Speech at the annual Reformed Free Publishing Association meeting, held in Southwest PRC on September 28, 2017.
This year, AD 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the onset of the Reformation of the church in 1517. It is, therefore, a historic year, a year of commemoration. Jesus Christ reformed His church by restoring to her the gospel of salvation by grace.
Since the very heart of the gospel is the doctrine of justification by faith alone, Christ enlightened and emboldened first the Reformer, Martin Luther, and then all the Reformers, including John Calvin, to see and proclaim justification by faith alone. All the Reformed confessions, including the Heidelberg Catechism, clearly explain the doctrine, and defend it against the Roman Catholic heresy of justification by faith and works—the good works of the believer himself (see the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 23-25 and Q. 65).
Defense of the doctrine was necessary on account of the vigorous attack on the gospel truth of justification by faith alone on the part of the Roman Church. Rightly, Rome saw the Reformation’s recovery of the truth of justification by faith alone as the refutation of its entire the ology and, thus, the exposure of itself as the false church.
Defense of the gospel truth of justification by faith alone is necessary again in 2017 because of the introduction today into Presbyterian and Reformed churches, and, indeed, many other “evangelical” churches, of the false doctrine of justification by faith and works. These Reformed churches include those with a name for orthodoxy, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, and the United Reformed Churches. The name of the movement that promotes the heresy of justification by works in these churches is “Federal Vision.” “Federal” means ‘covenant.’ The source of the heresy is the doctrine of a conditional covenant, as taught by the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (liberated) and by the Canadian Reformed Churches in North America. That the heresy originates in the covenant theology of these churches is the testimony of the Federal Vision itself.1
By my speech at the annual meeting of the RFPA, therefore, and now by this printed form of the speech, the RFPA is not only commemorating the great work of Christ in 1517; it is also defending the gospel truth that was the heart of the Reformation. The speech is a kind of nailing Luther’s theses more firmly to the door of the church in view of the effort on the part of false brothers to rip them off.
The RFPA has also recently done both of these things, that is, commemorated and defended, by the publication of my book on justification, Gospel Truth of Justification: Proclaimed, Defended, Developed.2 The book is a thorough explanation of the truth of justification by faith alone and a defense of the truth against the contemporary heresies. In this article, I draw heavily from the book, especially from the chapter, “Paul and James.”
Today, as in 1517, the enemies of justification by faith alone appeal to James, particularly chapter 2, in defense of their heresy.
It is not impossible that, despite God’s having safeguarded the Protestant Reformed Churches against the heresy by leading them to confess the truth of the unconditional covenant, the Federal Vision and this vision’s ally, the New Perspective on Paul, pose some threat to the Protestant Reformed Churches. These theological movements, their clever advocates, and the churches and ecumenical organizations that give them cover and respectability are prominent in North America. The false doctrines themselves have the considerable appeal of all heresies in that they make the sinner his own savior.
There is good reason, therefore, for the article, “After 500 Years: What about James on Justification?”
The historical background
I begin with some historical background of the subject: some church history that sheds light on the Reformation’s confession of justification by faith alone in the sixteenth century.
Over the years prior to the Reformation, the church—the one church of that day—committed itself to the heresy of justification by good works. By one’s own good works, or those of other humans (which could be bought for oneself or for others), one had to earn salvation and eternal life. The church used the word “merit.” To merit with God, one must have something of one’s own to give to God, and that something was one’s own choice of God by his alleged free will, which free will humans supposedly retained after the Fall. The errors of justification by works and free will are closely related.
Good works were not all that were required for salvation, of course; the work of Christ, especially His death, was necessary also, and the sinner received this as a gift of grace from God. But one’s own good works were necessary, with the death of Christ. Without his own good works, one could not be justified, and could not be saved: works were necessary for salvation. One worked during his earthly life, in order to merit with God, in order to present the works to God as earning justification and salvation. Because most church members never worked enough, purgatory was necessary, to accomplish fully the work of suffering for sins. Jesus did most of the work of suffering on behalf of sinners; the sinners themselves had to add to this work in purgatory.
The false church in the early sixteenth century proclaimed justification by faith and by good works. Two aspects of this doctrine are especially important. First, the church that we now know as the Roman Catholic Church never taught justification by works only; she taught justification by faith, but she added works: faith and works. This meant that she proclaimed justification by grace—the grace of God. But she denied that justification is by grace only. She added works. What was vital for the gospel of the Reformation, therefore, was the confession of the word “only”: justification by faith only; salvation by grace only. The gospel of the Reformation confessed justification by faith and salvation by grace without works.
The entire Reformation hinged on the word “only.” Rome knew this well. This explains why Rome raged against Luther’s “insertion” of the word “only” in his translation of Romans 3:28: “a man is justified without the works of the law, only by faith.”
The second important aspect of the false doctrine of Rome concerning justification was that the good works that that church taught were necessary for justification were genuinely good works, the works that the saved man or woman does with the help of the Spirit of Christ. Now, in practice, Rome added many other, spurious works, for example, indulgences, pilgrimages, and more. But the official doctrine was that the good works that were necessary for justification were genuine good works, which can only be done by the grace of God.
Therefore, Rome’s explanation of justification by works could be convincing. The sinner is justified by faith in Jesus Christ; His death is the main part of our righteousness with God. Regarding our works, we perform them only by the grace of the Holy Spirit in us. Thus, declared Rome, as it still declares today, we do justice to the grace of justification.
One more important aspect of Rome’s doctrine, then and now, should be noticed: its defense of its doctrine of good works in justification, that is, why Rome taught justification by works. Justification by works is a teaching that is necessary in order to motivate the people to be diligent in living a holy life. To teach justification by faith alone is to encourage the people to be slack in holy living, or even to cause them to live careless and wicked lives. The doctrine of justification by faith alone, without works, is a dangerous doctrine.
The relentless charge against the Reformation’s doctrine of justification by faith alone was that it is “antinomian.” The word means “against the law.” The charge was that the Reformation’s gospel of salvation by grace alone, without good works, causes believers of the Reformation’s gospel to live lives that are not in accordance with the law. Still today, the favorite charge of Rome and others against justification by faith alone is that it is antinomian.
The biblical basis of Rome’s doctrine of justification
The biblical basis of Rome’s doctrine of justification by faith and works was almost exclusively James 2:14-26. Concerning Abraham, verse 21 teaches that he was “justified by works.” Verse 24 states that “by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” And verse 25 asks the rhetorical question, “was not Rahab the harlot justified by works…?”
We recognize how seemingly strong, if not conclusive, in the controversy is James 2.
Nevertheless, Rome had to reckon with Romans 3-5 and the entire epistle of Galatians, which teach that justification is by faith, and not by the works of the law. Rome’s explanation ran along these lines. Never does Romans 3-5 expressly state that justification is by faith alone. Rome accused Luther of corrupting Scripture when he “inserted” the word “alone” in his translation of Romans 3:28.
Also, Rome claimed that the good works that Romans and Galatians have in mind, when they exclude these good works from justification, are only the civil and ceremonial works of the Old Testament. Romans and Galatians do not exclude all good works. They do not exclude genuinely good works. They do not exclude works of obedience to the ten commandments, works performed by the grace of the Holy Ghost. Rome understood Romans 3:28 thus: “…by faith, without the deeds of the civil and ceremonial law for Israel in the Old Testament, but with the deeds of the law of the ten commandments….”
Fundamental to the doctrine of justification of the Roman Catholic Church is that justification in James has the same sense that it has in Romans 3-5 and in Galatians. Justification in James is the forensic (or, legal) judgment of God upon the sinner, giving him the forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of Christ in his conscience, so that he has peace with God.
Only the works in Paul and James are different. In Paul, they are Old Testament works; in James, they are genuinely good works.
Against the church’s doctrine of justification, the devout monk, Martin Luther, reacted. He could find no peace for his soul in the doctrine of justification by good works. Although he outworked all other monks, he felt that his works came short of the righteousness that God demanded, and they did. His works were all imperfect, and, therefore, refused for righteousness by the awesomely holy God. Luther knew sin, but he also knew the holy God. Luther wrote that he came to hate the God of Romans 1:17, the God who required righteousness of believers, but whose righteousness only condemns guilty sinners, no matter how hard they worked: “Therein is the righteousness of God revealed….”
Then, in his spiritual struggling and agony was revealed to Luther that the righteousness of God is a righteousness that is given to the sinner, not that is earned by him, and that God gives this righteousness by means of faith: “…from faith to faith” (Rom. 1:17b). With this revelation, cried Luther, “the door of Paradise opened to me!”
God gives righteousness, freely, by faith, not by the sinner’s works. And He gives it by faith alone, not by faith and by works. The righteousness of justification is a gift. Salvation is by grace. This is the gospel truth of Romans 3-5 and of the book of Galatians. “Without the deeds of the law,” that is, apart from the works of the sinner himself!
The works that are excluded from the divine act of justification are all works, including the genuinely good works that the believer performs by the power of the Holy Ghost.
Therefore, Luther was the instrument of Jesus Christ to begin the Reformation, at the heart of which was the gospel of justification by faith alone. The Roman Church responded with a monotonous appeal to James 2. This so exasperated Luther that on one occasion he dismissed James as “a right strawy epistle”—a rash judgment that he did not maintain.
Now, I bring this history concerning justification up to date. Today, there is a renewal of Rome’s heresy and the corresponding abandonment of the Reformation’s gospel truth of justification in conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches. There is the open teaching of justification by faith and works, with appeal to James 2 in support of the heresy. The churches in which the heresy appears and is protected, if it is not given official status by ecclesiastical decision, are those with the best reputation for orthodoxy in North America. They dominate the ecumenical organization known as North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC).
The false doctrine of justification arises out of and is promoted by these churches’ doctrine of a conditional covenant. It is the implication of a particular “federal,” that is, covenant, vision. The ecclesiastical source of the heresy in our day is the denomination that calls itself the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (liberated), whose daughter churches, sharing their mother’s covenant doctrine, are the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.
Very briefly, the development of the heresy of justification by faith and works in our day is that it arises out of the doctrine of a conditional covenant. According to this doctrine of the covenant, God establishes His saving covenant of grace with every child of believing parents alike, the Esaus as well as the Jacobs. Thus, God gives to every child the beginning of salvation, including justification. But the continuation of the covenant with a child is conditional. The continuation of the covenant of God in Christ, with its benefits of salvation, depends upon the baptized child’s fulfilling the condition of faith and the condition of good works. Especially do the men of the Federal Vision, and the men of the New Perspective on Paul, emphasize that the final salvation of the child depends upon his fulfilling the conditions of faith and of good works. His salvation, therefore, including his justification, is partly by faith and partly by his own works: justification by faith (on the condition of faith, really) and works.
Aiding and abetting this promotion of the false doctrine of justification by works is the broader theological movement that calls itself the New Perspective on Paul, especially as this movement is represented by the Anglican bishop, N. T. Wright.3
In passing, I note how important was the church struggle of the Protestant Reformed Churches in the early 1950s on behalf of the truth of the unconditional covenant.4 Our confession of the unconditional covenant enables us to withstand the temptation of the Federal Vision and of the New Perspective on Paul, to deny justification by faith alone in the covenant. It lays upon us the calling to witness to the Presbyterian and Reformed churches in North America concerning the root of the contemporary heresy of justification by works in the doctrine of a conditional covenant.
Crucial to the controversy over justification in our day is the harmony of Paul and James on the doctrine. In the present-day apostasy, appeal is made to James on behalf of justification by faith and works, exactly as Rome has always done.
The harmony of Paul and James
Two principles concerning the proper interpretation of Scripture govern our explanation of justification in Paul and James. First, Scripture does not contradict itself, and certainly not in its doctrine of salvation, which the truth of justification is. Romans and Galatians, on the one hand, and James, on the other hand, are not contradictory. It is not the case that Romans 3-5 teaches justification by faith alone, whereas James 2 teaches justification by works, both meaning the same thing by justification.
Second, Scripture explains Scripture: Where there is difficulty, including seeming contradiction, the Bible itself must solve the problem. The Bible does this, inasmuch as the clearer passages shed light on the more difficult passages.
The doctrine of gracious salvation in Romans and Galatians is crystal-clear. It is evident, beyond all doubt, that Romans and Galatians teach the doctrine of salvation: how the guilty sinner is saved from sin and death, particularly how he becomes righteous before God, without which righteousness there is no salvation. Salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ, apart from the works of the sinner himself, that is, salvation is by faith alone.
In the interest of space, I appeal only to two texts in Romans 3-5. Romans 3:28, a text always at the heart of the controversy over justification, reads: “We conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” The “deeds of the law” are good works. The text, therefore, teaches justification without good works.
Romans 4:5 is, if possible, even stronger, indeed stunning: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”
I add one text from Galatians, a text that expresses the theme of the entire book: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16).
The works that are excluded in justification are all the sinner’s works, including his genuinely good works. The exclusion of our good works is necessary, for our best works are all imperfect, and God demands perfection as righteousness.
It is incontrovertibly evident in the Romans passages that justification, as the saving act of God, excludes any and all good works of the sinner himself. The exclusion of the works of the sinner is absolute: “him that worketh not.” With regard to his justification, the one who is justified is “ungodly.” One who is ungodly has no godly, or good, work to contribute to his justification. From one who is ungodly proceed only ungodly works—ungodly as concerns justification.
Against the desperate claim that the “works of the law” in Romans 3:28 are only those works that are done in accordance with the civil and ceremonial law of the Old Testament, Romans 3:20 teaches that the law in view is the law by which is the knowledge of sin. This law is the moral law of the ten commandments. In verse 28, therefore, the works that do not justify in whole or in part are deeds done in obedience to the ten commandments. The law of the ten commandments does not, and cannot, justify. This is the powerful doctrine also of Galatians 2:16, as of the entire epistle. Galatians 3 adds that it never was the purpose of God with the law that it should justify. God’s purpose with the law was that it be “our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (v. 24). To seek justification from the law is, therefore, to reject Christ. Such is the seriousness of the present controversy over justification.
At issue regarding justification by faith alone, according to Romans and Galatians, are salvation, the cross of Christ, the grace and glory of God, and, not least, the assurance of salvation. Justification by faith alone, without works, is assurance of salvation!: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1).
What now about James 2?
James 2 cannot contradict Romans and Galatians.
Nor does James 2 contradict these passages. James means something different by justification than do Romans and Galatians. Justification in James and in Romans and Galatians is not the very same. Or, to say it more accurately, Paul describes justification as a saving act of God, whereas James speaks of justification with regard to its manifestation. James means the demonstration of justification to others, not the declaration of the forgiveness of sins and of righteousness with God the judge to the sinner himself.
James 2 itself makes plain that it has the demonstration of justification in view. James condemns those who claim to be justified by faith, but live scandalously wicked lives, without repenting. Such a man says he has faith, but he has no works (v. 14). James argues that if we have faith, faith that justifies, we will show this faith by our works (v. 18). This is the demonstration of faith and, since faith justifies, the demonstration of justification. Faith without works is dead (v. 20), and if it is dead, it is no true faith. Dead faith does not justify. Only a living faith justifies. This is a faith that works. From this, however, it does not follow that the works of a living faith justify in the sense of contributing to justification. Paul denies this. James does not teach this. James calls us to show our faith, that is, to demonstrate our faith by our works. When we demonstrate our faith, we demonstrate as well our justification.
Three elements of the James 2 passage prove beyond all contradiction that James does not teach justification by works in the sense that Paul teaches justification by faith in Romans and Galatians. First, James repeatedly insists on our showing our faith, whereas Paul has in view faith as the instrument of our being declared, or accounted, righteous by God. These are two distinct aspects of justification. Second, in verse 23 James relates his demonstration of justification to Paul’s doctrine of justification as the imputation of righteousness. When he does this, James teaches justification by faith, not by works: “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righ teousness” (v. 23). James quotes Genesis 15:6. Genesis 15:6 taught the justification of Abraham long before his work of offering his son, Isaac, which work James has in mind when he teaches Abraham’s justification by works, in verse 21. When James refers to Abraham’s justification as the imputation to him of righteousness, he teaches justification by faith, in accord with Paul’s doctrine in Romans 3-5 and in Galatians.
The third evidence in James that James speaks of a different aspect of justification than does Paul in Romans and Galatians is conclusive. It is commonly overlooked. This is the truth that James teaches justification by works only. The common explanation of James 2, not only by Rome and by the Federal Vision, but also by the orthodox Reformed and the Lutherans, is that James teaches justification by faith and by works. This is a mistake. James teaches justification by works only. Abraham was justified “by works” (v. 21). There is no reference to faith at all. Rahab too was justified “by works” (v. 25). The thought is that she was not justified by faith, but by works only—the works of hiding and saving the spies. Also, verse 24 must be understood as teaching justification by works only: A man is not justified “by faith only.” Rather, he is justified “by works,” that is, by works only. He is not justified by faith and by works. He is justified by works. Period! By works only!
If, therefore, James means by justification the same as Paul in Romans and Galatians, James flatly contradicts Paul, who certainly does teach justification by faith. In addition, James makes Jesus Christ unnecessary for justification. The works of the sinner himself suffice for justification.
But James does not contradict Paul, or render Christ superfluous. James teaches that works justify, as faith cannot: works show the reality of justification. If I say to someone, “I am justified by faith,” he has no evidence of the truth of my assertion. He cannot see my faith. But when my life appears to him, not as perfect, but nevertheless as a holy life of good works, he has the demonstration of my justification by faith, for a true, living faith always works. On the other hand, the wicked life of one who confesses to be justified by faith demonstrates that he lies. His is a dead faith and a spurious claim to justification.
This understanding of the relation of Paul and James implies certain warnings. To explain James as teaching justification in the same sense that it has in Paul is heresy—the Galatian heresy; the Roman Catholic heresy; the heresy of the Federal Vision and of the New Perspective on Paul in our day.
Also, if I preach a strong sermon in someone’s Reformed, or Protestant Reformed, church on justification by faith alone, utterly and totally ruling works out in the matter of justification as taught by Paul in Romans and Galatians, and a member of the congregation objects saying, “But James 2 teaches…,” that member is for the time spouting the Galatian, Roman Catholic, and Federal Vision heresy.
Nor may anyone harmonize Paul and James by contending that Paul teaches justification as a decree of God away in heaven, apart from the sinner’s consciousness, whereas James teaches justification in the sinner’s consciousness. Paul teaches justification in the believing sinner’s consciousness. Justification in Paul is by faith, and faith is very definitely the consciousness, or experience, of the sinner. According to Paul himself in Romans 5:1, the justification that the apostle has been teaching in chapters 3-5 is such an act of God within the believing sinner as gives the sinner “peace with God.” “Peace with God” is the matter of a sinner’s consciousness and experience.
Fact is, the works of the believing sinner do not assure him himself of his justification. He is assured of his justification by faith alone. On the contrary, his works are often the temptation to doubt his righteousness. Even the best of them are only a very small beginning of the obedience that God requires in His law (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 114). Good works are not the demonstration of his justification to the believer himself, but to others. Faith carries the assurance of justification and salvation in itself (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 21).
The calling of the Protestant Reformed Churches
In light of current developments in Reformed and evangelical churches regarding justification, the Protestant Reformed Churches have an urgent calling from God. This is a calling that these churches are uniquely qualified by God to carry out. If honoring the anniversary of the sixteenth-century Reformation of the church is more to them than mere outward ritual, they will fulfill this calling with zeal. They must preach on the gospel truth of justification by faith alone, without any works, in season and out of season. They must defend this gospel truth against its historic and its contemporary foes. They ought to do this simply because, anniversary or no anniversary, justification by faith alone is the heart of the gospel of grace. As the heart of the gospel, it is always the object of Satan’s attack upon the gospel.
But this calling is especially necessary because of the spreading heresy of justification by works in the sphere of supposedly conservative Reformed churches, which heresy roots itself in the doctrine of a conditional covenant.
God has uniquely qualified the Protestant Reformed Churches, virtually alone among Reformed and Presbyterian churches, by His leading of them, through the fire of controversy, to the knowledge and conviction of the gospel truth of the unconditional covenant. The vast majority of Reformed and Presbyterian churches confess a conditional covenant. Thus they lie helpless before the onslaught of the Federal Vision and the New Perspective on Paul. Indeed, by virtue of their doctrine of a conditional covenant, they themselves do in fact teach the heresy of justification by works.
Because of the heresy and its vocal proponents, the Protestant Reformed Churches must be polemical. They must defend justification by faith alone against the Roman Church; against Arminianism; against the New Perspective on Paul; against the Federal Vision; and against any and every doctrine that makes James qualify Paul by teaching justification by faith and works. They must defend justification by faith alone by contending against the doctrine of a conditional covenant, the root from which the contemporary heresy of justification by works springs.
If the Protestant Reformed Churches fall silent, God can, and will, raise up stones to proclaim and defend the gospel of justification. I cannot see why He should have to turn to stones.
And then, as the living demonstration of justification to a watching Reformed community, the members of the Protestant Reformed Churches must live out of justification by faith alone. They must show that they live in peace with God. They must live an active, obedient Christian life, according to the law, not in order to become just, but in thankfulness for free, gracious justification.
“Sola fide iustificat, sed fide non sola est!” That is, “Only faith justifies, but faith is never alone!”
The watchword of the Reformation regarding justification in its relation to good works.
The harmony of Paul and James.
1 See Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism (2000); O. Palmer Robertson, The Current Justification Controversy (2003); The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros & Cons: Debating the Federal Vision, ed. E. Calvin Beisner (2004); and Paul M. Elliott, Christianity and Neo-Liberalism: The Spiritual Crisis in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Beyond (2005). For the Reformed critique of the Federal Vision, see my Federal Vision: Heresy at the Root (RFPA, 2012).
2 Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2017.
3 For a brief critique of Wright and his doctrine of a conditional covenant as the source of his corruption of the doctrine of justification, see my Gospel Truth of Justification, 26-44.
4 For a full explanation of the relation of the doctrine of a conditional covenant and the contemporary heresy of the Federal Vision, specifically its teaching of justification by faith and works, as this doctrine was the issue in the covenant controversy in the Protestant Reformed Churches in the early 1950s, see my The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers: Sovereign Grace in the Covenant (RFPA, 2005).