Reader Questions: Evidence of Faith

Here on the site there is a feature where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

This question was recently sent in:

Hi Pastor Nick,
Regarding James 2:14: is “works” or “deeds” limited to spiritual disciplines and obedience? Can you expand what an actual “works” is? Based on what I have researched in Strong’s [Greek & Hebrew Lexicon], this word “works” can be likened to evidence. If “works” is limited to spiritual disciplines and obedience, wouldn’t the Pharisee’s have been in the pocket when in comes to saving faith? Can a work, or evidence of saving faith be something like forgiveness, patience, or trusting belief? (John 6:28) I have been listening to you for quite some time online, and so I am thinking it could be “both”. lol. I believe that obedience and spiritual disciplines are VERY important, but they have been an overflow from my friendship with Jesus. They come very naturally to me the more time Jesus and I spend together. I have friends that tend to throw around this verse when they are not witnessing the type of obedience THEY feel should be demonstrated within the church. I tend to be very tolerable when it comes to most topics, but on this issue I get very agitated. I am not sure if it’s because I am denial, or because my friends are, in my opinion, using Scripture to justify moralism. I want to enjoy the book of James, come along side of it, not have any bitterness towards it.

Good question! It seems that James understands “works” to be outward expressions of faith. Clearly this includes acts of obedience, as James describes in chapter 2, using Abraham as an example, but it James also says that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

As Jesus explained, sin includes not just outward actions, but thoughts of the mind and attitudes of the heart. He also taught that to not forgive is a sin. Therefore, to keep oneself unstained from the world includes forgiveness and other attitudes that pertain to holiness. As you rightly mentioned, Jesus stated that the “work” of God is to believe in Jesus whom He sent (John 6:29).

It is possible to do good works apart from faith, but, as John Calvin stated, the motivation for good works in that case will be self-justification or self-glorification. This is what the Pharisees were guilty of, and why Jesus claimed that they were lost in spite of their good works. Calvin argued for “Total Depravity,” which he understood as meaning that apart from Christ, our motives for doing good deeds are skewed, and it is only once the love of God has been poured out in our hearts that we are capable of doing good for truly pure motives.

In his commentary on Romans, Martin Luther compared works to the heat and light that are exuded by fire. You can have light apart from fire, and you can have heat apart from fire, but if you have fire, it will naturally result in heat and light. In the same way, you can have works apart from faith, but faith naturally produces works.

So, the answer to your question is: Both 🙂

Racism, Identity, & Self-Justification

In Pittsburgh, Racism Is a Health Crisis - CityLab

Like so many of you, when I saw the video last night of what happened to George Floyd, I was horrified.

If someone was not there to film this incident, would we even know that this happened?

Was this an isolated incident? We have to recognize that a steady stream of “isolated incidents” constitutes a pattern, and racism and prejudice are alive and well in the world today.

As Christians, it is our theological duty to speak out against racism.

Racism asserts that some people are more valuable than others. This view is anathema to those who follow Jesus.

No matter the color of a person’s skin, no matter their economic or social status, no matter their level of ability or disability: all people are created in the image of God, and therefore endowed with an innate dignity as image bearers of the Divine.

What is at the Root of Racism?

It would not be uncommon to hear someone say that at the root of racism is sin. The question though is: What sin exactly is at the root of racism?

What underlies racism is the endeavor common to all human beings of seeking to establish an identity.

Every person is seeking to establish an identity, which can be defined as: evidence that we have value and worth, that we are deserving of love and acceptance.

People seek to do this in many ways, such as geography, ethnicity, morality, economics, social standing, education, etc.

However, when someone seeks to establish their identity in anything other than the redeeming work of Jesus, it leads to disaster.

This disaster, in some cases, may only be personal; it may only affect them. It will still be disaster because it will lead to emptiness, futility, and the loss of their soul (see Mark 8:36).

However, in many cases, the disaster of attempting to build an identity apart from Christ can affect others. This is what leads to wars, ethnic conflicts, tribalism, rivalries, and racism.

These are all forms of self-justification, or the attempt to prove one’s worth by means of something within them, whether that is their morality, their good deeds, or their race or tribe.

The Reformers, particularly Calvin, pointed out that while people can do good things apart from faith in Jesus and experiencing His regenerative work in their lives, all of their good works will ultimately be motivated by either self-justification or self-glorification.

Self-justification often seeks opportunities to justify oneself by looking for ways in which they can feel superior to others. It is endeavoring to build an identity for yourself – apart from Christ – that “proves” that you have worth, and many people go about that negatively by juxtaposing themselves against other people whom they deem to have “less worth.”

Considering It All Rubbish

In the third chapter of his letter to the Philippians, Paul the Apostle talks about how he formerly tried to build his identity apart from Christ in his ethnic background, in his morality, in his education, and in his zeal for God. (Philippians 3:4-9).

The result of these things, in every instance, was that they led him to look down on others who didn’t have his ethnic background, his morality, his education, or his zeal for God – and in at least one case it led him to physically and psychologically harm an entire group of people.

However, after coming to faith in Christ and embracing the gospel, Paul says that he now considers all of these things rubbish compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus, and being found in Him, with a righteousness that comes from Jesus, not from anything within Paul himself.

What the gospel offers us is value, worth, and belonging because of what God has done for us and who we are in Christ. This identity, rather than leading to oppression or rivalry, leads to love and charity.

May we be those who find our identity in Christ, and who recognize the inherent dignity of all people.

What Did John Calvin Mean By, “We must remember that Satan has his miracles too”?

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In a recent post titled If Satan Has Been Defeated, Why Is He Still “Prowling Around”?, we looked at how Satan is not God’s counterpart, and certainly not his equal. How then can someone like John Calvin, who has a high view of God’s sovereignty and power, say that “Satan has his miracles too?

Calvin was referring to Matthew 24:24 – where, in his Olivet Discourse, Jesus states that during a time to come of great tribulation, “false messiahs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”

The Context of Calvin’s Statement: A Response to Roman Catholic Criticisms About a Lack of Miracles in the Reformation

This statement is only part of a bigger statement by John Calvin. It is found in the “Prefatory Address to the King of France,” at the beginning of Institutes of the Christian Religion. In this section, Calvin is responding to Roman Catholic criticisms of the Reformation, one of which was that the Reformation lacked miracles, which they said proved that the Reformation was not a legitimate, apostolic, work of God.

In his response, Calvin said that the immediate purpose of a miracle like healing was to bring relief to the individual, but the ultimate purpose was to prove that the apostolic preaching was true. Calvin then argues that the Reformation is not a new revelation, but rather the reaffirmation of the original apostolic preaching, therefore it does not necessitate miracles to confirm its validity.

Calvin then takes it one step further by suggesting that many of the supposed miracles reported by the Roman Catholic Church may not be from God, but may instead be of the sort talked about by Jesus in Matthew 24:24, i.e. performed by false prophets by the power of Satan to lead people astray and deceive them.

Interestingly however, Calvin does not disavow miracles entirely, but suggests that there were actually miracles that accompanied the Reformation. He then makes the concluding point that the test of miracles should be what they cause you to worship and trust in. Any miracle which causes you to trust in false doctrines or turn away from the Word of God, he says, are suspect in their origin.

This final point is a good one; you might remember that in Exodus, Pharaoh’s sorcerers were able to do replicate some of the miracles which Moses performed. The effect of these miracles was to cause people not to listen to God and repent, but to trust in false gods. I have witnessed a similar phenomenon amongst people in some circles today who seek signs and wonders; sometimes the signs they seek cause them to trust in things other than God, His Word, and the gospel.

You can read a larger excerpt of what Calvin wrote here, but here are some highlights:

In demanding miracles from us, they act dishonestly; for we have not coined some new gospel, but retain the very one the truth of which is confirmed by all the miracles which Christ and the apostles ever wrought.

But the mark of sound doctrine given by our Savior himself is its tendency to promote the glory not of men, but of God (John 7:18; 8:50). Our Savior having declared this to be test of doctrine, we are in error if we regard as miraculous, works which are used for any other purpose than to magnify the name of God.

And it becomes us to remember that Satan has his miracles, which, although they are tricks rather than true wonders, are still such as to delude the ignorant and unwary. Magicians and enchanters have always been famous for miracles, and miracles of an astonishing description have given support to idolatry: these, however, do not make us converts to the superstitions either of magicians or idolaters.

But our opponents tell us that their miracles are wrought not by idols, not by sorcerers, not by false prophets, but by saints: as if we did not know it to be one of Satan’s wiles to transform himself “into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14).

We, then, have no lack of miracles, sure miracles, that cannot be gainsaid; but those to which our opponents lay claim are mere delusions of Satan, inasmuch as they draw off the people from the true worship of God to vanity.

Source: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, cited in: The Reformation’s Lack of Miracles: A Response by John Calvin

Is There a Difference Between “Soul” and “Spirit”?

Every human being has a physical body, yet clearly who we are is not only defined by our bodies. As our bodies age or are damaged, there is something fundamental to who we are which is distinct from our bodies. The Bible tells us that in addition to our physical bodies, as human beings we possess an immaterial spirit and soul.

What can be confusing, however, is what exactly a person’s spirit is, and what their soul is, and how these two relate to each other.

Two Views: Trichotomy and Dichotomy

The Trichitomous view holds that the soul and the spirit are two distinct things, whereas the Dichotomous view holds that soul and spirit are two words which describe two distinct aspects of the same thing, namely the immaterial part of a human being.

Those who hold a Trichotomous view often claim that this three-part human nature is one of the ways in which we have been created in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27). Just as God is a greater trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit, He has created us in his image as a lesser trinity of body, soul, and spirit, says the thrichotomist. This assertion is usually followed by an explanation of what the difference is between soul and spirit. A common explanation is that the soul refers to the mind, encompassing both cognitive and personality-related aspects, whereas the spirit is the part of a person which connects with God. This, it is commonly said by trichotomists, is what distinguishes human beings from animals, who are not created in God’s image; though they have bodies and cognitive abilities (including emotions and personalities), they do not have a spirit, which makes them capable of relationship with God.

There are several passages in the Bible which suggest that there is a separation between the soul and the spirit (Romans 8:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 4:12). However, there are also several Bible verses which use the terms soul and spirit interchangeably (Matthew 10:28; Luke 1:46–47; 1 Corinthians 5:3, 7:34).

Hebrews 4:12 says that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” This would suggest that there is a dividing point between the soul and the spirit, but that they are so closely connected that the division of them is something which only God is capable of carrying out.

Advocates of the trichotomist position include James M. Boice, whereas J.I. Packer and John Calvin are some examples of those who hold a dichotomist view.

J.I. Packer’s argument for the dichotomous view

In his book “Concise Theology”, Packer explains the dichotomist view in this way:

Each human being in the world consists of a material body animated by an immaterial personal self. Scripture calls this self a “soul” or a “spirit.” “Soul emphasizes the distinctness of a person’s conscious selfhood; “spirit” carries the nuances of the self’s derivation from God, dependence on Him, and distinction from the body.
Biblical usage leads us to say that we have and are both souls and spirits, but it is a mistake to say that soul and spirit are two different things. (J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, pp. 74)

Packer goes on to explain that the trichotomous view tends to define soul as “an organ of this-worldly awareness,” whereas spirit is a distinct organ of communication with God.

This distinction, Packer argues, can lead to an unhealthy pitting of spirituality against intellectualism, in which intellectual engagement with God is considered “soulish”, i.e. unspiritual, while “spiritual perception” which is unrelated to the study of the Bible or rational thought. Furthermore, he adds that the trichotomous understanding of humanity may lead to a low view of the value of the material world, including our bodies, which would be inappropriate since we are embodied souls, and the hope of the gospel is not that we will escape this physical world, but that we will be resurrected to new and everlasting life in physical bodies.

My response to Packer’s view

I agree with Packer that it is wrong to devalue the physical world. As i have written about recently, this life matters! (See: Suicide, Christianity, & the Meaning of Life)

However, I do not believe that we should decide on theological positions based on fear of what they might lead some people to do. This is the kind of thinking that leads people to avoid teaching the scandalous truth about God’s amazing grace because they are afraid that some people might use it as a license to sin.

I do not believe that we should decide on theological positions based on fear of what they might lead some people to do.

Instead, we ought to develop our theological positions based on Scripture first, considering authorial intent as well as how these things were understood by the early Christians, subsequently applying reason (this is called “theological method”).

It seems dishonest, based on Scripture, to not acknowledge a distinction between soul and spirit. However, I am in agreement with Packer that we must not ever believe or teach that an intellectual pursuit of God is unspiritual, or that seeking God’s will in Scripture is less spiritual than seeking it through “spiritual perception”. Yet, the way the words are used in the Bible leads me to believe that soul and spirit are separate, yet intimately connected aspects of human personhood, the latter of which sets us apart from the animal world.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you lean more towards the trichotomous or dichotomous view, and why?

Check out this discussion that Mike Payne, worship pastor at White Fields Church and I recently had on this subject for our church’s YouTube channel:

Do Christians Pick and Choose When It Comes to Old Testament Laws?

One of the criticisms that is sometimes aimed at Christians, is that we “pick and choose” from the Old Testament laws, applying some of them to today, and not others. For example, we agree with the command “You shall not commit adultery”, but we seem to ignore other commands, such as the command not to eat pork and shellfish, or not to wear clothing made of fabrics made up of more than one material (i.e. that poly-cotton blend shirt). Why, someone might ask, do Christians say that the commandments about certain sexual behaviors are still applicable, but they don’t say the same about other commandments, such as executing people for breaking the Sabbath? Aren’t they just arbitrarily picking and choosing according to whatever they deem convenient for them?

The answer is: because we must differentiate between the different types of laws in the Old Testament. To do so isn’t arbitrary at all, in fact it is the only faithful way of handling the Old Testament laws.

John Calvin, the 16th-century reformer, pointed out that the New Testament treated the 613 Old Testament laws in three different ways. There were:

  • Civil Laws, which governed the nation of Israel, dealing with behaviors and the punishments for crimes.
  • Ceremonial Laws, about “clean” and “unclean” things, various sacrifices and other ritual practices.
  • Moral laws, which declared what God deemed right and wrong, such as the 10 Commandments.

For the people of Israel, all three types of laws blended together. Breaking a moral law had civil and ceremonial consequences. Breaking a civil or a ceremonial law was a moral problem. These laws went hand-in-hand because Israel was in a unique place historically, being both a nation and a worshiping community. God was their sovereign, their king, their ruler, not only over their worship, but over their entire civil society. They had no concept of “the separation of church and state.” Since that is the case for us today, our relationship to the Law is obviously different.

This helps us to understand what often seems contradictory about the New Testament view of the Law. The New Testament says that Jesus came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17) and because of what He did in his life, death and resurrection, we are released from the Law (Romans 7:1-6; Galatians 3:25).

Understanding how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law helps us see why we still look to some of the Old Testament laws to instruct and guide us, and “ignore” others.

The Civil Laws were set up to benefit the nation of Israel. However, we are not bound by the civil codes of the Old Testament because there is no longer a theocratic nation-state on earth. We may wisely glean from some of the principles in Israel’s civil laws, such as those regarding public health, caring for the poor, etc. – but in Christ, we have become a “new nation”, the people of God spread out through every tribe, tongue and nation of the Earth, who are subject to the ruling authorities of our respective countries when it comes to civil laws (see Romans 13:1-7)

Things like not eating shellfish, for example, were incredibly thoughtful and merciful commands in the ancient world, for people who did not have refrigeration and did not understand microbes and bacteria. The same is true of pork. As they submitted to these laws without understanding why God had commanded them or what God’s purpose was with them, even if they might have seemed arbitrary to them at the time, the Jewish people benefited from them. There is certainly a lesson for us in that in regard to obeying God’s commands, even when we don’t understand why He has given them.

The Ceremonial Laws illustrate God’s holiness and our unholiness and the inherent problem that we have in approaching God. As the book of Hebrews shows us, the sacrifices were fulfilled in Jesus’ perfect life and death. He is the final sacrifice, who cleanses us inwardly, not only outwardly, and makes us acceptable before God.

The Moral Laws were fulfilled by Jesus in that He lived a perfect life, free of moral failure. Unlike the civil and ceremonial laws, which were bound to particular times and situations, the moral laws show God’s assessment of good and evil, right and wrong. They reflect God’s character, and since His character doesn’t change, neither do His views on morality. In fact, whenever Jesus talked about the moral laws, he either re-affirmed them or intensified them! (see Matthew 5:21-48).

Thus the reason why Christians “pick and choose” from the Old Testament laws is not at all arbitrary, rather it is faithful to understanding the roles and purpose of the different laws, and it is faithful to the teaching of the New Testament.

For more on the topic of the moral law, read: “Oh, How I Love Your Law” – the Role of the Law in the Life of a Believer is More than Just Showing You that You Need a Savior