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Due to all the above reasons, I remain a convinced Protestant.


What Then, is Faith?

It is a terribly important question that needs to be answered. What exactly is faith? Throughout church history, numerous opinions and ideas have developed on what the content of faith is. Some would have us believe that the sum total of faith is simply to believe that Christ existed and was who He said He was. Medieval scholars, reflecting a Romanizing tendency, would have us believe that faith is simply faith in everything the authoritative and infallible church teaches, hence the later dogma of implicit faith. Others would have us believe that true faith is simply an assent to true doctrines. Now, we must grant that in all three of these, there is an element of truth. We had better believe Christ is who He said He is. We also are wise if we take the council of the history of the Christian church as they followed the canon of the covenant, which is Scripture. After all, the same Holy Spirit who leads us into truth lead them into truth many years ago. And we should hope that God will reveal correct doctrines to us. Faith is a huge topic in Scripture, and it behooves us to define it properly. We know from Scripture numerous things regarding faith. For instance:

Hebrews 11:1: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Romans 5:1: Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 2:8: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it  is the gift of God.

So, among other things, we know from Scripture that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, we are justified by faith, and we are saved by grace through faith, which is the gift of God. Scripture has much more to say about faith as well, but for our purposes here, the goal we are shooting for is to define what faith is.

First, let us explore some ideas regarding faith that either are incorrect or incomplete.

a. That faith is a mental assent to certain facts.

In the case of Christian faith, this is certainly part of faith, but it is not a saving faith. It does not tell us the whole story and in effect, it ends up with a decided antinomian tendency. Some theologians of a free grace bent, tend to go this far as well, such as Zane Hodges. Now granted, I tend  to sit on the fence line of the discussion between free grace and Lordship salvation, but I believe taking the free grace stance to this level is an unhealthy extreme and ends up defining faith in a way that is not biblical. Hodges has written that conversion to Christ involves “no spiritual commitment whatsoever.” One wonders if repentance and sanctification are eliminated altogether. On the other hand, some within the Lordship camp have essentially ruined assurance of salvation altogether, or at the very least made it completely subjective, connecting assurance of salvation with the inward work of the Holy Spirit and by extension, not sinning. This cannot be the case, however, as will be discussed below.  If the free grace position is defined properly, it guards against antinomianism and rejects legalism. Likewise, so does the Lordship position. Properly defined, free grace salvation is not “easy-believism,” as is the charge that many Lordship proponents level at the stance. Also, Lordship does not smuggle in works, as many free gracers charge. If Lordship proponents are referring to the stance of the extremists such as Hodges, their charges are justified. The problem that the extreme free grace proponents must guard against is the outright elimination of repentance from the Gospel call and the Christian life. This wrong idea of faith is precisely what James was writing against in James 2:14-26. This faith that he is battling against is a “faith” that is nothing more than a mental belief in facts. It is a faith that says: “I believe that Christ is who he said. He is the Son of God and lived, was crucified, and raised. Then He ascended  to heaven.” Now, this is all completely true and every Christian person who has ever lived believes this. But, this is not a full definition of saving faith. There is more to it, for as James says: “Even the demons believe - and shudder!” Thus, we can assert that even Satan and his minions believe this much. They all know for a fact that God is one and that Jesus Christ lived, died, and was raised. Thus, this definition of faith cannot be the biblical one.

b. That faith is assent and belief to church teaching.

This definition was mainly put forth by medieval scholars and has carried over into Roman Catholicism, even to this day. To be fair, even in modern Roman Catholicism, they do not rule out personal faith in Christ by this, but this is generally how the Catechism tends to define faith.  However, due to this definition, faith in essence became something that justifies only when that faith is completed by working through love. Thus, what is referred to as justifying faith basically became another virtue, in the same vein as hope or love. This basically makes faith an act of doing on the part of the person, as opposed to an act of receiving. The major issue with this definition is of course that the object of said faith is not Christ, but rather the church.

c. That faith is an assent to true doctrines.

From the outset, we can say that faith is going to assent to true doctrines, in the same way that faith will assent to who Christ is, as that is a true doctrine. Again we have a partial definition that does not tell us the entire story. Some factions within Christianity have taken this idea to the point of salvation by knowledge, damning everyone else in the process. That is to say, if a person claiming to be a Christian cannot articulate certain doctrines of the faith, then they are viewed as reprobates. The point that is missed in all of this is that clarity of articulation and perfect doctrine is a far cry from outright rejection of truth, when true and proper doctrines are presented to the believer.

So then, what is faith? We can say that faith involves more than just assent and more than just knowledge. I would argue that faith involves knowledge and assent, but also trust. Faith is given sharper definition by doctrine, but that faith is not directed at the doctrines for doctrine sake, but is directed towards our Triune God as He has shown Himself to us through the redeemer, the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Edmund Schlink, a Lutheran scholar, has said this: “The faith here spoken of is not that possessed by the devil and the ungodly, who also believe the history of Christ’s suffering and resurrection from the dead, but we mean such true faith as believes that we receive grace and forgiveness of sin through Christ.” In other words, faith that is true does not merely assent and acknowledge the truth about Christ, but receives and clings to Christ, because not only did He accomplish His glorious work for mankind, but specifically, for me. Agreeing with the Lutheran definition, the Heidelberg Catechism says much of the same: “True faith is not only a sure knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also a firm confidence which the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.” And John Calvin in The Institutes adds: Faith is “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”

We also must realize that faith in itself is not a cause. Faith receives, it does not merit. Thus, when we speak of justification, we should recognize that it cannot be faith itself that is the grounds of that justification. It cannot be the basis, as only the meritorious work of Christ can be. Faith receives - it lays hold of Christ and His merits. Michael Horton has some good insight here when he states that “Strictly speaking, one is not justified by faith but by Christ’s righteousness which is received through faith.” Since faith receives and cannot be considered a cause, we must likewise recognize that faith itself does not look inwardly, since the faith that we are given comes to us not from our inner being, but from a source outside of ourselves. Horton says again that “This means that in the act of justification faith is itself completely passive, receiving a gift, not offering one. The faith that justifies is immediately active in love, honoring God and serving neighbor, but this active love is faith’s fruit, not the act of justifying faith itself.” Horton continues, “Given our native instincts, we can always turn gospel back into law - in this case, by making faith into faithfulness, the act of receiving into an act of working.”

All of this, is of course diametrically opposed to much of the above definitions of faith that do not do the biblical example justice. In Arminianism, for example, faith is turned into a cause, essentially making faith itself the reason and basis as to how we are accepted into God’s family. This, fleshed out to its conclusion, turns faith into a work of merit that garners us favor before God, elevating faith to an act of the will and not a gift of God, and turning it into an instrument to gain acceptance before the Triune God. Such would be an addition to the work of Christ in salvation, and we essentially would be left with Christ’s work + my acceptance. On the contrary, the Biblical example has our faith as a channel which receives the benefits flowing from God. Our faith itself is a gift, as Ephesians 2:8, Romans 12:3, and Hebrews 12:2 remind us. Likewise, liberal theologies turn faith into inner experience and fall into the pit of Gnosticism or mysticism in many cases. Mysticism destroys the theological doctrine that salvation comes to us from an external source through the God-ordained means of grace that he has provided. This leads Horton to conclude that “In all of these ways, faith loses its specific object (Christ and all His benefits)and therefore its proper character as an act of receiving that which has already been achieved for us. In the act of justification, we must insist, faith merely receives, embraces, and clings to Christ; it does not do anything but receives everything.”

Therefore, faith, by definition is not just a hopeful, wishful, or even highly probable opinion. How can it be that? If someone is banking their life on what amounts to “a good chance,” how can that be considered a true faith? Eat your heart out, Blaise Pascal. I have heard it said by numerous folks that it is impossible to know anything with much of a degree of certainty. And most of these folks claimed to be Christians! I hearken back to John Calvin’s words that faith is “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Faith is also not something that we naturally can concoct up ourselves in anything we would like, of which faith in Christ would be a subset, because we do not naturally have faith in the work of Christ. It is not an inherent property of human nature. I have seen Romans 12:3 yanked out of context to support the idea that everyone universally has faith. Specifically, the finale of the verse which says that “each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” But the same apostle writes in his second letter to the Thessalonians “For not all have faith.” (2 Thess 3:2) Faith, likewise, cannot be said to be some sort of general trust and belief in God and the promises He has made. That would amount to a slightly elevated mental assent. Nay - faith, true faith, is defined by the Gospel, says Horton, “is the specific conviction of the heart, mind, and will that God is gracious to us in Jesus Christ on the basis of God’s Word. Faith is clinging to Christ.”

We also must recognize that inherent in the faith that is given to us is assurance. Scripture speaks at length about assurance. Thus, if God has inspired the authors of Scripture to write regarding assurance, it is a topic that should be studied and learned. As we have seen far above, the author of Hebrews begins the 11th chapter by saying that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for.” Contrary to this passage, Roman Catholic teaching does not allow for assurance, since faith is linked directly to assent to the teachings of the church. Even when this faith is worked out through love, believers can still not have assurance of being finally saved. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods.” But, having assurance of final salvation is regarded as presumptuous or even arrogant. The Reformers insisted that this could not be the case. In fact, they argued in an opposite direction. Namely, that faith IS assurance precisely because Christ’s work that merits salvation is finished and complete. Likewise, the Reformers argued that even though our faith and repentance remain imperfect this side of glory, we can still have assurance because assurance comes from outside of ourselves. Again we see that faith does not gain assurance by looking inward. Our assurance is not increased by our doing or our loving. Granted, subjectively speaking, we certainly can experience different levels of assurance precisely because our faith and repentance can and do waver as we await the final day. However, believers in Christ have objective assurance because the work of Christ is not an inward experience, but rather an historical objective fact. Lutheran and Reformed confessions have agreed on this definition regarding assurance. We grant that some later branches of Reformed Theology, namely the Puritans, tended to separate faith from assurance, as did some Pietistic Lutherans. The problem with this separation is that now assurance is based on how much faith a person has or how ‘good’ it is. This of course makes assurance wholly subjective, since it looks inwardly instead of externally to the unchanging Christ, whose work is complete, and to a God who will never waver. Likewise, Romans 12:3 tells us that God has assigned measures of faith to all of His children. Thus, instead of looking to the finished work of Christ, we end up looking inwardly, and our assurance is shaken, since we are sinful, changing, and downright fickle creatures in some regards. Ah, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Heb 13:8)

Therefore, we see that faith is much more than bare assent or bare knowledge of true doctrines, although those two things are certainly important and faith indeed will receive as much. It is also a complete trust in God to save me, through the work of Jesus Christ, which is given to us by grace alone and received through faith alone, which causes us then to work in love. And likewise, we see that we can have assurance - not by looking inwardly at what we are doing or how we are “walking,” but by looking externally at the finished work of Christ. We indeed have come to “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:22-24)

Hebrews 11:1-3: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.