Why Do You Preach a Gospel of Works?
The question I am to answer, submitted by a listener, is as follows: “Why do you preach a gospel of works? You say an unsaved man must turn from sin, completely give himself over to Christ, and then receive Him by faith as Lord and Saviour. Please give scriptural truth.”
We will take as our basis James 2:14-26. I think it is essential, judging by this question, that we make perfectly clear what the Bible teaches about saving faith in the Lord Jesus. What does it mean to be saved, to believe in Him?
An interesting article appeared in an issue of “HIS,” the intervarsity magazine (which I commend to your reading) which was part of an autobiography by the late Mahatma Ghandi of India, telling of a visit he paid to Pretoria, South Africa, in the year 1893 as a young lawyer. In the course of that visit he came in touch with a number of outstanding Christian people and board members of the South Africa General Mission, as well as Andrew Murray, the founder of the mission, who did everything in their power to bring him to Christ.
He records how many interesting Christian contacts he had, and how he was impressed by the godliness of their lives. It is a striking story that shows the value of a strategic approach to a soul. On the other hand, it shows also the damage that can be done when the approach is wrong. Ghandi records an incident in which he was introduced to a member of some sect, who spoke to him about the Lord, and tackled him along a particular line which Ghandi did not appreciate. The man told him that it must be because of his bearing and outlook on things that he was constantly brooding over transgressions and sins in his life, and that he ought not to do that, because if he knew what it was to be a Christian, then he would know the value of the atonement, and would never brood over sins that he committed any more. Furthermore, he told him that as he was looking for something that gave him deliverance from this sin in his life, he was looking for something that the New Testament did not have.
After a lot of argument along that line, Ghandi says this, “The argument failed to convince me. I humbly replied to this gentleman that if this is the Christianity acknowledged by all Christians, I cannot accept it. I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin, I seek to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin. Until I have attained that end, I shall be content to be restless. To which my friend replied, ‘I assure you your attempt is fruitless. Think over what I have said again.’ And the brother proved as good as his word. He knowingly committed transgression and assured me that he was undisturbed by the thought of it.”
This is the thing I am concerned about, as it is the outcome of an unwholesome, biased emphasis on faith without works, grace without obedience, free salvation without the outcome in cost. This is the result of much preaching in the last 25 years, which has rightly upheld the free grace of God, and made the clear statement that there is nothing that a man can add to the finished work of Christ for his salvation which is utterly and completely true. But we have failed to remind people that the only evidence of a man’s genuine new birth is that he is producing works.
We frequently quote those lovely words, “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast.” We forget that the very next verse says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
We do not teach a gospel of works, but we do preach a gospel that works, and there is a big difference. I can find nothing in Scripture to substantiate the kind of Christianity that this particular gentleman put over to Ghandi, in which he can go on committing sin and be completely undisturbed by the fact of doing so. This is a fantastic travesty of salvation by grace. This is making a scapegoat of the grace of God, and using it as an excuse for continued, happy transgression. If a man does that, I very much question the genuineness of his experience of conversion. He is living a lie to the Word of God and to his own testimony.
In his epistle, James draws attention to the alternative types of beliefs which he meets in life, the different kinds of faith a man can have, and yet not be a Christian.
“Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well” (v. 19). Here James is making a clear statement that it is possible to believe about Jesus Christ yet not be saved. You must remember that he is writing to converted Jews, who knew perfectly well what he was talking about, because deep down in their theology was this statement, “The Lord thy God is one God.” They believed implicitly and unquestionably in this statement of doctrine, so James says, “You believe there is one God. I am glad you do, but that belief does not save you.”
In other words, no conviction in a historic fact of the Bible, no matter how true that fact may be, will bring a man to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. It is a good thing to have right beliefs, a right understanding of doctrine, but it means something more than that to be a Christian.
Then James goes a bit further and says, in the same verse, “the devils also believe, and tremble.” Satan has something more than an intellectual belief in Jesus Christ. He has a deep conviction of the power of Jesus Christ. He met Him personally, face to face, in hand-to-hand combat, and was beaten by Him in the wilderness. Satan has no doubts whatever as to the authority of the Lord Jesus. He confounds and seeks to blind us about it, but he is sure of it himself.
All the demons believe, says James, for they have met their match, and have been caused to tremble. They have been defeated at Calvary, and they know the power of God in Jesus Christ, but still they are devils, and still they are in hell.
James is contending for the tremendous possibility that a man may be brought under the sound of the Christian message, to believe intellectually with his head—indeed to come to a point where he trembles under the conviction of the reality of it in his heart—and still not be saved. There is the awful possibility not simply of believing, but actually of coming under the sound of the message, and in one’s heart being aware of conviction, the reality of one’s failure, the burden of one’s sin, and trembling, and being conscious of the power of God almost overwhelmingly, and yet go to hell.
This is the appalling thing that James is showing. It is possible to believe about Jesus Christ, and possible to believe in Him, and yet to be lost. I would give two simple illustrations of the distinction between what it means to believe and still be lost, and what it means to believe and be saved.
The first is the story of the famous man, Blondin, who was expert at tight-rope walking. On one occasion he was all ready to give a demonstration of walking on a tight-rope over Niagara Falls, and a huge crowd had gathered to watch him do it. In the front of the crowd was a small boy, gazing with eyes wide open at his hero, Blondin, who saw him, and just before he started toward the tight-rope said, “Son, do you believe that I can walk on this tight-rope over Niagara?”
“Sure I do,” replied the boy.
“Well, do you believe that I could carry you on my back as I walk over the Falls on the tight-rope?”
“Yes, sir, I believe you could.”
“All right,” said Blondin, “Come and jump on my back!”
And the little boy turned tail and ran for his life! He believed in Blondin right enough. He believed about Blondin, but he never got on to the tight-rope.
My other story comes from the hills of Kentucky, where in one of those tiny villages, miles from anywhere, there was the old grocery store owned by a man who had a little boy. One day the grocer was down in his cellar counting his stock. He had gone down on a rickety ladder through the trapdoor, and when he reached the bottom he pulled the ladder away, and was working in the dark with a little oil lamp. As he worked he heard a voice at the top of the trapdoor calling, “Daddy!” He went to the bottom of the space where the ladder had been, and looking up saw his little son standing there peering down. “Hello, son,” he said.
“Daddy, I want to come to you.”
“All right then, jump!”
“But, daddy, I can’t see you, it’s so dark!”
“Never mind, I can see you, and my arms are stretched out. Jump!”
The boy jumped, and fell into the arms of his father.
Oh, that you may never have a shadow of a doubt on this matter again in your life, if you have had it before! Saving faith in Jesus Christ involves commitment, action, movement. It is never simply intellectual. It is not only that I have come under conviction. I must go further than that.
Nobody is ever truly born of the Spirit of God until they have come to the place of absolute hopelessness in their own strength and in their own character. That is why so many “decisions for Christ” are not genuine, and so many professed conversions are not real, for people make professions and do not stand, and you cannot find them six months later. There are many, perhaps, who respond on the spur of the moment, or in the emotion of a service with a genuine sincerity, yet they have never come to a place of absolute hopelessness in regard to their own personal character.
Nobody moves in saving faith to Jesus Christ until they have seen the utter hopelessness of everything that they are except for the grace of God. That is why, whenever you read in the New Testament about believing on the Lord Jesus Christ and being saved, you will always find that the word following belief is the word “on” and not “in.” And if it is “in,” the actual word (and you can use your Greek New Testament to prove it) is always the word which is implied by the English word “on.” For instance, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31). “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten son that whosoever believeth onto Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
The New Testament experience of conversion means that a man is desperate: desperate for God, desperate because of his own sinfulness, and he is at the end of his tether. Therefore it involves movement, action, commitment, total abandonment to the Saviour. That is not salvation by works. It is salvation by grace, and the evidence of it is that a man by grace has seen his own sinful heart, and has cast himself in hopelessness on the mercy of God.
Have you ever done that? I don’t ask that question lightly. What is your life’s objective? What are you doing with life? Have you honestly ever come to a moment where you have been conscious of absolute despair, and have just flung yourself upon the Lord for His mercy? That is salvation. James is so afraid, as so often I am, of the sham which is merely something that has stirred a man’s intellect or his emotions, and has never brought him in helplessness to the foot of the Cross.
I would now draw your attention to the examples James gives. He uses two, but I am only going to consider one, found in verses 21-24, which I ask you to read carefully. Is it not significant that Paul uses the same illustration to prove his point? In Romans 4 and Galatians 3, he quote Abraham as an example of salvation by faith alone. James says, “not by faith alone.” Paul says, “by faith alone.” Are the two contradictory? No, they are not. They are both saying exactly the same thing with a different meaning.
No less an authority than Martin Luther discarded the epistle of James altogether as being an epistle of straw, because he preached salvation by works, and that he contradicted Paul. He did nothing of the kind!
What does James say? He shows that Abraham is justified by works because there came a day in his life when he obeyed God, when he offered Isaac. In Genesis 15, God made a great promise to Abraham, that his seed should be as the sand on the seashore, and as the stars in heaven for multitude, and we are told that Abraham believed God. He trusted God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness. The moment he believed, God tested his faith, and asked him for a sacrifice. But what would become of God’s promise of a seed if Abraham offered Isaac? He would have none at all. Yet Abraham believed God and his faith worked. Because his faith worked, he offered Isaac in complete submission and surrender to the Lord. He cast himself upon the promises and upon the mercy of God. Therefore, as James says, he was justified.
Paul says he was justified by faith. Yes indeed. James says he was justified by works, and again, yes, indeed. He was justified by faith that works. Not by faith and words, but by a faith that demonstrated its reality because it worked. And that is the only kind of saving faith that you will find in the Bible.
As I close my simple definition of what it means to be a Christian, I trust it has helped some who have been trusting in an emotional experience or intellectual conception of historic truth, and who say, “I’m saved, because I believe my Bible from Genesis to Revelation.” That does not save anybody. Neither are you saved because you go to church regularly, or because you believe all the great doctrines of the evangelical faith. You can believe all that and be lost. What is saving faith? I give it to you in three simple statements:
1. It is a step. Not a statement of doctrine or a creed only, but a step that involves action, movement, surrender, commitment, so that it carries every bit of you with it.
2. It is a step in the dark. Beyond the realm of intellect and understanding you cry out, “I just don’t know! I do not understand! But I know my life is hopeless, and I’m desperate. I am sinful, and I know I can do nothing about it, and I’m hopelessly lost. But I believe there is a God who loves me, and He has shown His love because He gave Jesus Christ to die in my place on Calvary. I have come to the end of my rope, and cannot go on any longer living like this. But I just fling myself on the mercy of God.”
3. Praise God, it is a step in the dark on to a rock. And the rock is Jesus Christ our Lord who can never be shaken.
Here then is saving faith, therefore are you saved? Are you a Christian? Do you know the Lord, and are you born again? Have you taken the step into the dark upon the promises and mercy of God, and do you stand on the rock Jesus Christ?
In order that the emphasis of this message may be what I believe the Lord would have us understand of New Testament teaching, to that work of saving faith, the step into the dark upon the rock, there is added inevitably, as the evidence of the fact that I am saved, the good works of a holy life in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The good manners of a child of God, the upright behavior of the true Christian is only possible because Jesus dwells within. That is the reality and thrill of a gospel that works!