|No One Can Merit the Unmerited Favor
greatest lie may be that good works can help sinners escape the
punishment of hell and merit the joy of heaven. This lie is used by
all world religions to control people and hold them in legalistic
bondage. It may be the most damning lie perpetrated on the human race
because the saving grace of God is nullified by manís worthless
works (Rom. 11:6). Since grace, the unmerited favor of God, is the
only means by which God saves sinners, anyone attempting to merit
eternal life has instead earned death (Rom. 6:23). Only by Godís
grace do we get what we donít deserveóheaven. And only by His
mercy do we avoid getting what we do deserveóhell.
The only work that can save sinners is the work of God. Jesus Christ finished the work that was impossible for finite man to do (Psalm 49:7-8). He paid the eternal debt for sin and lived the perfect life required for entrance into heaven. Christ died "for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God" (1 Pet. 3:18). By His death and resurrection He completed the work of manís redemption. Thus for sinful man to believe his works can add to, co-mingle with, complement or surpass the perfect work of Christ is an insult to Godís holiness and justice.
Why then are we exhorted to be zealous for good works and to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Titus 2:14; Phil. 2:12)? And why does James say that man is justified by works and not by faith alone (Jas. 2:24)? Let us search the Scriptures.
Three Elements of Salvation
First we must understand that there are three tenses in salvation. For believers in the Lord Jesus Christ salvation is past (justification), present (sanctification) and pending (glorification). This is why the Bible reveals that Christians have been saved, are being saved, and will be saved. All Christians have been saved (past tense) from the penalty of sin. Paul writes, "you have been saved through faithÖnot as a result of works" (Eph. 2:8). At the moment of faith, the sinner is justified and has a right standing before God that is permanent (Heb. 10:14). He cannot be condemned again (Rom. 8:1). After justification, believers begin working out their salvation with fear and trembling (sanctification) by doing the good works God has prepared for them (Eph. 2:10). Sanctification is an ongoing process whereby Jesus is manifested in Christians which saves them from the power of sin (2 Cor. 4:11). Paul wrote: "to us who are being saved, it [the message of the cross] is the power of God" (1 Cor. 1:18). Glorification is still future and will not occur until Jesus saves believers from the presence of sin. The Bible reveals: "ChristÖwill appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him" (Heb. 9:28).
Justification Is Not A Result of Works
Paul wrote: "The one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness (Rom. 4:5). In another passage we see "man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law (Rom. 3:28). Those who believe they can gain a right standing before God with their works and their own righteousness do not know God or His Gospel (Rom. 10:1-4). If they knew the righteousness of God they would know all their righteous works are like filthy rags in His sight (Isa. 64:6). They would know the only way to approach Him would be with empty hands of faith, bringing nothing except their sins. All human works prior to justifying faith are not acceptable to God because "without faith it is impossible to please Him" (Heb. 11:6). The Bible clearly states over and over again that works are unable to secure salvation. "By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified" (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16). Salvation is "not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness" (Titus 3:5). God saved us "not according to our works" (2 Tim. 1:9). Even works done in the name of Christ will not secure salvation (Mat. 7:22-23). Salvation is based entirely on Godís doing so "that no man should boast before God" (1 Cor. 1:29; Rom. 4:2).
Reconciling James and Paul
How does James appear to contradict Paul by saying: "You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone" (Jas. 2:24). It is because Paul is dealing with the nature of justification and James is dealing with the nature of faith. James is asking professing Christians, who have not shown any evidence for their new life in Christ, to "show me your faith" (Jas. 2:18). But faith is invisible to man. It is an unseen relationship between man and God. Since faith can not be seen, the best way to prove oneís faith is to be "doers of the word and not merely hearers" (Jas. 1:22). Those who do the word of God will live a righteous life in obedience to God. That is why James said: "I will show you my faith by my works" (Jas. 2:18).
Faith alone justifies but faith that justifies is never alone. It gives evidence of its existence by righteous living. James is concerned for professing Christians who have dead faith which is idle, barren, and unfruitful (Jas 2:17). He is saying that dead faith does not justify and it is useless (Jas. 2:20). Only genuine faith is alive and bears fruit. James is saying that a man who claims to have a right relationship with God will live a life of good works. You cannot have faith without works, nor justification without sanctification.
The epistle of James reflects the teaching of Jesus who said that when you bear fruit you "prove to be My disciples" (Jn. 15:8). No fruit is an indication that you are separated from Christ. Jesus also taught that a tree is known by its fruit (Mt. 7:16-20). Just as works do not produce justification, the fruit does not bring the tree into existence. It only reveals the type of tree that it is.
Works Will Be Tested
Only some of the works done after justification are intrinsically good and acceptable to God. All the works of a Christian will be tested by fire. The good works, described by Paul, as gold, silver and precious stones, will survive the fire and result in rewards at the Bema seat. They are works done in faith, motivated by a love of God, in obedience to the will of God and for His glory. The worthless works are described as wood, hay and straw. They will be burned up, and the believer shall suffer the loss of rewards (1 Cor. 3:12-15).
Four Tests for Good Works
Worthless works will fail all or some of these tests. They include all works done before justification, as well as works done after justification that either seek to earn Godís favor or manís glory. An example is the rebuke by Jesus of the scribes and Pharisees: "they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments (Mat. 23:5). Paul wrote of those who "profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient, and worthless for any good deed (Titus 1:16).
Roman Catholic Justification
Roman Catholic teaching on justification places more emphasis on works, sacraments and obeying the law than on personal faith. In fact, Catholics are condemned if they believe they are justified by faith alone. Canon 9 of the Council of Trent states: "If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification...let him be anathema." The Catholic Church teaches that the grace of justification comes, not through faith but through the sacraments, beginning with baptism. From paragraph 1992 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read: "Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy." Paragraph 2027 teaches Catholics that they can merit the unmerited favor of God: "Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church opposes Godís Word by teaching justification:
In conclusion, God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). No one can be saved by trying to merit Godís favor. His word reveals that we are justified by graceóthe unmerited and undeserved gift of God (Rom. 3:24). This gift can only be received when one forsakes all efforts to save him or her self and believes on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1). The grace that brings us salvation instructs us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age (Titus 2:11-12). Thus, the life of a justified person produces evidence that reflects the divine nature that has been imparted. In this way God alone is worthy of all honor, glory and praise.
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