Drippings from the Honeycomb
More to be desired are [the rules of the Lord] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. (Psalm 19:10)
"Justification is the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls," Martin Luther once said, yet two visible branches of Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, differ widely on what justification is. Explore these two different views in the document below.
One of the most common Bible questions that exists is, “Are Paul and James in contradiction when they speak of justification?” (I.e. Does Paul teach justification by faith alone and James by faith and works?).
Paul says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Ro 3:28) and “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness [or justification]” (Ro 4:3b, c.f. Gal 3:6).
James says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (Ja 2:24)
The short answer is NO, they are not in contradiction (for with God as its author, Scripture is never in confusion).
One may easily rectify the apparent contradiction when you consider how they are using the word and the illustrations they draw from Abraham’s life.
Let’s start with the illustration.
Paul is citing the story of the Abrahamic Covenant found in Gen 15:6 (c.f. Gen 12). When Abraham believed God’s promise God declared Him righteous or just. Abraham was justified by faith.
By contrast, James is citing the story of Abraham and Isaac found in Gen 22:9–10 (Ja 2:21).
This then sees Paul and James using the same word in different senses. Paul is using the word savingly whereas James is using it demonstratively. Paul is saying Abraham was declared just through his faith. James is saying Abraham showed himself as having been justified by faith through his works. Obedience (or works) proves faith, it is the fruit of saving faith, never the cause of it.
One must have a comprehensive view of God’s plan of salvation. The same God who justifies us also sanctifies us by His Spirit, persevering us until our glorification. Our good works don’t save us but do show that we are saved (Tit 2:10).
The Old Baptist confession put it this way:
“Faith thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love. (1689.11.2)
What is the biblical teaching (doctrine) of justification by faith alone (known in Latin as sola fide)?
Martin Luther said it is “Easy to talk about; difficult to grasp.” Yet because justification answering the question, "what must I do to be saved (or justified)?" it is of fundamental importance. This is why Martin Luther said it was, “the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls,” and John Calvin would likewise describe it as “the hinge on which all true religion turns.”
Justification means to declare someone as just, righteous or perfect.
Justification is necessary because of our sinfulness and inability to justify ourselves. God's demand is perfection (Mt 5:48). Yet who can keep the whole moral law every day all the time? No, if we break one law (Ja 2:10) we are a lawbreaker and guilty before the Judge and deserving of hell.
Justification is the irrevocable and instantaneous act whereby God, by virtue of the finished work of Christ in His life, death and Resurrection, declares the penitent believer in the Gospel to be not only pardoned but just, right or perfect in His sight. Jesus’ righteousness is imputed, or credited, to our account. It follows that we are made acceptable to God, gain acceptance into His family and receive the gift of the Spirit to practically impart righteousness (or justness) until the day we are actually made just. Justification is the great fountainhead in the order of salvation.
Read more here.
Justification teaches us that we are helpless to help ourselves. Our works cannot save us. We may only be saved by the works of another.
This is perhaps best illustrated by quicksand.
When stuck in quicksand one must be rescued by the works of another. If we move we sink. We must cry out that someone else rescue us and trust them to do so.
When we confess we are sinners (recognize we are in trouble) and repent (turn from our works to Jesus), turning instead to the Son of God (perfect, crucified and risen) and ask Him to forgive us and grant us eternal life by virtue of what He has done then He promises to forgive us and impute His righteousness to us. He bears our sin and in return we receive His righteousness and resurrection life.
My hope is built on nothing less...all other ground is sinking sand.
Acts is known for its conversion narratives, the most famous of which is Saul’s. These teach us what to look for in a genuine conversion: belief in Jesus, repentance, faith in the Gospel, forgiveness and new life (change) by the Holy Spirit and baptism. This essence of conversion is part of the Gospel we proclaim. It helps us know what to expect in conversion, to know what to do and it continues to give understanding to our spiritual journey.
Once we’ve believed Scripture makes this more specific. It offers us an order of salvation (ordo salutis in Latin). What appears instantaneous (and even man-centred) to the naked eye is actually noted as a dividable God centred process. For examples in Ro 8:30 says, And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. Likewise, Titus 3:5–7 says, And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. Many other passages speak of various steps along this order.
It is important to study this as a believer: a) because it is in the Bible, b) because it gives us a greater appreciation of God’s work in salvation, c) it creates humility, and d) it fosters praise.
Many have parsed the order of salvation to a great degree (e.g. William Perkin’s Golden Chain). Below is a simple version for quick reference.
 We don’t preach the order of salvation but the Gospel, however, we teach the order of salvation to believers for their benefit.
In this we can see the Father willing salvation; the Son accomplishing salvation; the Holy Spirit applying salvation.
May we stand in awe of the God who works such a marvellous salvation.
What a glorious doctrine of the Scriptures is the teaching of the Perseverance of the Saints!
There are two extremes when it comes to the perseverance of a professing Christian, usually cast in one of the following two ways: a) that through my own wilful rebellion I can lose my salvation, and b) “once saved always saved” or "eternal security."
Yet if Christ isn’t capable of saving me to the uttermost (including holding me) then He isn’t the perfect Saviour and is not to be trusted. Likewise, a mere profession of one’s lips, without the fruit of repentance and faith is surely not evidence of a genuine salvation. The former produces a works that can never rest in Christ; the latter rests too easily in false assurance.
The Perseverance of the Saints (POTS), which is an historic belief that Baptists have held, and which we hold as a congregation (FEB, “Salvation” ; MBC “Salvation” - “divinely preserved”), balances these two extremes. POTS teaches that those who are truly saints, that is those who’ve savingly believed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, been converted, and made holy (saints) are also those who will finally persevere, or continue steadfast, to the end. It doesn’t mean they will be perfect but it does mean that even if for a time they grieve the Spirit, their general life trajectory will be persistent righteousness vs. persistent sin (a false professor). Thus, they and we gain final assurance of their salvation by the evidence of the fruit that they bear to the end (Mt 3:8, Mt 7:20, Mt 13:23; Eph 2:10). Not only is this useful pastorally but ecclesiology as we seek to determine who are our brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Some key (and unmistakeable) passages are:
London Baptist Confession, 1644- Section 34 and 27
2nd London Baptist Confession, 1689- Chapter 17
New Hampshire Baptist Confession, 1833- Chapter 11
We believe that such only are real believers as endure unto the end: that their persevering attachment to Christ is the grand mark which distinguishes them from superficial professors; that a special providence watches over their welfare, and that they are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.
A Confession of the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec, 1925
The preservation unto eternal life of the saints;
The necessity and efficacy of the influence of the Spirit in regeneration and sanctification.
Southern Baptist Faith and Message (1925, c.f. 2000)
All real believers endure to the end. Their continuance in well-doing is the mark which distinguishes them from mere professors. A special Providence cares for them, and they are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.
Recently I had a unique opportunity to speak with a local old order Mennonite (so not a Dave Martin Mennonite) about his beliefs (and many of our common beliefs). He shared how his church holds to the The Dordrecht Confession (1632), and was delighted to learn I had this in a book in my office. (You can read it here).
Having studied Mennonite history and beliefs at a general level I wrote to him some of my responses and questions in the hopes that he or his church leader might be able to further enlightenment me on Mennonite beliefs and practices.
Here are my comments:
Article 2- I was heartened to see you believe in Original Sin as I know some Mennonites do not. This is such a fundamental teaching of the Bible.
Article 4- There is so much here that is right and true. Twice, however, “salvation of all” and “purchased redemption for the whole human race” is mentioned and so I would gather you believe in a universal atonement. I would hold that Christ died for His own, the elect (Acts 13:48; Eph 1:1–6; 2 Ti 1:9; Rev 17:8); however, that the Gospel should be preach to the whole world. Election is a mystery the Bible speaks of for the believer’s comfort. The Gospel an encouragement to those who have not yet believed.
A line at about 60% says “we content ourselves with the declaration which the worthy evangelists have given…” According to Christology I find this somewhat vague as the visible Church (and I think with Biblical merit) has universally and historically believed the Chalcedon Creed that says “one person in two natures.” Creeds are not Scripture but church history does have a helping or ministerial role as Christians articulate their belief. Perhaps Mennonites are interested in the practical vs. the speculative (though probing who God is, I would argue, has great practical benefits).
I was heartened by the last line of this article.
Article 5- What is the Gospel? How do I become a Christian? This is not clear to me. Traditional Protestantism asks “What must I do to be saved.” It seems many Anabaptists ask, “How ought a Christian to live?”
Article 6- Truly, we must heed John the Baptist’s words quoted herein and also hear James that faith without works is dead. However, what is true saving faith and its connection to ongoing faith? (or saving faith and the fruit of faith). It speaks of “amendment of life” which is surely a proof of true faith (Parable of the Sower) but this does seem to have echoes of being justified (or made right with God) through our works. I would say that those who truly believe in the Gospel and are indwelled by the Holy Spirit will persevere in the faith and bear good fruit. You shall know them by their fruit Jesus said in Mt 7.
Article 7- Do you practice baptism by affusion (pouring) or immersion? I know different Mennonites have different practices. We practice believer’s baptism by immersion in the name of the Trinity.
Article 9- I was confused, do you have a tri-fold ordering of officers? We have Elders (oversight, teaching and discipleship) and Deacons (temporal needs and matters).
Article 10- I love the moral outworking of the theology of the cross (yet would still question “His precious blood—for the whole human race” see what I shared above. I would understand such verses in light of the others to mean, “so that…”).
Article 11- I applaud the spirit of humility in this article and the picture of true washing by Christ’s blood, however, is there really justifiable evidence that foot-washing is an ordinance? Does it merit a whole article? Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are quite emphatically put forward as signs of the New Covenant. Is not the main point of Jesus’ footwashing the principle of humility and service?
Article 14- This is certainly a noble belief and I have the utmost respect for those who carry it out. But is it not to confuse the future peace we will know with the present where sin reigns? Surely in Mt 6 Jesus is speaking of personal insult and not personal harm. I would allow suffering injury for the sake of the Gospel but, the justness or injustice of wars aside, what man would not protect his wife and children from a murderer or thief? Jesus even commanded his disciples to carry swords for legitimate cases of self-defence (Lk 22:36). The 10 Commandments speak of “thou shall not murder” not “kill.” In rare occasions I would see defence as a reasonable use of force.
Article 15- I agree with this interpretation of Mt 5, however, why make it a major statement of faith? May it not be a remnant of an important issue in the 1500s and not so much an issue today?
Article 16 and 17 (which are similar)- Likewise, I am a believer in what we would call church discipline (as a believers’ church), rightly dismissing members who persist in erring in doctrine or practice and do not show repentance after brothers seek to reach him (Matt 18:15–20). Likewise it is for their amendment and not their ruin. However, I wonder about the language of “sin unto death.” If they truly repent and show they were genuine believers do they really lose their salvation only to regain it or grieve the spirit whilst in rebellion and loose visible assurance? Also “have nothing to do with them” must be taken in its various contexts. Certainly we should avoid divisive people (Tit 3) and even apostates, yet wouldn’t to treat the average backslider like “tax collectors and sinners” mean we cannot have fellowship with them but that we treat them with mercy and try to convert them? What in practice would shunning look like?
Article 18- I agree wholeheartedly with what is stated here, the Resurrection, etc, yet even though Scripture speaks of being judged based upon our deeds, does it not go still further and speak of our faith, or what we have done with Jesus (Ro 14:23; Heb 11:6; Jn 12:48)?
Aside from many smaller questions the biggest question that I am not clear on, and what I would deem as the most important, is “What is the Gospel” and “what is true faith?” Likewise, what is the relationship of faith and works? If you could help me understand these I would be grateful.
What is forgiveness?
Many people have some very confused views on what forgiveness is and is not. For example, many think it is simply treating something as “water under the bridge” or “letting go.” These, and many other false notions, are not what forgiveness is. What then is forgiveness? Biblically, it must be understood in at least 4 different ways, but first we’ll consider its broad definition:
Forgiveness: If you asked Mr. Oxford it would say: “to stop feeling angry with somebody who has done something to harm, annoy or upset you.” I suppose the reason why so many people struggle to truly forgive someone in the world today is because on what basis can you do that? Forgiveness is very difficult. Older dictionaries have much more robust definitions: to grant, remit, pardon a debt, give up. In fact the old English word for forgive is a compound word that combines “completely” & “give.” As such older dictionaries defined the word as “to give up desire or power to punish.” This definition is at least heading in the right direction (and similar to the Greek- to send away, release, permit to depart, remit, etc), but again, upon what basis?
To build a definition of Biblical forgiveness, one must see the different contexts in which forgiveness is spoken of, along with the acts which it is based upon.
Seeking God’s forgiveness
Because we have offended God, dishonoured Him, profaned His holy Law, each human being stands in need of God’s forgiveness. Indeed, in light of this reality (Ro 3:23) we ought to actively pursue it. 1 Jn 1:9 stands as a faithful promise for all who would repent and seek God’s forgiveness:
If anyone sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 Jn 1:9).
Long before we speak about forgiveness amongst humans we need to recognize the forgiveness we stand in need of before God. This begins with repentance. No repentance no forgiveness.
Seeking other’s forgiveness
Scripture also makes clear our obligation to seek the forgiveness of others. Mt 5:23–24 says:
23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
Jesus never clarifies whether the brother has a right to be angry or not (i.e. whether you have done something wrong or not, however it is a reasonable conclusion. Reconciliation involves forgiveness, both the seeking and extending. We’re a hypocrite if we think we’re ok with God but aren’t ok with our neighbour John tells us, 1 Jn 4:20 (so far as it depends on us, Ro 12:18). If we know we’ve sinned we’re called to own up to it both to God and to others. In fact, in Mt 6:14–15 Jesus goes so far as to say not doing this will become an impediment to God forgiving us:
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
If we have been forgiven of our sins by God we will naturally forgive others, much.
(Still on what basis can we or God forgive?)
God’s forgiveness of sinners
Here we finally answer the question on what basis God can forgive a sinner. Eph 1:7 says:
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.
God cannot wishfully pretend our sins away. Sin is real. For justice to be done sin must be atoned for. So for God to let go of the believer’s sins someone had to pay the price and that someone was Jesus (atonement means an act that enables us to become at one with God). Jesus needed to die the perfect death, His righteous blood needed to be shed so we might know life instead of death. He did this all out of sheer unmerited favour. Our need of forgiveness is so great no human work can suffice, only a work of God is capable of removing the sin of the penitent believer (and indeed in bringing us to that place).
Our forgiveness of others
This final exploration is perhaps most interesting. Upon what basis must I, as a believer, forgive someone else? After all we’re commanded to forgive others on the basis of the forgiveness we've received. (Mt 18:21-35; Eph 4:32).
Yet if our forgiveness cannot absolve them of their sin, what good is it and upon what basis is it offered? Here Romans 12:14–21 is most helpful. It reads:
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Our call to forgive and love our enemies and those who have done us harm (even forgiving those who do not ask for forgiveness) is not based upon our ability to forgive but in trust and obedience to Christ’s command and that He alone is judge and will execute justice upon the guilty. It is a call to stop playing Judge. Therefore, by entrusting the situation to Him—itself a work of the Spirit— we are enabled to have peace from anger, being liberated to live our lives and love others. It is in letting justice for the situation go to God, a giving of it away to His justice, that we see a glimpse of some of the older definitions of what forgiveness means and the benefit it brings to the one forgiving.
Through our withholding of forgiveness we often think we can inflict deserved harm upon those who’ve harmed us, yet ironically, it is only by forgiving that we can “heap burning coals upon their head.” Our higher road of faith in the Lord is the very thing that sinners will detest most, and we pray will be the thing that brings them to the repentance they so desperately need. All the while it liberates us from the weight of grudgery, which itself arises when our role as Judge is frustrated.
The radical nature of this forgiveness is vividly portrayed in the film The End of the Spear, which recounts the wives of slain missionaries continuing in their mission to reach the very tribe who murdered their husbands.
May the Lord help us seek His forgiveness, that of others, and also to extend forgiveness too.
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