Salvation by grace through faith…but then why work?

Kevin Gasser

Staunton Mennonite Church

6/1/08

 

Romans 3:21-26

21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

 

James 2:14-26

14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. 18But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? 21Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

 

            Many of you have been asking what I have been doing with my free time now that I am done with school.  And if you have been around me enough, then you know that I have an on-going project that has been in the works now for three years.  I have been working at finishing our basement by running electric, framing new walls, and hanging drywall.  I enjoy this work and it gives me a chance to get my hands dirty.  But as I have found out time and time again, there is not a lot of forgiveness when someone is trying to run new electric. 

            One of the first things that I did was to put in a four-way switch in an existing run of electric.  This was so we could have an additional switch at the bottom of the stairway.  So I am trying to figure out what someone else was doing when they ran the wire before and trying to figure out what happens when you flip any of the three switches on the circuit.  It was a pretty frustrating way to learn.  But I figured it out.

            Then when I moved to cutting and hanging drywall, I found a totally different approach to this work.  Electrical work needs to be done in a certain way in order for things to work and for them to be up to code.  But drywall allows for a lot of mistakes as you work with it.  You can do many things wrong, like cut pieces too short and still be able to use them, put extra holes in it and still be able to fix it, leave gaps and still be able to cover them.  And it is all thanks to a certain material known as drywall joint compound or just drywall mud.

            I like to say that drywall mud covers a multitude of sins.  I can make a lot of mistakes and take my putty knife across the joint with a little bit of mud and cover it all up.  Nobody knows the difference.  If you look in my basement, you can’t tell where I cut pieces a ¼ inch too short or put an extra screw hole where I didn’t need one.  All of this is thanks to the grace provided by the mud.

            Maybe it isn’t that easy.  Because while there is a lot of grace in the mud, there is still a fair bit of work to be done.  After I have covered up all of the imperfections, there is a need for sanding, and you still need to prime and paint the drywall.  Just because you have covered your mistakes doesn’t mean that the work is done.  The grace of the joint compound is a wonderful thing, but it does not relieve me of having to do any work.  Actually, in some ways it creates more work to be done.

            Today I would like to look at two different scriptures and try to wrestle with the question of whether salvation is by grace through faith alone or if there is a necessary component of work as well.  And I hope to show you that the grace of God is a free gift, but that does not relieve us as believers from following Christ as well.

            Our scripture from Romans finds the author Paul in familiar territory; trying to discuss with the Jews how they need to be incorporating the Gentile believers into their fellowship and worship.  It seems as if the Jews have made second class citizens of the Gentiles.  Sure, the Gentiles have made the decision to follow Jesus.  But the Gentiles are still not the same as they are.  The Gentiles are still second class citizens in the kingdom of God, as far as the Jews are concerned.  Why is this?  Because they don’t observe all of the Jewish laws; in particular, they don’t practice circumcision. 

            Remember that circumcision is a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham (Abram).  God had made the promise to Abraham that God would make his people numerous like the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore.  And circumcision would be a reminder to the people of the covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham.  On the eighth day all males were to be circumcised as a reminder of this covenant.  So with every birth of a male the descendants of Abraham were reminded of the covenant.  And every time man and woman would lie together, whether they conceived a child or not, they would remember this covenant as well.

            But like so many of the things that we do, this practice had lost some of its significance by Paul’s day.  Circumcision became one of the things that you had to do in order to be a good Jew.  There were a number of rules that you had to keep if you wanted to remain in good standings with other Jews and they claimed you had to keep these rules if you wanted to remain in God’s good graces.  It was a way that the Jews could simplify their religion and order it in such a way so people could remember and practice these rules.

            Now here Paul is, saying to these Jewish people in verse 22-23, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  There is no difference between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, between the circumcised Christians and the uncircumcised Christians.  There is no difference because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  He goes on in 24, “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”  The Gentiles are just as justified as the Jews were when they came to faith in Jesus.  There is no distinction between the two.  Both the Jews and the Gentiles are justified by their faith in Jesus Christ, not by circumcision or by keeping any other law for that matter.

            Now I can understand the Jews’ resistance to giving up certain parts of the law.  For 2,000 years they had been circumcising their male children as a sign of God’s covenant with them.  For over 1200 years they had been practicing ritualistic food laws and sacrificial laws that were intended to bring them closer to God.  Now Paul was coming along and saying that all of these laws were not what was going to bring a person closer to God.  What was going to bring them to God was faith; faith in Jesus Christ.

            That is what we call grace.  Grace from a Christian perspective is an unwarranted gift from God, the gift of forgiveness for the sins we have committed.  It is like when I make all of those jagged cuts in the drywall, leaving gaps and holes, and then come across with the drywall mud and just cover them over.  All of the blemishes are gone, they have disappeared, vanished.  The grace of God comes in and covers us over with all of our imperfections and jagged edges and we are made whole again.  And all of this comes to a person when they put their faith in Jesus.  We are made right with God and justified to him.  Because Jesus Christ became the atoning sacrifice for the sins of all who put their faith in him when he was crucified on the cross.

            This is what Martin Luther argued that eventually began the Protestant revolution.  Luther claimed that Sola Fide, or faith alone is what brings the grace of God to the believers of Jesus Christ.  It wasn’t adhering to some set of laws or rituals or practices or giving money that justified people with God.  It was faith in Jesus alone.

Sing “At Calvary” 338 Blue Book

            When I am hanging my drywall, making my mistakes, and covering it with the grace of drywall mud, I am essentially wiping away all of my mistakes.  Nobody can see them, and if you didn’t see the drywall before I applied the mud, you would never know that I made those mistakes.  Everything looks like it has come together like a jig-saw puzzle.  But just because all of my mistakes have been covered doesn’t mean that my work is done.

            There is sanding to be done, there is priming to do, there is painting to do.  Now sanding and priming and painting are not what take away my mistakes.  But they are what naturally follow the joint compound.  If I were to leave my rooms with all of my mistakes and rough edges covered with mud but never sand, prime, and paint, I wouldn’t be done would I?

            Sonya has a family member that started remodeling their kitchen and living room when she was a little girl.  But he never got around to doing anything more than just mudding the drywall.  So the first time I went to this person’s house in 2002, I asked, “So, it looks like you have been doing some work around here.”  I got a few snickers from the family because he had started that work about 10 years earlier.  And everyone would have assumed he would have been further along than where he was by then.  But he wasn’t.  He had started the job and never finished it.  He had hung the drywall, mudded over all the corners and imperfections, but never primed and painted the walls.

            In our second scripture for this morning, we find that James is trying to encourage his readers to continue to do the good works that Christ has called them to.  James’ argument is that you cannot have faith without works following naturally, that faith without works is dead.  Faith in Christ means that you will do as Jesus has commanded.

            It seems as if James and Paul are at a bit of a disagreement on this one.  Paul said in our first scripture that the law was not what led to the forgiveness of sins, but faith alone.  And now James asks the question, “Can faith save you?”  So who is right?  Is it faith in Jesus, or good works that lead to forgiveness from sins?  Well, Paul had a big epiphany on the road to Damascus when Jesus met him there.  Maybe he is right.  But James is the half brother of Jesus, a son of Joseph and Mary.  Maybe he is the one who is right.

            It is believed that James is writing to a group of people often referred to as “antinomian” believers (see Frank Stagg, Polarities of Human Existence in Biblical Perspective).  Nomos is Greek for law, so these people were “anti” law.  But it wasn’t just James writing to the antinomian believers.  We can actually see Paul writing to both the antinomian believers as well as the law enforcing Jews in his letter to the Romans when he asks if they should continue sinning so that grace might abound.  So while at first glance it might seem that Paul and James are writing contradictory statements, one saying salvation is by grace alone and the other saying that we also need works, this doesn’t have to be the case.

            What I believe and what I believe both James and Paul to be saying is that we are justified by our faith and faith alone.  There is nothing that we can do to earn our forgiveness.  No law, no practice, no good deed will grant us forgiveness.  But when we put our faith in Jesus Christ, there is a necessary change in our lives.  Putting our faith in Christ means more than just believing in him, putting our faith in Christ mean following him, becoming a disciple of Jesus, continuing the work that he began here on earth.  Again, it is not the following of Jesus that “saves” us.  It is our faith.  But our works are a part of our faithfulness.

            It seems like people today want something for nothing.  We want to be able to experience God’s grace, but we don’t want to have to change anything in our lives.  It is like “Great, I prayed a prayer for forgiveness, now I can keep sleeping around, keep trying to make money no matter who I hurt, pollute the environment with toxins and trash, because I have been forgiven by God.”  No, it doesn’t work that way.  To have faith in Christ means that we must be faithful to Christ.

            To simply have faith without changing the way we live our lives is like Sonya’s uncle that drywalled his house but didn’t finish it for over 10 years.  It just doesn’t seem right, it just isn’t finished.  There is more to it.  Sure, he had covered over the joints and the cracks and the holes, but he still had work to do.

            Again, I want to say that I don’t believe that it is our works that grant us forgiveness for our sins.  But it is our works that show our faith in Christ.  If we put our faith in Christ, but our lives do not reflect it, we are simply believers of Christ.  And even the demons believe in Christ.  But James is telling us that when we put our faith in Christ we must also become followers of Christ.  It is our faith in Christ that justifies us to God.  It is works, our following Christ that authenticates our faith.

            I find that Christians today are in two different boats; one emphasizing faith alone and one emphasizing works.  Those that emphasize faith and claim that their actions are not what matters tend to make Jesus a personal deity, making their religion all about personal piety.  And essentially, even though they claim Christianity is not about laws, they end up making a few rules that they have to keep to be a good Christian.  But most of the teachings of Jesus become an add on.  Peace, justice, creation care, these things are not important because I’m going to be saved because of my faith in Jesus.  All I have to do is pray and read my Bible.  Then on the other side we have people that slip into the Social Gospel, focusing entirely on social issues and humanitarian work, while sacrificing their own piety and prayer life.  And these two boats seem to be drifting further and further apart.  But I don’t think it needs to be this way.

            The Bible teaches both justification by grace through faith and the need for works.  This isn’t a contradiction, it is a tension.  And we must live within this tension between faith and works, trying to find the correct or the best balance between them for us to be faithful followers of Jesus.

            Drywall mud can cover a multitude of sins, but your work isn’t done when you cover the gaps and holes in the drywall.  There is much more work to be done.  My prayer for everyone here today is that we can do both; put our faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins, and be faithful followers of Jesus as well.  Because are not called to choose between faith and works, we are called to do both.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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