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Salvation, Faith, and Works

Below are several e-mails from the same person, along with my replies. The e-mailer's comments are in black and enclosed in "greater than" and "lesser than" signs. My comments are in red.

Exchange #1

>Your publication is very interesting.<

Thank you.

>Why did you decide on Christianity (vs., say, Judaism)?<

This is a rather "general" question as your subject heading indicates. A lot of factors came into play. I discuss some of these in articles on various places on my site. In a nutshell, I came to believe the Christian faith was the only belief system that was historically and logically sound and that could be lived with consistently on a day-by-day basis.

If you have the time, you could start by browsing the articles on the following page on my site. Along with the basics of the teachings of the Christian faith, they present the more general arguments in its favor: General Theology and Apologetics.

You could the check out some of the other subjects that might be of interest. If you have any specific questions on anything that I have written, please feel free to write again.

As regards Judaism, since you mention it specifically, IMO, it is not wrong but incomplete. It is incomplete in that the OT types, prophecies, and sacrifices, I do believe, were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Moreover, without a temple to offer sacrifices in, the Judaism of today is considerably different from what God prescribed in the OT.

>Did the reward/punishment play a role?<

Yes, as part of the overall worldview. To me, only the Christian faith presents the possibility of assurance of forgiveness and salvation. Since other belief systems present a salvation by works, or grace plus works, one can never know if he has done enough. But in the Christian faith, my eternal destiny is based on what Christ has done for me, not what I try to do for myself.

>No offense is intended by this question.<

None taken.

Exchange #2

>Dear Gary, Thank you for your reply. I look forward to reading your materials. But, if I may, I would like to respond to some of the comments you made in your reply.

1) Re salvation: Why is it something to be desired?<

To be in uninterrupted fellowship with God. This is the Christian's focus. What I have today I know will only pale in comparison to what it will be like in heaven.

>For example, to me, living in heaven while knowing my loved ones are in hell would be worse than any physical hell I could imagine.<

Again, my focus is on God, not on being with loved ones. If they are there great; but I am not looking forward to heaven for some kind of "family reunion" as is often the (misguided) focus.

Moreover, I would have to say, this is where Jesus' statement about loving God more than one's relatives comes in (Matt 10:37).

>2) Re salvation by faith alone: But this contradicts at least James (2:14-26).<

Much has been written about this passage. James's point is, that a true saving faith is one that leads to good works.

Verse 2:14 states, "What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (NASB)."

I quote this from the NASB as it correctly renders the last phrase. Note the "that" - this word is a translation of an article of previous reference.

In other words, James is saying that the kind of faith that does not lead to good works is not a saving faith. And I would agree. A true saving faith changes a person so that he will do good works (2Cor 5:17).

The same reasoning would apply to the other passages you cite (I don't have time to go over each one). Good works save only in the sense that they are signs of a previous, genuine saving faith.

Or as Luther put it, "Faith alone saves; but the faith that saves is not alone."

>I know that you could cite many passages that say or imply faith alone is enough. I'm just saying there's no way to reconcile this and know which way is right.<

To me, the above rather quick reasoning "reconciles" them just fine. If I had more time I could do a more complete job. But, of course, you will have to decide for yourself. All I can say is, a good Study Bible, commentary, or other study aids would discuss these passages in more depth.

See the following page on my site for a list of some: Bible Study Aids.

I hope the above is helpful.

Exchange #3

Before I get to your letter, let me first apologize for not giving more detailed relies to your previous letters. If I had, I may have already dealt with your comments below. However, I am just one person of very poor health and I simply do not have the time or energy to reply in detail to everyone who writes me. But I do try to provide al least short reply to everyone who contacts me.

However, as is often the case, a short reply does not suffice. So I try to provide more detailed answers as need be. That said, since your concerns seem so important to you, I will try to provide more detailed answer this time.

>Dear Gary, Some initial observations on your reply:

Re the salvation issue:

If the choice is that I should want to be in uninterrupted "fellowship" forever with an unknown entity in an unknown place, while knowing he's torturing my children forever in another place -- that idea is completely repugnant, to say the least.

So I repeat the question -- why would I ever want that?<

Since I am not a father, I can not be sure exactly what my feelings would in regards to my children and their relationship to God. But I will try express how I think would act if I did have children.

First and foremost, I would do my best to lead them into giving a profession of faith in Christ; through explaining to them as best as I could what I believe and why I believe it, living a Christian life as best as I could before them, and praying for them daily.

If they were to become Christian I would, of course, rejoice in it. However, if one of them were to die before doing so, then I would leave them in the hands of God. I know God to be righteous, just, merciful, and love. He is also omniscient and sovereign. As such, I know that whatever He were to do would be right and just.

Now, how would I feel if I were to die and find out that one of my children were damned? I can only speculate. But I do know that God is the righteous Sovereign of the universe. Thus, if one of my children were to be damned, I would not that it would have been just for them to have been so.

Moreover, God has promised that He would "wipe away every tear" of those who are in heaven. So if I should find myself in heaven and one of my loved ones in hell, I do not believe that I would be agonizing over it. I say this as I know that the promises of God are trustworthy because He is trustworthy.

The main point, is that, to me, God is not "an unknown entity." I know who He is from what He has revealed about Himself in His Word. I believe a study of the nature of God should come before discussions on the afterlife in studying the Christian faith, or any religious viewpoint for that matter.

To discuss salvation and damnation before discussing the nature of God is, to me, to get thing out of order. For example, one would not understand the "righteousness" of damnation nor the grace involved in salvation without first understanding the holiness of God. Then an understand of our sinfulness; then would come salvation and damnation.

The order I which subjects are listed the Subject Index for my site, is the logical order in which I believe the Christian faith should be studied. This is especially the case with the subjects listed under "Essentials of the Faith." If you truly want to understand what the Christian faith teaches, I will simply encourage you to browse through the articles listed on theses subject pages in the order in which they are listed.

Now, I do not expect you to read every article! But please understand, I simply cannot explain the whole Christian worldview via e-mail. At the very least, try reading some of the articles on the nature of God. As I said, an understudying of what a worldview teaches about God is essential to understand what it teaches on other subjects.

BTW, the order that the subjects are listed on the Subject Index is basically the order you would find in most systematic theory books on the Christian faith. Systematic theology books can be written on the Christian faith because the Christian faith is logical whole. One subject can logically flow into another. And, as I have said before, this consistency of the Christian faith is one of the main reasons why I believe it is true.

Now for your last point here, I know that what I "want" is not going to change what is. So if the God of the Bible exists, then what I want is frankly irrelevant. God is not going to acquiesce to my desires; I need to submit my desires to Him. This is not easy, especially given the many struggles I have in my life, health and otherwise. But I have learned that by submitting to Him, I do find that "fellowship" with Him is truly worthwhile.

You might be interested in the article on my site where I discuss my struggles in this regard. See Value of an Intellectual Faith.

>Re salvation by faith alone:

You say much has been written about this issue. Yes. Thousands of articles and books and debates across two thousand years trying to resolve this. What does this say about God's ability to communicate?<

I have numerous commentaries and study Bibles, both in hardcopy format and on my Online Bible CD ROM. These reference works date from the 1500’s to the present. I glanced through many of them in regards to their comments on James 2:14-26. What I saw was a very strong consistency in their comments.

Now, as Peter even says, there are some things in the Bible that are hard to understand (see 2Peter 3:16). But apparently, these commentators, spanning five centuries, have no difficulties with this particular passage.

>Re your quote from the NAS: The AV, the Douay-Rheims, the NRSV, etc. do not include "that." I know you'll have texts and manuscripts to support your position, but so do they.<

First, by way of clarification, this is not a textual question, it is one of translation. In other words, there is no textual variant in this passage. The Greek manuscripts are uniform in including the definite article before pistis (faith). I say this, as I have three diffident Greek texts with textual apparatus. In none of them is there any indication that the definitive article is missing in any manuscripts.

The only question then is whether the article is translated or not. Why some versions choose not translate it, I do not know. But it should be. To my disheartenment, my four favorite Bible versions do not use it, e.g. the KJV, NKJV, MKJV, and LITV. But it does appear in many other versions I checked.

But I will say this, any worthwhile commentator, preacher, or Bible teacher will base his teachings on the Greek text, not on a translation. And in most of the reference works I checked the use of the article was specifically mentioned, and the important thereof. Even in the ones that did not specifically mention the article, the comments were such that they reflected its existence.

And this is what a quality commentary or study Bible should do, point out to the non-Greek reader aspects of the text that might be missed in a translation (along with providing more technical details for those of us who know Greek).

For instance, the commentary I used in my Intermediate Greek class at seminary was D. Edmond Hiebert’s The Epistle of James. In the class, we did an in-depth study of the Greek text of the book of James. Maybe that is why I do not have any problems with this passage.

In any case, Hiebert writes:
The definite article with "faith" (he pistis), "the faith," which was unfortunately omitted in the King James rendering, makes it clear that James is not disparaging the power of a living faith to save…. The definitive article, which here may be given either a possessive force ("his faith") or a demonstrative force (‘that faith" or "such faith"), is the article of previous reference and looks back to the inoperative faith pictured in the first question (p.177).

Kennth S. Wuest, in his Expanded Translation brings out the import of the article in his rendering of James 2:14: "What profit is there, my brethren, if a person is saying, I am in possession of faith, and he is not in possession of works? The aforementioned faith [namely, that faith which does not result in good works] is not able to save him, is it?"

Now, as regards your early statements about James "contradicting" Paul, each of the commentaries deal with this supposed problem. Now, I cannot repeat everything they say on very verse in this passage. But I will quote from two different reference works from there comments on one verse. But first, I want to give a definition of what a "contradiction is."

Gordon Lewis, my philosophy of religion professor at seminary, would define the law of Law of Non-Contradiction as, "You cannot affirm and deny the same thing, at the same time, and in the same respect."

I will look at two comments on verse 21: "Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?"

Now the apparent contradiction would be with Paul’s statement in Rom 4:2-3, "For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ’Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’"

So James appears to be saying Abraham was justified by works; but Paul that he was justified by faith.

First, to quote from the comments on this verse in the New Geneva Study Bible:
Note that James appeals to Gen 22, while Paul appeals to Gen 15. In the sight of God Abraham is justified in Gen 15, long before he offers Isaac on the altar. God knew Abraham’s faith to be genuine. Abraham was justified to us, to human eyes, in Gen 22 when he showed his faith through his obedience…. Here ‘justify’ does not mean to be reconciled to God but to demonstrate the truth of a prior claim (p.1961).

The above study Bible was published in 1995. So to show the consistency of interpretation here, I will next quote from John Calvin’s commentary on this verse (which was written over 400 years before the above).

Calvin writes:
Doubtless James did not mean to teach us here the ground of which our hope of salvation ought to rest; and it is this alone that Paul dwells upon.

That we may not then fall into that false reasoning which has deceived the Sophists, we must take notice of the two-fold meaning of the word justified. Paul means by it the gratuitous imputation of righteousness before the tribunal of God; and James, the manifestation of the righteousness by the conduct, and that before men, as we gather from the words, "Shew to me thy faith."

Now, back to my Law of Non-Contradiction, Paul refers to an event that transpired in Abraham’s life as recorded in Geneses 15; James to an event in Genesis 22. These two events are separated by about 30 years. So the "time" is different.

Moreover, Paul is talking about justification before God; James, justification before men. So justification is being used in two different "respects." So if the time and respect are different, there cannot be a contradiction.

Lastly, Fritz Rienecker’s comment on verse 24 pretty much up the tenor of the whole passage, "The contrast is between faith minus works, and works minus faith—not between faith and works" (Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, p.731).

>And in any case, you state that "a true saving faith is one that leads to good works." So can I assume you agree that in order to know that you are saved you must observe that you are producing good works? The problem here is that there is no complete definition of what "good works" are. And there is no way to know how much to do. So you never know if you're saved. Thus you must have faith in your faith. So we're back at square one.<

As the quotes above indicate, James is discussing justification before men. In other words, how will someone else know if I am right with God? If I say so? That is not enough. They will watch to see how I will act. But as Calvin said, "James did not mean to teach us here the ground of which our hope of salvation ought to rest."

My own personal assurance of salvation rests on what God did for me. This is not "faith in my faith" but faith in God. And this takes me back to my earlier comments about trusting God and His promises.

For more in this regards, see the following page on my site: Questions on Calvinism and Salvation.

>By the way, I am studying commentaries by world-renowned experts on the epistle of James, such as Dibelius, Laws, Davids, Stulac and Tasker. I haven't found a solution yet.


I am glad to hear you’re "digging" into the Bible in an effort to understand it. Though, I must say, I have never heard of any of these "experts." Of course, I am not familiar with all the commentators out there. It could also be that they are Catholic or liberal Protestant writers. In which case, I can understand your confusion. I long since have rejected the Catholic viewpoint of the Christian faith and the "liberal" attitude towards the Bible.

A discussion of Catholicism or liberal Protestantism would be way beyond this discussion. Suffice it to say, most of the reference works I generally use would best be described as conservative Protestant.

I will say this, whatever viewpoint a commentary is coming from, if it does not bring out the import of the definitive article in 2:14, then it is not very worthwhile. I say this because if you have been reading quality commentaries then you should have known that the article appears in the Greek text without any indication of a textual variant. As I said, the commentaries I checked mentioned the use of the article, or at least the import of it, as the quote from Hiebert above indicates.

Below are some of the better of the hardcopy reference works I checked, in order of increasing difficulty:
The New Geneva Study Bible. ed. R.C. Sproul (Thomas Nelson, 1995).
Jamieson, Fauset, and Brown. Commentary on the Whole Bible (Zondervan, reprinted, 1961).
John Calvin. Calvin’s Commentaries. Vol. 22 (Baker, reprinted, 1979).
Donald W. Burick. James in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 12, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Zondervan, 1981).
D. Edmond Hiebert. The Epistle of James (Moody Press, 1979).
Fritz Rienecker and Cleon Rogers. Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament (Zondervan, 1980).

Then on my Online Bible are many good reference works including:
1599 Geneva Bible footnotes.
Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary.
Robertson’s Word Pictures in the NT (I also have the hardcopy version of this set).
John Gill’s Expositor.

For additional Bible study aids that I think are worthwhile, see the page on my site which I previously referred you to: Bible Study Aids.

The above reference works, along with the rather inexpensive but information packed Online Bible should be available at reduced prices from the first three book companies listed on the following page on my site: Christian Books and Software Sites.

That is about all I can say, short of giving a verse-by-verse commentary of the book of James. But since the above works do such a good job of that I will simply refer you to them.

Exchange #4

>Dear Gary: Re your comment on the salvation/afterlife issue, "...I know whatever He would do would be right and just."

I guess my feelings for my loved ones are too strong for me to shrug off their loss and torture. And the "no tears in heaven" response just makes it even worse. It signifies that my loved ones will not even be thought of, or otherwise cared about by me.<

In my previous comments, I am not "shrugging off their loss and torture" but recognizing that justice would be served if they are punished for their sins. Just as I would recognize that it would be justice if a loved one of mine were to murder someone and be imprisoned and/ or executed or it.

What my "thoughts" would be of my loved ones in the after life I cannot say for sure. But I do believe, as I have already said, that a sense of the justice of God would overcome any "hurt" I would feel if one of them were to be damned.

Moreover, the following Scripture references come to mind:
Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You (Ps 73:25).

I am the LORD, that is My name; and My glory I will not give to another, nor My praise to graven images (Isa 42:8).

Jesus said to him," 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' "This is the first and great commandment (Matt 22:37-38).

"He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me (Matt 10:37).

In other words, what I believe you are doing is taking the very legitimate love for your family and elevating it above God. Yet God requires that we love and give greater allegiance to Him than to anything else. So you have made your family an "idol" taking the place of God.

Now, I know what you are going to say, "How can I love a God who is going to torture my family?" But in reply I will simply refer you to my comments about God's justice below. Moreover, if the God of the Bible does exist, He deserves our allegiance and love. And notice that to love Him is the greatest commandment. So it logically follows that not to love Him is the greatest sin.

>And to punish someone infinitely for doing, relatively speaking (finite "sins" at the most), nothing wrong is the absolute height of injustice in the human sense of the term. If you say God's justice is different (i.e., infinite torture for finite beings who don't believe) then the best definition for God's "justice" would be to simply look up the human term for "injustice" and you'd come close. (and similarly re "love"/hate, etc.) In human terms this is a monster. And I just can't bring myself to worship a monster.<

If I were to kill my neighbor’s gold fish, what would happen to me? Maybe he might hit me and throw me out of his house. But that would probably be the end of it. If he took me to court, I might receive a few dollars fine, but that would be about it.

If I were to kill my neighbor’s dog, then I would probably be in much bigger trouble. He would be much more likely to want to slug me. He also would be more to take me to court. And if he did, I would probably receive a much stiffer fine, and maybe even a few days in jail.

If I were to kill my neighbor himself, now I would really be in trouble. The state would come after me. Once convicted, I would probably spend the rest of my life in prison, either through a life sentence or capital punishment.

Why the difference in the punishments in each of these three cases? In each, I killed another living being. But the punishments differs because the "worth" of the one I committed the crime against differs. In our society, a dog is viewed as having greater worth than a gold fish; and a human being is viewed as having much greater worth than a dog.

In the latter case, I must pay with my life because only the forfeiting of my life is sufficient justice to pay for the taking of another human’s life (whether I spend my entire life in prison or am executed doesn’t matter; either way the reasoning is the same).

So it is the amount of "worth" possessed by the one offended that determines the degree of the seriousness of the crime and resultant penalty, not necessarily the act itself.

Now, to apply this to God, He is of infinite worth. So any "crime" committed against Him would necessitate an infinite punishment. Again it is the worth of the one sinned against that determines the degree of the seriousness of the act. Moreover, since I am finite, there is no way I can "pay" for my sin. Just the forfeiting of my finite life would not be sufficient to pay for an infinite crime.

So for God to execute an eternal punishment on me for my sins would not make Him a "monster" nor is it "injustice." It would be perfect justice. Eternal punishment fits a sin committed against an infinite Being. So I know that I deserve damnation.

But, God out of His pure grace and love, came and died for my sins. Jesus Christ, being God in the flesh, took my sins upon Himself. And since Jesus was and is God in the flesh, His sacrifice was infinite. So it was able to pay the infinite penalty due for my sins.

Now, God did not have to die for me; He would have been completely just if He had damned me as I deserved. But because of His grace and love He saved me. So those who are damned receive justice; those who are saved receive mercy; no one receives injustice.

So, to me, God is not a "monster" but the One who loved me enough to pay the infinite sacrifice for me, that I could not have paid myself.

>On second thought I (and my loved ones) might end up worshipping this monster --- if we were rationally persuaded that it did exist and really was threatening to torture us. I might even be able to substitute the term "monster" with "God" --- although in the back of my mind I would probably always be aware of the real nature of this entity --- in human terms, of course...<

I relate the following on my testimony page:

"After about three years I became convinced the Christian faith was the only one that was logically and historically sound. But if the Christian faith was true, that meant I was a sinner, condemned before God, in need of a Savior. After much struggle over this admission, in the winter of 1986, God brought me to my knees as I repented of my sins and placed my faith in Christ."

So yes, the wrath of God was instrumental in my conversion; but so was His mercy. In fact one of the things that convinced me that the Christian faith was true was the "balance" in it between God’s wrath and His love, between God’s justice and His mercy.

By comparison, before I became a Christian I read the Koran. The main impression of it got was an emphasis on the wrath of God. There were statements in it to the effect that "God is merciful" but they seemed overwhelmed by the descriptions of Allah’s wrath.

But in the Christian faith, yes, the Bible says that "God is a consuming fire" - but it also says that "God is love." Moreover, unlike Allah who just SAYS he is merciful, the God of the Bible DEMONSTRATED His love by His sacrifice in becoming incarnate and dying for our sins (Rom 5:8).

Thus, in the death of Christ both God’s justice and His love is displayed (Rom 3:25,26; 1John 4:10). So for me, the "real nature" of God is One who is just and merciful; One who is wrath and love. These attributes are kept in perfect balance by the death of Christ.

So today, "in back of my mind" is a remembrance of the incredible mercy and grace God showed me in saving me. And when I think of about it more directly, like as when I am writing this, it makes me want to fall on my knees in thanksgiving to Him for His grace, mercy, and love toward me.

Lastly, all of the above would apply to my "loved ones" - just put it in the third person.

>It reminds me of the Twilight Zone story of the evil little boy who always had to be told (and thought of) that he was good, or he would destroy those who said or thought otherwise. In fact I remember a reviewer saying it had Christian implications. When I initially read that, that was the only comment I didn't understand. I think I finally do, now.<

I am not familiar with this episode of the Twilight Zone, so I cannot comment.

>And I've been fully aware of the doctrine of Original Sin for many years now. It's never made any sense to me (not even if you take the book of Genesis literally, figuratively, or what have you), so there really is no need to discuss it. But I will, if you like.<

I do not have an article specifically on Original Sin; but I do address it in the following page on my site: Questions on Calvinism and Salvation.

>So I presume we're at an impasse here.

I will comment on the remaining issues in future correspondence. Again, thank you for your prompt responses. And if you think any of my comments are directed at you personally, please let me know -- that's not my intent.


It does seem that we are at an impasse. As such, I don’t know if any further correspondence would be fruitful for either of us. I have outline what I believe in detail on my site. If you read my articles you will probably basically know what my responses would be. Now if you have any specific questions on anything I have written, I will try to answer them. But, as I have said, my time and energy is very limited. So if I am not able to reply, please do not be offended.

To close, I will simply point you to the article Good Works on my site. It addresses some of the topics we have been discussing. It was not written by me; but expresses my sentiments on the subject very well.


>Subject: *Salvation, Faith, and Works E-mail Exchange March 98

>Dear Garry,<

Only one "r" please : )

>I've just read your email exchange you had with a guy who couldn't see how he could know God, or want to know God, if his family were not in Heaven with him but were in Hell. Gary I think the simplest answer would be The Story of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke. The rich man did not want to see his brothers in Hades. This is an extremely emotional scripture when you consider the agonies of his suffering and also his feelings for his brothers. I'm sure if his soul could, he is crying now.<

Interesting point.

>I don't know if I'll ever make it to Heaven so I can relate to his misery.<

Why don't you know? Have you truly repented of your sins and trusted in Jesus Christ and Him only for your salvation. If you have, then you can have assurance of your salvation. That is what Romans 8 is all about.

> But also to be living with the fact your family might not make it to Heaven while living on this earth can be agonizing as well.<

That is a difficult one. Thank God, most of my close family members are saved.

> Garry, don't worry about your life... lest you become enslaved by mammon...but seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you. I know you're in pain. I know it has to be hard. Please stay focused on the Lord, you have been a vessel of blessing to many with you website. May God bless you.


Thank you for the encouraging words.

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The above e-mail exchanges were posted on this Web site during March 1998.
The follow-up was added December 23, 2001.

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