Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Study in Baptismal Regeneration: Part 2, Justified by Works

In part 1 of this series, "Faith Alone," we looked at some of part 2 of another blogger's series on baptism, the Gift of the Holy Spirit and salvation. We looked at the claim that Ephesians 2:8-9 teaches only that salvation is apart from works of the Mosaic Law, but not that it is apart from any works of obedience at all. In so doing, we looked at Romans 4 in which Paul demonstrates that Abraham was justified by God—forgiven of sin and counted as being righteous before Him—when he believed that God would do what He said He would do, before any acts of obedience. So, too, are Christians justified by God upon faith apart from works. In this part two of my series, we'll look at James 2, the passage arguably most frequently pointed to as evidence that we are not, in fact, justified by God by faith apart from works, and we'll look at another argument made by my fellow blogger.


The attentive student of Scripture, after reading the previous entry in this series and Paul's claim that Abraham was justified by God based on his faith alone, might ask why James rhetorically asks in chapter 2 and verse 21 of his epistle, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?" And why does he go on in verse 24 to say, "a man is justified by works and not by faith alone?" A surface reading would seem to suggest that James is contradicting Paul. One attempt to reconcile the seeming discrepancy is to misinterpret Paul's words in Romans 4, but we've seen that Paul was clearly saying we, as Abraham was, are forgiven of our sins and counted as being righteous on the basis of our faith before any works. So that attempt to reconcile James with Paul doesn't work.

What does work is to take a closer look at this passage in James, and at the word "justified" in its original language. Let's start with the latter. The word there is δικαιόω (dikaioo), and it has a few meanings. One meaning, clearly intended by Paul in Romans 4, is to be "rendered," "declared," or "credited" as being righteous. It doesn't mean we become righteous in the sense that we no longer sin. It means that our debt before God has been erased, permanently, and at the final judgment the righteousness of Christ is counted as though it were ours.

But the word has another meaning: "to show, exhibit, evince, one to be righteous." In other words, it can mean to demonstrate that we are righteous. For example, Jesus said of the Pharisees in Luke 16:15, "You are those who justify [δικαιόω] yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God." The Pharisees could not, obviously, justify themselves in the sense that they forgave their own sins and made themselves righteous before God. No, they attempted to demonstrate their righteousness before men, but God knew what was actually inside.

So one meaning of the word has to do with something that is done to a man, and another meaning of the word has to do with something that is done by a man. In Romans 4, the former meaning is clearly intended, for Paul explains that God forgives us, and credits us as being righteous, on the basis of our faith, apart from any works. But is that the meaning James intends?


James' epistle begins with the exhortation that we "Consider it all joy...when [we] encounter various trials" (1:2). Why are we to be joyful when we are tried? Because "the testing of [our] faith produces endurance" (1:3). He goes on to say, "let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (1:4), and later says, "Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him" (1:12).

So in context, James is talking about trials resulting in spiritual growth and approval. The word "approved" in verse 12 is the Greek δόκιμος (dokimos) and refers to accepting something as being genuine. For example, this word and its antonym, ἀδόκιμος (adokimos), as well as the root word they share, δοκιμή (dokimē), are used in 2 Corinthians 13:3-7 which reads,

3 since you are seeking for proof [δοκιμή] of the Christ who speaks in me, and who is not weak toward you, but mighty in you. 4 For indeed He was crucified because of weakness, yet He lives because of the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, yet we will live with Him because of the power of God directed toward you. 5 Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you--unless indeed you fail the test [ἀδόκιμος]? 6 But I trust that you will realize that we ourselves do not fail the test [ἀδόκιμος]. 7 Now we pray to God that you do no wrong; not that we ourselves may appear approved [δόκιμος], but that you may do what is right, even though we may appear unapproved [ἀδόκιμος].

Paul tells the Corinthians that they wanted proof, δοκιμή, that Christ spoke in him. He is not speaking of Christ being in him as a result of the proof; rather, he is speaking of proof that Christ is already inside him. Similarly, he tells the Corinthians that Jesus Christ is in them unless they "fail the test" or are unapproved, ἀδόκιμος. Once again, the idea is not of Christ's absence being the result of being failing the test; rather, the idea is of failing the test, proving that Christ was never in them.

Likewise, James tells his readers that "Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved [δόκιμος], he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him." In using the word δόκιμος, James is not talking about receiving the crown of life as the result of obedience. Rather, he is talking about receiving the crown of life because one's obedience has proven that one genuinely loves the Lord.


James goes on in verse 22 to exhort his readers, "But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves." The NIV renders this, "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." As the NLT puts it, "But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves." The Greek word rendered "delude," "deceive" and "fooling" is παραλογίζομαι (paralogizomai) and refers to reckoning something incorrectly or outright deceiving. He goes on in verse 26 to say, "If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is worthless."

So what is the context of James? Is it about justification in the sense of an action done by God to a man, Him forgiving a man's sin and declaring a man righteous? No, it is about justification in the sense of demonstrating that what one claims about oneself is true. This is evident when we look at the verse which begins the passage most often pointed to by proponents of works-based schemes of salvation, verse 14 of chapter 2, which reads, "What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?" James is talking about someone who claims or professes a faith, but lacks works demonstrating that the professed faith is not genuine.

James goes on in verse 18 to contrast such a professed faith lacking works with a professed faith demonstrated to be true by works, writing, "But someone may well say, 'You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.'" Notice that the theme has not changed, that theme being justification in the sense of demonstrating the genuineness of a professed faith. James is not saying works are required in order to be saved, he is saying a professed faith is not a genuine, saving faith if works are absent.


So we come to verses 21 and 24-25, where we read, "21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?...24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?" In what sense, then, is James saying we, like Abraham and Rahab, are justified by works? In the second sense of the word "justified," in which we demonstrate the genuineness of our saving faith by our works.

Consequently, look how the New Living Translation renders these verses: "21 Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?...24 So you see, we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone. 25 Rahab the prostitute is another example. She was shown to be right with God by her actions when she hid those messengers and sent them safely away by a different road." The NLT gets it right, and the Amplified Bible agrees: our professed faith is shown to be a genuine, saving faith when it is accompanied by works.


But what about the way some translations render verse 14, such as the NKJV which reads, "What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?" Doesn't this suggest that salvation is the result not of faith alone but faith plus works? No, it doesn't. Again, the context is demonstrating the genuineness of a professed faith, and a professed faith which does not result in works is not a genuine faith.

The NASB renders the end of verse 14, "Can that faith save him?" The NIV renders it, "Can such faith save them?" And the NLT puts it this way: "Can that kind of faith save anyone?" The emphasis is not on faith in general, but a particular kind of faith, the kind hypothetically presented, one which is professed but does not result in works. And James goes on in verses 17, 20 and 26 to call such a faith "dead."

Think about that carefully for a moment. Three times James says that a faith which does not result in works is dead. What, then, is the real problem with a person who claims to have faith but lacks works? Is the problem really with the lack of works? If such a person is not saved, is it because he lacks works? No! The problem is with his faith! He is not saved because his faith is worthless, useless, dead! So James is not saying works precede salvation; he is saying salvation precedes works. We are not made right with God as a result of our works, we are shown to be right with God as a result of our works.


So we see that James is not saying we are saved by faith plus works, but that a genuine faith which saves results in works. And this is exactly what we read elsewhere from other authors. John writes:

3 By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. 4 The one who says, 'I have come to know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; 5 but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: 6 the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked. (1 John 2:3-6)

John's message is the same as that of James. One who claims to love Christ but does not keep His commandments has not truly come to know Him. But what does John say of those who do keep Christ's commandments? We have already come to know Him! So again, works demonstrate the genuineness of a professed faith. Indeed, what does Jesus say in John 14:15? "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments." Our obedience demonstrates that we already love Christ.

With this understanding, many passages, which might at first have seemed to teach that salvation is the result of faith plus obedience, now become perfectly compatible with salvation by faith alone. Hebrews 5:9 reads, "He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation." Acts 5:32 reads, "we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him." We know now from James and John that obedience demonstrates the genuineness of a professed faith, so of course Jesus is the source of eternal salvation to those who obey Him, and of course the Holy Spirit is given to those who obey Him: their obedience resulted from their genuine, saving faith.


In the previous entry in this series, we looked at Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 4, both of which teach that we are saved—justified in the sense of being forgiven of sin and declared righteous before God—by grace alone through faith, apart from works. And now we know James, rather than contradicting Paul, concurs, saying that the problem with one who lacks works is not the lack of works but the false professed faith. But it is not just in these passages that we see that salvation is by faith alone:

7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; 9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are." (Acts 15:7-11)

Using the same language Paul uses in Ephesians 2:8-9, Peter says the Gentiles in Acts 10 had their hearts cleansed by faith, having heard the gospel and believed.

14 so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith...22 But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.(Galatians 3:14,22-24)

The promise of the Holy Spirit is through faith, to those who believe; we are justified by faith.

13 In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation--having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise. Ephesians 1:13)

Again referring to the promised Holy Spirit, Paul says his audience received Him when they believed.

12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name. (John 1:12)

43 "Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins." (Acts 10:43)

21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction. (Romans 3:21-22)

As many as received Christ and believed in Him were made children of God, everyone who believes in Him is forgiven, and the righteousness of God is "for all those who believe." "As many as," "everyone" and "all those" are pretty all-inclusive. These are just some of the passages which stand alongside Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 4 in teaching that salvation is by faith alone, apart from works. The message of Scripture is uniform and clear: while a true, saving faith will by necessity result in works, it is the living, animate faith through which we are saved, apart from those works.


I said in part 1 that in this entry I would also respond to an argument made by my fellow blogger that faith is itself a work. However, because this post is already so long, I'm going to cover that point in part 3 of this series, and in part 4 I'll begin to look at that blogger's treatment of the Greek word rendered "baptism." Stay tuned...


  1. Very good explanation and exposition. I've never thought the counter-arguments to the traditional protestant understanding to have been convincing in the first place. But you definitely covered all the bases and showed that there is no good reason to think that works can justify us before God.

  2. Why is it so difficult to accept what God has said?

  3. We all agree that one is saved by grace through faith prior to any works, (works of the law or good works or works of obedience). The mistake you are making is defining salvation as an event or a moment in time, where as the Bible and the early church always defines it as a process.

    In the "lifetime" of the believer, can a genuine saving faith be present absent of good works. Obviously not, therefore works are obviously necessary.
    In the Gospels, the Epistles, and Revelation, every time final judgement is spoken of, it is on the basis of works, either good or evil, upon which all men are judged, not on their faith alone.

    According to Hebrews 8, Abraham demonstrated his faithfulness back in Gen 12, so by the time we get to Gen. 15 which is many years later, and he is declared righteous, it has obviously been a process not an event.

    And again, he demonstrates his faithfullness from Gen. 12 through Gen. 15, all this prior to his being circumcised(prior to works of the law) not prior to his obedience to God.

  4. Perhaps I could post this somewhere else, but these questions were never satisfactorily addressed.

    Not to put words in your mouth so correct me if I am wrong.

    It is my understanding that you have a reformed(calvinist) view of salvation.

    That one is "first" regenerated by the Holy Spirit and then one is able to respond
    to the Gospel and repent and be baptized.

    If that is true, then how can you possibly explain Acts 8, where the Samaritans
    hear the gospel, believe it, are baptized in water, are acknowledged to have
    accepted the word of God and then many days later they receive the HS.

    And again, in Acts 19:1, upon hearing they need to believe in Jesus, they are baptized in water first and then afterwards receive the HS.

    If someone does not have the indwelling of the HS and is still dead in their sins, still sowing to please the flesh, still totally depraved, how can they possibly repent and be baptized? You have a clear and distinct
    contradiction there, do you not?

    If I am willing to concede that Cornelius was saved prior to his baptism, than to be fair,
    why are you not willing to concede that the Samaritans and the disciples in Acts 19 were
    saved prior to being regenerated by the Holy Spirit.

    If the Bible does not contradict itself, and your view of regeneration preceding faith and baptism is also true, how does one reconcile these verses?

  5. The answer is easy and twofold. First, we don't know that in either case they were saved prior to their baptism in the Holy Spirit. Although the New Testament is clear that the spiritual gifts from the Holy Spirit post-Pentecost are only for saved Christians, it is also clear that outward expressions of faith are not always genuine. As such, we don't know for certain that in either case these people were saved prior to their baptism in the Holy Spirit.

    However, and secondly, I have no problem with the idea that they were saved prior to their baptism in the Holy Spirit. So, too, were Jesus' disciples (besides Judas) saved prior to their baptism in the Holy Spirit. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit began with Jews only in Acts 2, and was later expanded to include Samaritans once an Apostle was present to witness it. It was likewise expanded in Acts 10 to Gentile Godfearers, and then in Acts 19 to non-Godfearing Gentiles.

    There simply is no problem for Calvinism in these passages.

  6. Why would God inspire the writer of Acts to say, "the Samaritans believed Phillip as he preached the Kingdom of God and Jesus Christ" and also that Peter & John "heard that they had accepted the word of God" if their belief was not genuine? That seems absurd.

    If the Bible does not contradict itself, and your view of regeneration preceding faith and baptism is also true, how does Calvinism reconcile the Samaritans & the disciples of Acts 19 having faith and being baptized prior to being regenerated?

    You are being inconsistant to say God choosing to hold back the HS from the Samaritans presents no problem. That the disciples in Acts 19 being first baptized in water and then afterwards receiving the HS presents no problem.
    God just simply chose it to happen that way.

    Why then can I not take the case of Cornelius and make an exception like you just did and say God just chose to have it happen that way to get the Jewish Christians to accept Gentiles into the Kingdom. Exactly when they were baptized is irrelevant to that particular story.
    God just happened to do it this way this one time.

  7. Chris, a great summation of justification and faith.

    I meant to share this with you before, but here is an excellent resource of source materials from the "Restoration Movement". That's the tradition/denomination some of your readers and commenters, like Aaron, are coming from. The non-instrumental churches of Christ is an offshoot of that group. Pretty fascinating stuff.


  8. Calvinism is not contradicted by the story of the Samaritan believers, because as I explained in my previous comment, I believe the Apostles (with the exception of Judas) were regenerated and saved prior to their baptism in the Holy Spirit as well (assuming that's the case with the Samaritan believers). Thus, at least leading up to Acts 19, regeneration is not equal to baptism in the Holy Spirit. A work of the Holy Spirit was and is required to replace the unrepentant heart of stone with a penitent heart of flesh (regeneration) in order for faith to result. Following the expansion of the Kingdom to all Gentile believers in Acts 19, as is made clear from 1 Corinthians 12 the baptism in the Holy Spirit accompanies saving faith.

    As for Cornelius' baptism, what is absurd is the idea that they represent a "one time" exception to a rule. The Apostles were regenerated and saved and baptized in the Holy Spirit all without ever being baptized in Christ's name. Cornelius' household, too, experienced all that before being baptized. On the other hand, the Jews at Pentecost, the Samaritans in Acts 8 and the Gentile non-Godfearers in Acts 19 were indwelt after their baptisms. It's two to three; there simply is no rule there.

    As I have repeatedly explained, the difference between the way in which the Holy Spirit operated with the Jewish believers, the Samaritans, Cornelius' household and the Gentile disciples is easily understood when one sees how His work within these groups demonstrated to the Apostles the expanding Kingdom of God. First Jewish believers; then Samaritan believers; then Gentile Godfearing believers; finally all Gentile believers. Following that final cultural expansion, we see from 1 Corinthians 12 that all who are in Christ have the baptism in the Holy Spirit--which Cornelius' household had and thus were in Christ prior to their water baptism.

  9. Hey, Jonathan. Thanks so much for your compliment and link! I'll definitely check it out :)

    Incidentally, whereas Aaron and Steve are definitely taken in by the so-called Restorationist Movement, I believe Terry (tbolson) is an Eastern Orthodox, which comes with a whole set of different challenges.

  10. Chris said:
    "However, and secondly, I have no problem with the idea that they were saved prior to their baptism in the Holy Spirit. So, too, were Jesus' disciples (besides Judas) saved prior to their baptism in the Holy Spirit."

    So if those are exceptions, than why is not Cornelius an exception? You are trying to have it both ways just so that your view fits and others views do not fit.

  11. Incorrect. The baptism of the Holy Spirit began at Pentecost with only Jewish believers, and progressively expanded to Samaritan believers, Gentile god-fearing believers, and finally all Gentile believers. The Apostles and the Samaritans were regenerated and saved before their baptism in the Holy Spirit, but they were not exceptions. They were part of the unfolding expansion of the baptism in the Holy Spirit.

  12. But so what. OK, there was an unfolding expansion of people receiving the Holy Spirit.
    And?? How is that significant to anything?
    Way back in Acts 2:38 it was simply promised to those who believe and those who are far off and to their children.

    As to the Apostles, we really don't know if they were ever water baptized, it just doesn't say. They could have been baptized by Jesus when he spent the 40 days teaching them, but again we just don't know for sure.

    You also forget Acts 19:1. This happens years after this so called expansion is complete. These people were baptized first and received the HS after. How can that be? If baptism is only for those who have the indwelling of the HS already, then we now have another exception that you cannot explain.

  13. It's significant because they were not exceptions to a rule, nor was Cornelius' household. Baptism in the Holy Spirit began at Pentecost with Jewish believers, then later expanded to include Samaritan believers, then later expanded to include Gentile Godfearers, and finally expanded to included Gentile non-Godfearers. You're incorrect to say this happened years after the expansion is complete, because Cornelius' household were not ordinary Gentiles, they were Gentiles who already believed and practiced much of Judaism, unlike the disciples in Acts 19.

    The point is that there is no rule to which any of these groups were exceptions. Some were baptized and then received the Holy Spirit, others received the Holy Spirit and then were baptized, or were not baptized at all. What we do know, however, is that baptism in the Holy Spirit and the gifts that accompany it are very clearly for saved Christians, as per 1 Corinthians 12. And since Cornelius' household received the Holy Spirit before their baptism, they serve as proof against the heresy that we are not saved until we're baptized.

  14. I think we both agree that the holy spirit is for saved christians, that being the case though, there is no "particular" reason why the case of Cornelius could not simply be an exception, especially when you consider how extremely difficult it was to convince the Jews to accept Gentiles and to convince them that God is no respecter of persons.

    You said Cornelius was not an "ordinary Gentile", which has no significance. The Jews hated all Gentiles, period. Peter himself had alot of reservations even going to Cornelius' home.

    We don't really know what the disciples in Acts 19 were, it just doesn't say. Also, to say the expansion was not complete is just silly. Acts 19:1 occurs at least 6 months to a year past the conversion of the Jailer, Lydia, the Corinthians, Samaritans, Cornelius, many Greeks, people in Ephesus and Antioch, etc. etc.

    The Bible makes no distinctions like you do, it simply says the Gospel will go out first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles.

    Reformed theology teaches that water baptism is a sign only to be given to saved christians, so the case in Acts 19:1 goes contrary to your teaching.

    Why is it so hard for you to see that?

  15. The issue is not the hatred of Gentiles on the part of Jews. The issue is the unfolding expansion of the baptism in the Holy Spirit, which was not yet complete with Cornelius' household of Godfearing Gentiles.

    Acts 19 does not contradict Reformed doctrine in the slightest. The disciples place their faith in Jesus after Paul proclaims Him. They were saved by that faith, and then baptized. Very simple.

  16. How can one be saved, if they have not received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit?

  17. If you look back up at one of my earlier comments, I wrote, "I have no problem with the idea that they were saved prior to their baptism in the Holy Spirit. So, too, were Jesus' disciples (besides Judas) saved prior to their baptism in the Holy Spirit." And I went on to demonstrate the unfolding expansion of the Holy Spirit's indwelling, which was completed when non-Godfearing Gentiles were given Him in Acts 19.

  18. First of all, the disciples in Acts 19 obviously ARE God-fearers if they followed the teachings of John the Baptist, so on that point you are mistaken. It is even possible they were Jews, it doesn't say the weren't.

    I think I would partly agree on your other comments. With the entire Bible you have an unfolding expansion of God's grace. Much of the OT foreshadows things which are to come, i.e. the Messiah. When John the Baptist comes, you have a transitional stage, he is preparing the way for the Messiah. Then you have Jesus' 3 yrs. of ministry. The Messiah is here but the Gospel is not yet fulfilled. Then Pentecost comes and the Full Gospel message, the good news of the death, burial, ressurrection of Jesus is proclaimed. First to the Jews, then to the Gentiles. The HS comes, to some in miraculous ways, to some not so miraculous. In some ways you could say this unfolding expansion of the HS is a transitional stage.
    But then this is where you miss the mark. On the one hand you have "no problem" with conversion(salvation) prior to the HS but then on the other hand you have "no problem" with conversion prior to water baptism, but yet at the same time you claim having the HS is the point in time someone is saved.

    What you still miss with the story of Cornelius is that the whole point is that God is opening up the Kingdom to Gentiles. The point of the story is not "how" they were saved, it is "that" they were saved. The precise moment in time they received the HS is not relevant, it is not the point God is trying to make. You just use other verses to assume that.

    What you need to do is step back, look at the baptism of Jesus, look at the Great Commission, look at every conversion story in Acts and see that water baptism is always immediate and always present in every story. Then you have to ask the question, Why was there so much emphasis placed on baptism if it is only just a "mere" symbol?

    And if it is just a symbol, why is it never referred to as such either in the Bible or in the historical record?

    These are questions reformed theology has no answer for.

    Using the Bible Alone, what is the purpose and function and meaning of water baptism?
    There just is no answer........