Faith is certainly not the ground or part of the ground of our righteousness before God. It is not another work. That this is the relationship is, however, virtually the view of all that deny the vicarious nature of the suffering of Christ, of His satisfaction and atonement. Thus, for instance, the governmental theory maintains that Christ died not to atone and to pay for all the sins of all the elect, but as a setting forth of the justice and righteousness of God as an expression of what God might justly do to all sinners. And if they acknowledge the justice of God and repent, then God is satisfied because His moral government of the world is maintained and vindicated in the consciences of men, and He freely forgives them their iniquity. It is plain that according to this view faith becomes a work, a meritorious work of man, rather than the complete reliance upon the righteousness of Christ. The Arminians, who deny particular atonement, that is, the truth that Christ died only for the elect, and who, for that reason, must ultimately deny vicarious atonement altogether, present this view of the relation between faith and justification, at least in principle. That this is true is plain from the Canons of Dordrecht, II, B, 2-4. There we read that the Synod rejects the errors of those: “Who teach: That it was not the purpose of the death of Christ that he should confirm the new covenant of grace through his blood, but only that he should acquire for the Father the mere right to establish with man such a covenant as he might please, whether of grace or of works. For this is repugnant to Scripture, which teaches that Christ has become the Surety and Mediator of a better, that is, the new covenant, and that a testament is of force where death has occurred. Heb. 7:22, 9:15, 17.
“Who teach: That Christ by his satisfaction merited neither salvation itself for anyone, nor faith, whereby this satisfaction of Christ unto salvation is effectually appropriated; but that he merited for the Father only the authority or the perfect will to deal again with man, and to prescribe new conditions as he might desire, obedience to which, however, depended on the free will of man, so that it therefore might have come to pass that either none or all should fulfill these conditions. For these adjudge too contemptuously of the death of Christ, do in no wise acknowledge the most important fruit or benefit thereby gained, and bring again out of hell the Pelagian error.
“Who teach: That the new covenant of grace, which God the Father, through the mediation of the death of Christ, made with man, does not herein consist that we by faith, in as much as it accepts the merits of Christ, are justified before God and saved, but in the fact that God having revoked the demand of perfect obedience of faith, regards faith itself and the obedience of faith, although imperfect, as the perfect obedience of the law, and does esteem it worthy of the reward of eternal life through grace. For these contradict the Scriptures: ‘Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood,’ Rom. 3:24, 25. And these proclaim, as did the wicked Socinus, a new and strange justification of man before God, against the consensus of the whole church.”
Especially in the last quoted article, in which the grievous error of the Socinians, which was followed by the Arminians, is exposed, it is plain that faith is presented as a work of man acceptable to God. It is not faith in the merits of Christ by which we are justified before God, but faith as a work and the works of faith, though they are imperfect in themselves, are regarded by God as perfect obedience and worthy of eternal life. That all this is contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture is very evident. It denies both the satisfaction and vicarious atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ and salvation by pure grace as over against all work and merit of man.
According to others, the relation between justification and faith is such that we are righteous before God in part, at least, because of the fruits of our good works, which are accomplished by faith. This is the Roman Catholic position. Christ merited for us the gift of faith. And a living faith brings forth good works. Because of those good works, the works of faith, we are justified. We must call attention to that well-known passage inJames 2:14-26, upon which this view of the relation between faith and justification is chiefly based. Apparently James teaches here indeed that man is justified by works, that is, by the works of faith. The passage is rather long, but nevertheless I will quote it in full: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son, upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”
Apparently James teaches here indeed that man is justified by works, that is, by the works of faith. He asks, first of all, a question: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?” Again, in verse 17, he makes the statement: “Even so faith, if it bath not works, is dead, being alone.” Once more, in verse 21 he asks the question: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” And again, in verse 25 he refers to the example of Rahab the harlot, stating that she was “justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way.” And in verse 24 he concludes from the whole passage that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.
Now we must observe, first of all, that if this were really the teaching of James, he stands in flat contradiction with the apostle Paul. For Paul always emphasizes that we are justified by faith alone, and not by works. And we certainly must maintain that Scripture cannot be in flat contradiction with itself.
But let us look a little closer at the passage just quoted from James. If we do so, it will at once become evident that James does not draw a contrast between faith and works; nor does he mean to teach that a man is not justified by faith. But rather he makes a sharp distinction between a living faith and a dead faith. He does not mean to contradict that a man is justified by faith, but he opposes the pretention of him who claims that he has the faith without manifesting a true and living faith in the works of it. That this is true is evident, first of all, from the passage in James 2:14-17. When James asks the question in the last part of verse 14, “Can faith save him?” he does not have in mind the true and living faith, but a faith which a man says or professes to have. It is a mere intellectual assent, a dead faith, that produces, therefore, no works whatsoever. The question is: what is the proper work of faith? And the answer must be, according to Scripture: faith is the work of God by which a sinner clings to Christ as the revelation of the God of our salvation. Such faith is indeed saving. But faith which a man claims to have, but which is nothing more than a mere intellectual assent, is, as far as the result is concerned, just as vain as the illustration of the man who says to his destitute and empty brother, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving him food or clothing. Just as this mere statement profits the brother nothing, so mere intellectual faith, which is not reliance on the God of our salvation in Christ, cannot save. Remember that faith is not only knowledge, knowledge of God in Christ; but it is also true confidence, by which we absolutely rely on the God of our salvation.
In verse 18 James evidently addresses the supposed speaker or objector in these words: “Thou hast faith, and I have works.” At the same time he repudiates the implied separation of faith and works. He means to say: “But thou objectest that thou wilt gladly let me have my works if thou only canst keep the faith. But I answer that thou wilt have to show me that thou possessest the true and living faith at all by thy works: otherwise thy faith is no faith at all, and is dead.” And the illustration of the faith which the devils have, and tremble, evidently refers to nothing but a factual faith in one God, which is the very opposite of the knowledge and confidence of true faith. From all this it should be plain that James is not writing about saving faith at all, but about a mere intellectual assent to the truth. And such a so-called faith has no saving power. The work of a living faith is the knowledge of and confidence in the God of our salvation in Christ Jesus our Lord. And faith—a true and living faith—is the tie that binds us to Christ. Faith is the power that unites us to Him. For remember that in Christ alone are all the benefits of salvation. Objectively, Christ merited all the blessings of salvation by coming into the flesh, by walking for three years in the midst of men and instructing them in the things concerning the kingdom of God, but especially also by His suffering all His life, and again, especially by His suffering on the cross. And that His work of salvation and of suffering especially on the cross was perfect became evident in His resurrection and exaltation. Now when Christ ascended into heaven, and when He sat on the right hand of God, He obtained the Spirit. And by that Spirit He entered into all His people, both in heaven and on earth. And the tie that unites His people with Himself, and that therefore receives all the benefits of salvation, is faith, the living faith in Christ Jesus our Lord. If we bear this in mind, it ought to be very plain that James is not writing about saving faith at all, but about a mere intellectual assent to the truth. And such a mere intellectual assent has no saving power. The work of a living faith, we repeat, is the knowledge and confidence in the God of our salvation. It is the tie which unites us to Christ. It is the power whereby we cling to Christ crucified and raised from the dead, and, through Him, the complete reliance upon God, Who justifies the ungodly. And such a living faith has its fruit in repentance, sorrow after God, a hearty conversion from sin unto holiness, and all the manifestations of the works of faith.
This is the point which is illustrated by the example of Abraham’s faith in the quotation which we made fromJames 2. The faith of Abraham, thus James teaches, was made perfect by works. But the question is: by what work? It is striking that as an example of the work of faith which Abraham performed James refers to his offering up of Isaac—not to any works of the law, therefore, and not to any meritorious act whereby he became righteous before God. But he refers to the sacrifice of Isaac as the sole illustration of the faith that was made perfect by works. By this act Abraham revealed that even after he had first hoped against hope, he still clung to God, Who could raise the dead and completely fulfill His promise. That faith was imputed to Abraham for righteousness.