Is Faith Without Works Dead?

Is faith without works dead? Are we justified by faith alone or by a mixture of faith and works? And if there is a mixture, what's the right mixture? When do I know when I've arrived or when I'm outputting enough? In James 2:24, James said, "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." But in Romans 3:28 Paul said, "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. This much is certain: one of these is not like the other. If we let the text say what it's saying without trying to make them agree, James and Paul are saying two completely different things. James: We're justified by faith + works. Paul: We're justified by faith apart from works. 

If you're like me (and I wouldn't wish that on anyone) you may have spent a lot of time trying to reconcile these two divergent statements of James and Paul and come up with clever ways to convince yourself and others that they're saying the same thing but in different ways. I did that all the time. I would reword what James said and put a spin on it to make James sound more like Paul. But an honest look at the whole of what James and Paul believed concerning justification reveals that one of these is not like the other. If we let the text say what it says without manipulating it we're forced to consider the possibility that James and Paul believed something different regarding how a person is justified. That scares some of us. It might scare you. It scared me for years and years which is why I would put words in James' mouth in a noble attempt to make him say something he didn't say. After all, we can't have two New Testament writers disagreeing. Or can we?

Paul, James, and their views on justification is the topic of discussion in the latest episode of The UnSunday Show podcast as I'm joined by Mike Kapler and Joel Brueseke from The Growing in Grace podcast. Listen in as we take a candid look at the New Testament passages surrounding this controversy.

If We Confess Our Sins: 1 John 1:9 and Religious Paranoia

In his first letter, John makes the statement: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9). It would be an understatement to say that this verse has been misunderstood and misapplied throughout most of the church's history. Those in top-down religious positions of authority have wrongly used this verse to insist we must continually be on high alert and be constantly confessing all of our sins in order to stay forgiven or receive continued forgiveness up to that point in time. One contemporary example of this is John MacArthur. In his explanation of 1 John 1:9, he writes:

"It is a subjective, relational kind of forgiveness. It is the restoration to a place of blessing in the eyes of a displeased father. ...it is a spiritual washing to rid you of the defilement caused by sin in your daily walk. The verse is speaking of an ongoing pardon and purification from sin, not the cleansing and forgiveness of salvation." If We Confess Our Sins, (Emphasis Mine)

MacArthur insists that 1 John 1:9 is referencing an accumulation of sin caused by living life. In other words, as I live my life, sin accumulates and requires periodic confession in order to be restored to a Father who has become displeased with me in between my confessions because of accumulated sins. For him, it is a "subjective, relational kind of forgiveness" that depends on my faithfulness to repeatedly and continually confess all of my sins in order to receive "ongoing pardon and purification." In his own words, I become defiled and unclean just be living my life every day, apart from continual, faithful confession of all of my sins continually. For MacArthur, the forgiveness and pardon you received at conversion doesn't "eliminate the need for you to deal with the subjective reality of sin in your life." In short, you're forgiven but not really. 

Desiring God Ministries adds a new layer of confusion by insisting: 

"You’re not saved through faith alone. Be killing your sin." Twitter 10/14/2017 

Sin management and behavior modification have become modern evangelicalism's latest obsession. In our cut-and-paste church/Bible cultures, where we're quick to grab a verse out of context and use it as a proof text to shame and/or guilt someone into conformity to our opinion, 1 John 1:9 and confessing sin is a prime example. Church leaders and religious organizations present their interpretations of it in a schizophrenic "you're forgiven but you're not forgiven" way that keeps people doubting, dazed, and confused about where they stand with God. Have we done enough confessing and who decides what's enough? 

Kevin DeYoung adds this to our conversation, 

Forgiveness and Reconciliation With God

One of the most misunderstood truths of the gospel is the forgiveness of sins. With varying success, religion has convinced us that we're supposed to continually ask God to forgive us for each new sin. We're told it's up to us to keep short accounts with God by confessing our sins over and over again so as not to forget or omit one. After my initial salvation, forgiveness only works to the degree that I am able to keep confessing my sins each time I sin. This comes from a basic misunderstanding of 1 John 1:9 in the New Testament. We'll talk about that in my next post but in this one, let's talk about when our sins were forgiven and how understanding when our sins were forgiven makes everything religion has convinced us is true about ongoing forgiveness come crashing down.

Belief, Unbelief, and Reconciliation

Unlike so many religious institutions, the gospel isn't fixated on policing sin but on the good news of the complete once-for-all forgiveness of sin that occurred at a particular point in time. Paul's message of the good news of the gospel wasn't "Ask God to forgive you, clean up your act and start confessing all of your new sins from this point forward." No. It was a message of reconciliation. It was a message of movement from unbelief to belief. It was a message of movement from being unreconciled to being forever reconciled. It was a message of movement from death to life. Here's what he said:

"Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God." (2 Corinthians 5:20, ESV, Emphasis mine)

Wait a minute Paul. Didn't you mean to say, "Ask God for forgiveness"? What's with this reconciliation language? This isn't the message we normally hear from church pulpits. What are you talking about Paul? In the verses prior

Is Sanctification Progressive?

Is sanctification progressive? Do I get more sanctified over time? Another way to ask this is am I being made more holy or righteous as time goes by? Am I holier or more sanctified today than I was last year or last month or yesterday? Will I be holier and more sanctified next year at this time than I am right now? Do I slow, hinder, or stall my sanctification when I sin or by making bad decisions? Is sanctification progressive?

Many of us have been taught that it is. I inherited and embraced the idea of progressive sanctification when I became a believer for the simple reason that everyone around me did too and I didn't know enough then to know better. I held on to that belief for many years and it wasn't until my understanding of grace and the New Covenant gospel gripped me in a new way, that I started to see sanctification as a work of the Holy Spirit that happened one time when I believed. My time in Bible college reinforced the idea of sanctification being progressive as a way to work with God in becoming more set apart as time marched on and life happened. As a former pastor, I held this same belief for quite some time and would teach others that progressive sanctification could be a barometer of sorts of the genuineness of one's faith. If your behavior wasn't looking more sanctified it could cast a large shadow of doubt on the validity of your faith.

What is Sanctification?

I suppose we should start with a definition of sanctification before we go much further. Simply stated, sanctification means something set apart, made holy, or purified. 

 A Tale of Two Sanctifications

A wrong view of sanctification will tell us that in this life we can never be fully sanctified so God had to get creative in order to see us as sanctified even though we're really not all that sanctified. It does this by dividing sanctification into two categories of positional sanctification and progressive or personal sanctification. 

 By progressive or personal sanctification they mean how our lives actually look day-to-day with all of the messiness that can accompany it. This is defined as our boots-on-the-ground daily grind of personal or progressive sanctification. Until our performance

The Law: Fulfilled and Abolished, My Conversation with Joel Brueseke

One of the things that's been on mind since coming into a better understanding of grace and the New Covenant is why do we think the Old Covenant law of Moses needs to still hang around? There is solid evidence in scripture that it's been both fulfilled and abolished, so why are we hesitant to say that? Why was I hesitant for so long even though I've been questioning its need for years now? If I'm not under law but under grace, why did I think the law needed to hang around in the bushes nearby? Why? If the law is a ministry of death (2 Corinthians 3) and an obstacle that's hostile to the New Covenant body of Christ (Ephesians 2), what remaining purpose can it possibly have in this age of the Spirit? If Jesus cancelled it by nailing it to his cross (Colossians 2), why was I holding on to parts of it?

Most of us in the grace camp would agree that we're not under law but we still have a tendency to keep a grip on it and we're hesitant to let it go. Most of us would agree that the law was given only to the Jewish nation under a different covenant (the Old Covenant) and that Gentiles (non-Jews) were never under the law in the first place. So what is the purpose of the law today for believers in this New Covenant age? 

Join Joel Brueseke and me as we open scripture together and explore what it has to say about the law of Moses. This is a recent episode from The UnSunday Show:

 

Rethinking Church, Part Five: Formal Church Membership

"Bring up church membership and watch people squirm." -Ed Stetzer

Isn't that the truth? I squirmed a little just typing that and you probably did too as you read it. Formal church membership can be an explosive subject because people either see no need for it or they have a deep-seated emotional investment with it. I don't think I've met anyone who is truly neutral to the idea of formal church membership. We seem to either run from it as an unnecessary burden that can in some instances be abusive, or we run to it with such robust conviction that we've convinced ourselves those who aren't a formal member in an institutional church are either in sin or fringe Christians who don't really get it. 

In this post, I want to talk to you about formal church membership. It's a subject that keeps presenting itself to me on this journey God has me on, so I want to address it. My views on formal church membership haven't changed much in the 50 years of my journey with Jesus but more recently, I'm seeing a trend in many institutional churches that is alarming. Allow me to say at the outset that I've pastored churches that have formal church membership and I've pastored churches that don't. I've been on the inside of both systems and I've seen the positives and the negatives of each. I'll talk more about that in a minute. First, let's review where we've been in this series. 

Review and Rewind 

This is the last of a five-part series I’ve called Rethinking Church. If you haven’t read parts one thru four yet, you can use the links below to do so. In this post, we’re going to continue

Rethinking Church, Part Four: Community and Accountability

 This is part four of a five-part series I'm calling Rethinking Church. In this post, we're going to talk
about community and accountability. How does modern institutional Christianity define these two terms? Is institutional religion's model for community a valid one? Is accountability the means for creating genuine community?

As a reminder, I'm writing this series in the following order. I strongly urge you to read these in the order written as each one builds on the previous.

I think it's safe to say that in an institutional religious system of top-down authority, one would expect that the definitions of community and accountability would vary from the definitions of those same words outside the influence of that same institutional system. And that is certainly the case here. In a pastor-centered church system that's