In By Grace, Stay In By Works Is Not Good News

God’s verdict of not guilty and his imputing of his own righteousness to us at the beginning of the Christian life is by faith alone… that’s how we get started. James is answering the question ‘does the ongoing and final reckoning of Abraham’s righteousness depend on works as the necessary evidence of true and living faith?’ James’ answer to that question is ‘Yes.’ And Paul’s answer is also ‘Yes.’ Gen 15:6. If you ask them, ‘Does justification as an ongoing and final right standing with God depend on the works of love?’ …So when Paul renounces ‘justification by works’ he renounces the view that anything we do along with faith is credited to us as righteousness. Only faith obtains the verdict, ‘not guilty,’ when we become Christians. Works are not acceptable in the moment of initial justification. But when James affirms ‘justification by works’ he means that works are absolutely necessary in the ongoing life of a Christian to confirm and prove the reality of the faith which justifies..…For James, ‘justification by works’ means “maintaining a right standing with God by faith along with the necessary evidence of faith, namely the works of love. Read more» (emphasis added)

John Piper | “Does James Contradict Paul?” | 8 August 1999


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  1. This whole appeal to James blows my mind. Doug Moo and Tom Schreiner do a similar thing. But I can’t see how James could possibly be talking about final salvation.

    Genesis 22 and Joshua 2 occurred well before the eschaton, so seem overtly not about last day salvation.

    • As in specific page numbers, no, because I don’t own the volumes.
      But Moo argues it in his commentary on James 2 and Schreiner argues it in the chapter on James in his Faith Alone book in the Five Solas series

    • Matt, I gather from Harrison’s “the whole appeal to James” he meant that Moo and Schreiner “do a similar thing,” meaning appeals to James for two justifications. Where in these authors do they use James to do that?

      Schreiner: As far as the author of “Faith Alone” in discussing James, on p. 206 says “Abraham and Rahab were justified because their faith expressed itself in works.”

      On the previous page, the author of Faith Alone expressed a view about all of the letter of James: “when James uses the word ‘save’ and ‘justify,’ he has in mind one’s relationship with God.” (FA p. 205). We need this to understand what the quote on p. 206 refers to by saying “justified.”

      Moo: In the 1985 commentary (“Letter of James”), p. 115,: “Paul is thinking of justification as the initial granting to the believer of a righteous status. James, as we have argued [p. 108], operates with a different meaning of dikaioo [justify], using it to refer to the ultimate verdict of God over our lives.” That author has an elucidation of what he means by that “ultimate verdict of God.” He says on the previous page, regarding the discussion of Abraham in James 2, “God’s verdict was reconfirmed on the basis of that activity.” What activity? “he offered Isaac in obedience to God (p. 113.)”

      In passing, we notice that Schreiner states that in James, “justify” means the same thing as Paul’s meaning, and Moo that it means something very different. Hope that gives you enough paginations for your own check, Matt!

  2. Dr. Clark,
    I feel like Lutheranism is in by grace, out (grace is resistible), and in by grace again, and again…Is that staying in by faithfulness?

    • Julia,

      Well, we might say that Lutheranism confesses (though they do not talk about it much) that we get in by (baptismal) grace and stay in by not resisting. It is a little different than “stay in by works.” I can’t imagine an orthodox, confessional Lutheran agreeing with Piper’s language of “maintaining” our justification by/through good works.

      That said, I’m with the Reformed who rejected the notion that grace is resistible. The Synod of Dort was right.

  3. Yet we know that the larger part of the mis-step is not the extent and quantity of good works insisted upon for final salvation, but the corresponding lack of sufficiency attributed by default to our Savior, to have done enough to save. If the minimum requirement for final salvation were a one-penny addition, say, to the work of Christ, so that all you had left to do in addition to Christ’s righteousness, or with His cooperation, was smile at your cat, making you have enough for heaven, those who rail at the system for requiring an unbearable burden would much more easily satisfied. But what is the cost, of standing before the Lord and having to say “I thought you didn’t do enough”?

  4. RC Sproul pointed out that James is not talking about how a *person* is justified (in technical theological terms, reconciled to God); he is talking about a person who makes a *claim* about having faith, and how such a *claim* is or is not justified (in the normal non-technical sense of the word). If the “faith” claimed is shown to be little more than the kind of belief demons have, that of course falls outside the definition of faith, so the claim is not justified (and therefore the person is ultimately not justified before God either). I found this explanation helpful, but welcome Dr Clark’s critique.

  5. I’ve thought the same thing. James introduces this section with James 2:14: “A man may SAY he has faith…” (emphasis mine.) The rest of James 2 is, in my humble opinion, talking about a phony; and you can put quotation marks around “faith” for the rest of the chapter.

  6. Dr. Clark
    How do you interpret Ephesians 2:10? – “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

  7. Here is a quotation, not from some esteemed Christian leader, but by me:

    “If good works are inevitable, they are necessary.”

    If one reads certain writers carefully, in context, and with the judgment of charity, aren’t they saying the same thing? And if they explicitly affirm (full) justification by grace alone through faith alone, and the certain perseverance of God’s elect to the end (by God’s preserving power), and if they agree that saving faith will always lead to progressive sanctification, then where is the problem? I honestly want to know this. It seems to me that many men are honestly trying to fit in all the Biblical data, without ignoring or downplaying certain texts.

    • Mr Aderholdt,

      I’ve been affirming unequivocally the necessity of good works since before this controversy began. That has never been in question. What has been in question is whether good works are instrumental and whether there are two stages in justification and salvation. Dr Piper says that we are justified initially sola fide and finally saved (including a final justification since justification is necessarily a component of salvation) “through good works.” That is his language. There are ostensibly confessional, orthodox Reformed writers who have argued the same thing.

      Again, good works are logically, morally, necessary as fruit and evidence. As I wrote to Mark:

      The question is not and never has been whether good works are necessary. The question is how they are necessary. The Reformed tradition and confessions (I quoted the Heidelberg last time) are clear on this. To wit:

    • As to the “biblical data” amen. Let’s account for all the biblical data. As I wrote to Mark,

      Yes, true faith is always and necessarily accompanied by good works. These good works are necessary morally and as fruit and evidence. They never become the ground or instrument of our justification or our salvation. Thus, “practically speaking” is inadequate. Good works are not merely practically necessary. They are morally necessary and necessary as fruit and evidence. If my neighbor tells me that he has an apple tree but his tree never ever produces apples I am entitled to say to him, “Are you sure that’s an apple tree? Where’s the fruit? Where’s the evidence?” The fruit doesn’t make the tree (contra the Roman doctrine of fides formata) but apples are a sure indicator of a living apple tree.

      What did Jesus do to the fig tree (Matt 21:18–22)? He saw the fig tree as they were walking. It was barren and thus he cursed it. The message of John 15 is that barren vines will be gathered and thrown in the fire. Piper and his FV friends are completely wrong about John 15. The point is not that “You had better produce fruit (and we get to say how much fruit and of what quality is necessary)” but this: living vines produce. Dead vines do not. If you’re a dead vine you need to repent and believe in Jesus. If you’re a dead vine you’re living under a death sentence, a judgment, and your soul is in peril. Wake up! Realize the greatness of your sin and misery and flee to Jesus for free salvation. Those who have been given new life, who are actually united to Christ by the Spirit, through faith, will be producing fruit.

      There are not two stages of salvation, initial and final. We are not out on bail. We are not awaiting a covenant of works. We have been justified “apart from the works of the law.” Which “antinomian” said that? Why the Apostle Paul of course.

      Rom 3:27-31

      Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

      Rom 4:5-6:

      And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works.

      I don’t understand (see the resources above) why Ephesians 2 isn’t dispositive of this whole controversy. Aren’t we supposed to interpret the less clear (e.g., narratives) in light of the more clear? What’s unclear about Eph 2:8-10?

      For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

      I could almost understand if someone said, but “apart from works” refers to justification but what about salvation? It’s a question with a bad premise but even on that premise the force of this passage is overwhelming. Paul says saved THROUGH FAITH (caps for emphasis not shouting). The Greek text says: “ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι διὰ ⸆ πίστεως” “[T]hrough” (διὰ) signals the instrumental function of faith. Paul used a perfect passive participle (σεσῳσμένοι). It is something that has been accomplished to us not by us. Why so? Because his paradigm was the Red Sea. We didn’t cooperate in our “final salvation” at the Red Sea. We “were saved” from the Egyptians by sovereign grace alone.

      Video: Salvation Is By Grace Alone Through Faith Alone (Eph 2:1–10)

      Ephesians 2:9: Good Works Are From Salvation Not Unto Salvation

      Ephesians 2:8 Presents Salvation As Completed Not Initiated

      What Is The Gift In Ephesians 2:8?

      Does 2 Thessalonians 2:13 Teach That Our Good Works Are An Instrument Of Salvation?

      This is just a few of the exegetical arguments I’ve been making. The rest are here:

      Resources On The Controversy Over “Final Salvation Through Works”

      Chris Gordon and I also did 30+ episodes on Romans (“The Power of God For Salvation”)

      The Entire AGR Romans Series So Far

      Why isn’t Jude 5 dispositive, conclusive for this controversy?

      Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe (ESV).

      The central clause is:

      Ἰησοῦς⸃ λαὸν ἐκ ⸁γῆς Αἰγύπτου σώσας τὸ δεύτερον τοὺς μὴ πιστεύσαντας ἀπώλεσεν…

      Who is the subject of the verb? Jesus. What did he do? He saved (σώσας). Who did the saving? Jesus. Who were reprobated, as it were, “the ones not believing” (τοὺς μὴ πιστεύσαντας ἀπώλεσεν). By good and necessary consequence what was the instrument of their salvation? Believing. The instrument of what? Their salvation. Again, for the sake of this discussion only, let’s accept momentarily the bad premise that we might hypothetically be to speak of justification by faith and salvation by something else. What does Jude say? He says “believing.”

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