by the Rev. Larry Wilson
17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!
20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Before we leave this text, we do well to consider—if faith without works is dead, then good works are necessary in those who are saved. Does that mean that God renders his divine verdict of "justified" (fully forgiven and perfectly righteous in his sight) because of the good works that accompany genuine saving faith?
In a nutshell, does your getting right with God depend on the good works that you will do by the help of the Holy Spirit?
It may be helpful to consider the answer of Zacharias Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism (paraphrased slightly):
Objection 3:That which is not alone does not justify by itself.
Faith is not alone.
Therefore it does not justify alone.
If this is understood as resulting from the premises that faith does not justify alone, meaning that faith does not exist alone, then the conclusion is proper. Why? Because justifying faith is never without its fruits or effects. "Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead."
But if it is understood to mean that the righteousness of Christ is not received through faith alone, then either there is more in the conclusion than in the premises or else the major premise—"That which is not alone does not justify by itself"—is false.
I alone may speak in my chamber, but I may not be alone. A thing may not be alone but joined with something else, and yet it alone may have this or that act. For instance, the will is not alone, but is joined with the understanding, and yet it alone wills. Likewise, the soul of man is not alone, but is united with the body, and yet it alone perceives. Similarly, the edge of a razor is not alone but is joined with a handle, and yet it alone cuts.
This is what is usually, and correctly, called a "fallacy of composition." Why? Because the exclusive particle "alone," which is connected to "faith" with the verb "is" in the minor premise ("Faith is not alone"), is separated from it in the conclusion and attached to the word "justify" ("Therefore it does not justify alone").Objection 4:Faith does not justify without that which is required in those who are justified.
Good works are required in those who are justified.
Therefore, faith is not without good works, and so does not justify alone.
This is the same fallacy to which reference has just been made on account of the doubtful construction of the particle "without." Indeed, faith does not justify without those things which are required in those who are justified. But even though genuine faith never exists alone and is always joined with the love by which it works, yet faith alone justifies. Why? Because faith is the act of embracing and applying to itself the merits of Christ.
The minor premise—"Good works are required in those who are justified"—must also be more fully explained. Faith and good works are not required in the same sense in those who are justified.
Faith, with its own peculiar act—without which it cannot be considered—is required as the necessary instrument by which we apply to ourselves the merits of Christ.
Good works, on the other hand, are not required so that by them we may apprehend the merits of Christ, much less that we may be justified on account of them; but that we may thereby prove our faith, which without good works is dead, and can only be known by their presence. Good works are required as the fruits of our faith, and as the evidences of our gratitude to God.
That is not always necessary for the accomplishment of a certain result which is necessarily connected with the cause of the same thing.
So even though good works are necessarily connected with faith, they are nevertheless not necessary to apprehend the merits of Christ. †
The bottom line is—does Christ freely and fully save you? Or do you save yourself with Christ's help? Thank God, Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
† Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 64, [Presbyterian & Reformed], pp. 336–337
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