A screen door on a submarine

The Standard August 27, 2020

Justification by faith is one of the essential tenets of the Protestant Reformation. As a young priest Martin Luther was discouraged by not feeling close or acceptable to God and disillusioned with the Church.  After pondering Romans 1:17 for some time it finally hit him that this righteousness necessary for salvation was not his but rather that of Christ. As the Apostle Paul explained, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Romans 1: 16-17)

Paul elaborated about being made right with God through faith alone throughout the Book of Romans, his longest epistle and the most systematic, thorough and clear presentation of Christian doctrine in the Bible. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:21-25a) “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28) “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”  (Romans 4:3-5) In Romans Paul addressed an audience battling legalism or the error that obeying God’s law was a basis for salvation. To Christians in Ephesus he wrote, “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.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Luther especially appreciated biblical books like Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, 1 Peter and 1 John which spelled out the gospel and since James did not and had no “evangelical character” he called it a “strawy epistle.” James addressed a particular error in his letter to his audience of Jewish Christians scattered outside of Palestine who were saying that as long as they had faith, they did not have to demonstrate it with loving actions. To combat this, James wrote, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)  “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24) James made the point that just as it would be incomprehensible to tell a cold, hungry sibling to go and be warm and well-fed without helping them, it would be absurd to think that genuine faith would not result in actions. Faith and actions are inextricably linked. Having merely an intellectual belief is not enough. Sincere faith can’t help but lead to gracious action, although the action is not the basis for justification. In more modern terms, we have lyrics by Rich Mullins. “Faith without works is like a song you can’t sing. It’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”

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