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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at Life BPC 10.30am service, 2002-10-27

Text: James 2:14-26

Today is Reformation Sunday, the day in which we remember our Protestant heritage and commemorate the 16th century Reformation which took place 485 years ago. This Reformation was a great movement that restored the Truth of God's Word back to the church. We must thank the Lord for bringing about this movement because we are the ones who are now enjoying all the benefits of it, having the truth of God's Word taught, preached and followed in our church and in all churches that have emerged as a result of this movement.

It all began on 31st October 1517, when a monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg castle. It is interesting to know how this came about. It was through an exhaustive study of Paul's epistle to the Romans that Luther began in 1515. As he studied this book of the Bible carefully he had discovered that salvation was not at all accomplished by doing good works, as he had been taught all along by the Roman Catholic Church. He realised the truth of Romans 1:17 which says: 'The just shall live by faith.' For the first time in his life, Luther believed with all his heart in the Lord Jesus Christ, and experienced the blessings of justification. His heart was inflamed with a passion to share what he had discovered with others and he began to preach it fervently in the church that he pastored. This doctrine of justification by faith alone is actually the focal point of the Gospel of Christ, and it also became the focal point of the Protestant Reformation. It was the mainstay of the Reformers' enlightenment that eventually exposed the false claims, false doctrines and unscriptural practices of the apostate Roman Church.

Now, at that time, the Roman Church was trying its best to increase its wealth through the sale of forgiveness certificates called indulgences. These certificates were claimed by the Church to grant the purchaser the right to receive full and perfect remission of all his sins, the right to participate in the merits of all the saints, and the relieving of poor suffering loved ones in purgatory. Moreover the indulgences were sold at great discounts and skilled salesmen were deployed to promote sales all over Europe. One of the salesmen who did this was a Dominican monk named Johann Tetzel, who even had a catchy jingle, 'As soon as the coin into the coffer rings, the soul out of Purgatory springs.'

Tetzel's sales talk even included such blasphemous statements as 'The Lord our God no longer reigns, He has resigned all power to the pope.' By God's providence the place where Tetzel set up his indulgence business was only a few miles way from Wittenberg where Luther's church was. And very soon, some members of Luther's church were going over to listen to Tetzel and even to buy indulgences from him. All the efforts that Pastor Martin Luther had put into teaching his congregation about justification by faith in Christ alone was being undone! And so Luther could not help but to protest against this, to rid the church of this most profane and degrading doctrine and practice.

And this was the reason why he wrote the 95 theses and nailed them to the door of the Wittenberg castle. These theses were intended to prove that justification is by faith alone, and not by works, nor by buying indulgences from the Roman Church. Having seen how this doctrine of Justification by Faith was the starting point of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, let us now proceed to understand this doctrine carefully.

I. The Definition of Justification 

What is justification? The key idea to justification is righteousness. Justification is basically the one-time legal declaration made by God at the moment of salvation, that a sinner is now righteous, even before his life begins to show any characteristics of righteousness. Some have likened justification to the act of a judge in a court of law, when he pronounces the verdict 'Not Guilty!' Cf. Deuteronomy 25:1 'If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, that the judges may judge them; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked.' Psalm 32:2 'Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.'

III. The Grounds For Justification 

A. Christ's Atoning Death (Passive Obedience) 

There are two distinct grounds by which we are justified. Firstly, on the grounds that Jesus Christ has fully taken the full punishment for our sins when He died. We call this the passive obedience of Christ. By this we receive the pardon or forgiveness of all our sins. It is as if we had never sinned at all. Let us look at Romans 4:6-8 'Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.'

B. Christ's Righteous Life (Active Obedience) 

The second grounds for our justification is that Jesus Christ was righteous throughout His whole life on earth. He kept the entire Law of God perfectly. We call this the active obedience of Christ. By this, God see us as being righteous when He sees us in Christ. It is as if we have kept the whole Law of God perfectly. Romans 5:19 is a verse that speak of the way that God sees us now in Christ 'For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.' Notice that this verse says that it is Christ's obedience that makes us righteous.

Both of these grounds for justification are equally important. If our legal status can be likened to a number line, then our starting point as sinners would be on the negative part of the line because of our sins and God would be on the positive side of the number line because of His righteousness. Now when our sins are pardoned, we are brought to zero level, but we still fall short of God's righteousness. God cannot accept us when we are merely at zero level. In Matthew 5:20 Jesus said, 'For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.' But how can our righteousness go beyond the zero level? By having the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ credited into our account, so to speak. With this righteousness we can now stand before God, holy and righteous.

Now, that we have seen the grounds for justification, the next thing that we need to learn about justification is:

IV. The Means of Justification 

We cannot be justified by our own good works or by keeping the Law, but by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ alone. Acts 13:38 makes this clear 'And by Him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.' Ephesians 2:8,9 'For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God'

But there are some who claim that the Bible teaches justification by works. This includes the Roman Catholic Church. And just three years ago the Lutheran World Federation signed a joint declaration with the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of Justification, stating that they have now reached an agreement on this doctrine. This is clearly a compromise, because the Catholic Church has not changed one whit in its stand regarding Justification by faith plus works.

As recently as September 2000, the Vatican published a declaration stating that it regards all Protestant orders of ministry and the Lord�s Supper to be deficient. That is because the Catholic church teaches that their rituals are a means of salvation. A Catholic must be baptized, attend mass regularly, and partake of the rest of the 7 sacraments, because without them he cannot be saved. This is therefore a salvation by works. What scriptural basis do they use for this teaching? They claim that it is found in James 2:17-18 '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.'

How should we understand this passage? In His providence, the Lord has given us two types of passages on salvation: the one by the apostle Paul, which emphasises faith and the other by James, which emphasises works. These two seemingly contradictory emphases have been the subject of much controversy and strife. But diligent study will reveal that there is really no contradiction at all between the two sets of Bible passages - Together, they teach that salvation is by faith alone, and that faith results in good works. Some passages of God's Word have to emphasise faith, in order to silence the teachings of false teachers, who want to teach that salvation is by works. All the credit for our salvation goes to God alone, and any boasting on our part is entirely excluded. 

The Bible teaches that salvation is by faith alone, and at the moment a person believes in Jesus as his personal Lord and Saviour he is already saved and he has eternal life. (John 5:24 'He that heareth My word, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.') He does not have to add anything to complete his salvation. 

But on the other hand, there are some people would abuse this doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, by claiming that Christians then do not need good works at all. This produces an Antinomian spirit, that sees no need for holy Christian living and obedience to God's commands in Scripture. This is where passages in the Bible that emphasise works like James 2:14-26 serve the important purpose of expounding the effect of salvation on a person's life. 

A. A Dead Faith Cannot Justify Us 

Let us begin to study this passage carefully. Whenever James mentions faith without works, he is actually referring to false faith. That is what faith without works is - false faith, static or dead faith! We see this in vv.14,17,20 and 26. In verse 19 we learn that a mere mental acceptance of certain truths is not true faith - even the devils know and believe that there is only one God, and they are not saved. It is sad fact that many people today are not saved although they claim to be Christians. If you ask them whether they believe the truths of the Bible, they will immediately say 'Yes.' But their lives do not show any change at all. Many of them assume that they are already going to heaven and so they are careless about how they live. 

C. A Living Faith Will Produce Good Works 

True faith is more than just a mental acceptance of certain truths. True faith mentioned is mentioned in v.18 'Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works (false faith), and I will shew thee my faith by my works. (true faith)' It is a faith that is shown by works. It is a living faith, an active or working faith, and it is only this kind of faith that can save a sinner. 

1. The Living Faith of Abraham 

I would like to use Abraham as an example because he is mentioned by James. Turn to Romans 4:2,3 'For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.' These verses tell us that Abraham was already justified from the very moment that he believed God. 

Paul quoted the words from Genesis 15:6, which comes 7 chapters (30 years of time) before Genesis 22, and which records how Abraham offered his son Isaac upon the altar. This helps us now to understand what James meant when he used the illustration of Abraham in James 2:21-24. Let us look at these verses now. 

We notice that in v.23 James quotes the same verse that Paul had used in Romans 4, Genesis 15:6 'Abraham believed God and it was imputed unto him for righteousness' And what does he say took place when Abraham offered Isaac? He said that this scripture was fulfilled. This means that the faith that Abraham had in God found its fulfilment or outward expression in his act of offering his son as a sacrifice. Abraham was already saved by faith when he offered up Isaac, and the act of offering him only confirmed that his faith was genuine. It did not save him. 

If we were to examine the biblical definition of faith, we can see why there is often a time lag between the moment of salvation and the time when one's faith is proven to be genuine. Faith is resting totally upon God. Faith lays down its whole weight and expectation of mercy upon Him, willing to be fully submitted to His purpose and His power. 

When a person believes in Jesus Christ with true faith, he is already saved from the moment the commitment is made by praying the 'sinner's prayer.' But that faith may not have the opportunity to be seen in public. For example - the dying thief on the cross, who died shortly after he was converted. This and many other death-bed conversions show that a person is saved even before any good works are produced. Coming back to Abraham, if a person were to ask whether Abraham would have been saved if he had died after Genesis 15:6 but before Genesis 22, the answer would be a clear 'Yes.' Even if his faith did not have the opportunity to be tested, it would still have saved him. 

2. The Living Faith of Rahab 

Now we come to the second example used by James - Rahab (in v.25). The Bible tells us that she was the citizen of Jericho that received the two Israelite spies, and hid them, in order to help the Israelites conquer her own city. By doing so, she risked her life (Joshua 2:8-13). The question we would ask is what would have happened if the spies never came to her home? Would she have died with the rest of her people? Let us read what Rahab said in Jos 2:9-11 'And she said unto the men, I know that the LORD hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed. And as soon as we had heard these things, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man, because of you: for the LORD your God, He is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath.' 

Based upon what Rahab said here, we can safely infer that even before the spies came to her house, she had already believed in the God of Israel. And in my opinion, even if the spies had not come, she would have run out of the city of Jericho with her family to join the Israelites when they came to the city, and begged them to spare her. Like Abraham therefore, Rahab was not saved at the point that she did good works, but at the point when she believed in the Lord.

What we want to emphasise now from this passage of James is this: A living faith will always produce good works over time. That is how we can tell that the faith is living. And this means that if there are no good works produced even after a long time that a person became a Christian, then it is doubtful that he had living faith. 

In the medical world, when a person is unconscious, the only way that we can tell if he is still alive is to feel for a pulse and for breath from his mouth. These are what we call the vital signs - they only way we can tell, without any special instruments, whether there is life or not. Normally, when a person just falls unconscious, he may still be alive even though his heart stops beating and he stops breathing. This is because there is still enough oxygen in the blood to sustain life for about 4 minutes. Hence CPR is done in the hope that the person will not die. Every now and then, the person doing CPR will take the pulse of the patient to see if his heart has started to beat again. But if after about 10 - 15 minutes of time there is still no pulse, then there is no point in continuing - the person can safely be pronounced dead.

The same principle is applied to faith in James 2:26 tells us that 'as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.' If faith is alive, it tends to produce works over a period of time. What we should be worried about, is when over a long period of time, there are still no works produced. Then we may have to pronounce faith to be dead. And a dead faith cannot save.

We therefore conclude that it is faith that saves, and not works; but given enough time, works are bound to be produced by a faith that saves. Now that we have studied the means of justification, we go on to look at the last part of our study: 

V. The Results of Justification 

As a result of justification we have the following:

A. We Have Peace With God. 

Romans 5:1 'Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ' We can therefore enjoy access to God and commune with Him. 

B. We Are Spared from the Wrath to Come 

Romans 5:9 'Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.' 

C. We Are Made Heirs 

Titus 3:7 'That being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.'

We ought to be very thankful for these wonderful results of justification that we have - A justification that we have not by works, but by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We also ought to remember that it was the 16th century Protestant Reformation that restored this important foundational doctrine to the church, bringing us out of darkness and into the light of God's Holy Word. This restoration was accomplished for us by God Himself, through Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and many more, at a great price. And many had to pay for it with their own lives!


Vision & Mission


To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

February 18 & 25 - Fruit of Obedience

If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. John 15:10