Monday, May 29, 2006

James, Paul, and Doug Wilson 

In response to some comments in a previous post, I thought I would demonstrate some of what I am saying about the Federal Vision / Auburn Avenue proponents by looking just at one post by Douglas Wilson on his blog:

What are we to do with James' apparent contradiction of Paul? In James 2:14-26 the writer is apparently in direct conflict with Paul. According to Paul, justification is by faith alone and not by the works of the law-see for example, Gal. 2:14-21; according to James, a man is justified by works and not only by faith (James 2:24). Upon closer examination, however, the contradiction is seen to be one of form and not of substance; and like other apparent contradictions in the Bible it serves only to reveal the Scripture combination of rich variety with perfect unity.

So what is meant by faith? According to James faith without works is dead; according to Paul faith is all sufficient for salvation. But what does James mean by faith? The answer is perfectly plain. The faith which James is condemning is a mere intellectual assent which has no effect upon conduct. The demons also, he says, have that sort of faith, and yet evidently they are not saved (James 2:19). What Paul means by faith is something entirely different; it is not a mere intellectual assent to certain propositions, but an attitude of the entire man by which the whole life is entrusted to Christ. In other words, the faith that James is condemning is not the faith that Paul is commending.

The solution of the whole problem is provided by Paul himself in a single phrase. In Gal. 5:6, he says, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith working through love." "Faith working through love" is the key to an understanding both of Paul and James. The faith about which Paul has been speaking is not the idle faith which James condemns, but a faith that works. It works itself out through love. And what love is Paul explains in the whole last division of Galatians. It is no mere emotion, but the actual fulfilling of the whole moral law. "For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Gal. 5:14). Paul is fully as severe as James against a faith that permits men to continue in sin. The faith about which he is speaking is a faith that receives the Spirit who gives men power to lead a holy life.

And so what is meant by works? Moreover, as the faith which James condemns is different from the faith which Paul commends, so also the works which James commends are different from the works which Paul condemns. Paul is speaking about "works of the law"-that is, works which are intended to earn salvation by fulfilling the law through human effort. James says nothing in chapter 2:14-26 about works of the law. The works of which he is speaking are works that spring from faith and are the expression of faith. Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice only because he believed God. His works are merely an evidence that his faith was real. Such works as that are insisted upon by Paul in every epistle. Without them no man can inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:21). Only-and here again James would have been perfectly agreed-such works as that can spring only from faith. They can be accomplished not by human effort, but only by the reception of the power of God.

Wilson is asserting here that the way to reconcile the seemingly disparate statements of James and Paul is to recognize that James and Paul are using certain words differently than each other. Fair enough. That's what everyone has said. But the difference is in the words that he thinks are being used differently. The commonly Reformed understanding is to assert that the two authors are using the word “justification” or “justified” differently. But Wilson asserts that it is in fact the word “faith” that they are using differently.

James, says Wilson, is using the word “faith” to indicate mere intellectual assent. He is condemning a mere intellectual assent which produces no works. Therefore, when James says that a man is justified by faith and works, that he is using the word “justified” in the same manner as Paul. The conclusion, then, is that James is teaching that our status with God is seen as righteous because of our faith and our works. This is a straightforward denial of sola fide, of salvation by grace alone.

Paul, on the other hand, is using faith to assume the presence of works, according to Wilson. And then not only are James and Paul using the term “faith” in a different sense, but “works” as well. “Works” according to Paul then, is referring not to general good acts, but specifically to good works that are done seeking to earn merit with God. Paul, therefore is claiming (according to Wilson), just like James, that we are justified by faith including our moral character and good behavior, just not by works done for a particular motive. Our works can therefore be part of our justification (in the Pauline sense of how we achieve a status of righteous with God) as long as those works are done for good motives. Again, a straightforward denial of the Reformational teaching of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. He has made our works, our behavior, a part of the grounds for our justification. This is not, admittedly, something Wilson states directly, but when he says that the faith of James is "mere intellectual assent" to the Gospel and that works are the good deeds and life that follow, then it follows from the statements of James that we achieve righteousness before God by intellectual assent plus good behavior.

Compare this with Calvin, from his commentary on James 2:20-26:
The Sophists lay hold on the word justified, and then they cry out as being victorious, that justification is partly by works. But we ought to seek out a right interpretation according to the general drift of the whole passage. We have already said that James does not speak here of the cause of justification, or of the manner how men obtain righteousness, and this is plain to every one; but that his object was only to shew that good works are always connected with faith; and, therefore, since he declares that Abraham was justified by works, he is speaking of the proof he gave of his justification.

When, therefore, the Sophists set up James against Paul, they go astray through the ambiguous meaning of a term. When Paul says that we are justified by faith, he means no other thing than that by faith we are counted righteous before God. But James has quite another thing in view, even to shew that he who professes that he has faith, must prove the reality of his faith by his works. Doubtless James did not mean to teach us here the ground on 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 righteousness by the conduct, and that before men, as we may gather from the preceding words, "Shew to me thy faith," etc. In this sense we fully allow that man is justified by works, as when any one says that a man is enriched by the purchase of a large and valuable chest, because his riches, before hid, shut up in a chest, were thus made known.

According to Calvin, it is the word “justified” that these two authors are using differently- Paul referring to the grounds of our status with God, and James to the way that our status with God is demonstrated, both of which are common uses of the word. Paul then is the one of these two talking about how this righteous status with God is achieved- that is, only by faith and not by anything of ourselves. James, on the other hand, is talking about how we show and prove that faith. Wilson, by saying that Paul and James are talking about justification in the same sense, has imported the works of the law into faith, changed the nature of faith and denied the gospel. Perhaps he is unaware that he is doing this, but he has yet to issue any retractions that I am aware of.

As far as intellectual assent goes- Paul said to the Philippian jailer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved.” This is intellectual assent and there is no “mere” about it. An intellectual assent to the truth of the Gospel is exactly what is required for salvation and it is all that is required. Any intellectual assent which is honest and not a lie will produce action- if I assent to the proposition that a train is coming, I'm going to get off the tracks. But these actions or behaviors can in no way be regarded as the grounds of our salvation. If they are, then the doctrine of justification by faith alone is destroyed.

Contra Wilson, James never says that the devils have an intellectual assent to the propositions of the gospel. He says merely that they believe in God and are afraid of him. Many have this belief. The Muslims have it. Does that mean that all the Muslims need to do is add some good works to their belief in God and then they'll be fine? Intellectual assent which is honestly believed will produce action. If I honestly assent to the Gospel, then it will produce results in my life. It will change the way I act. If it doesn't, it's because I either believe the wrong things, or I am lying about my belief. And this is just what James says- faith without works is dead. Not that I have to add works to my faith for it to be satisfactory to God, but that a faith which produces no action is just a lie, and I cannot be saved by a lie. But "faith" just means "belief". This idea that mere assent is not enough is the same as saying that mere "belief" is not enough. And yes, I know that many fine orthodox men use this language. But essentially, what it's arguing for is that I must add something- emotional intensity, behavior, or something else, to mere "belief". If there is a difference between "belief" and "assent", I would like very much to know what it is. "Faith" just means "belief".

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


My Sunday sermon is posted on sermonaudio.com. I would appreciate it if anyone who listens to those sermons might tell me how the sermonaudio service compares to the way I used to do it, on the church web page. Thanks!

The link to our page on sermonaudio.com is providencercus.sermonaudio.com.


We're webcasting again. If you'd like the notes, email me and let me know. We're also going to try Instant Messenger again, on a different machine, so you can send instant messages to mattpowell74@hotmail.com if you want. We're continuing in Revelation 2.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Back from Synod 

I'm back from the RCUS Synod meeting of last week. Actually, I got back on Friday, but I've been pretty wiped out between recovering from that and getting ready for Sunday worship. So today's the first time I feel like I'm starting to get back into the routine.

It was a really good meeting. I felt a spirit of unity and brotherhood in a way I haven't before. Not that I never felt it before, but there have been some pretty fractious debates in the past that really tested the bonds of brotherhood. And there really wasn't much contention at this meeting at all.

For those of you who don't know, a synod is a broader judicatory in the Reformed church. We have the consistory, which is the local governing body, the local elders, deacons and pastors of a particular church; the classis, which is a regional governing body and which oversees churches and pastors; and the synod, which is made up of a group of classes (classis plural). It is a higher court of appeals and the body which has original jurisdiction in matters which affect the whole church- foreign missions, denominational positions, etc.

We had a committee erected to study the Federal Vision, and they presented their paper at this last meeting. The paper ended up being recommitted to the committee for further work, a vote that as I recall was about 2/3 in favor of recommitting and 1/3 against. There were some that were worried we might be sending the wrong message, that we weren't decided where we stand on the FV, so I thought I'd tell you what my understanding of the vote was, for the benefit of posterity and all that.

There was about a third of the body (about 85 delegates, elders and pastors) that felt the paper was strong enough, that it made the case sufficiently well. Another third of the body did not feel it was strong enough- felt it needed some additional scholarship to really make the case. They felt the conclusions were good but the paper did not sufficiently support the conclusions. Finally, there was about a third that I felt thought the paper was OK, but really wanted unanimity on it, and so voted to recommit. This was my interpretation, and the proportions might be off some, but I think these were the basic three positions represented in debate.

We have done two previous papers on other issues, on the New Perspectives On Paul of N.T. Wright, and on Norman Shepherd, both of whose teachings are closely related in many ways to the Federal Vision. Both of the votes on those papers were unanimous, and many people really wanted to have a unanimous vote on this too. There was simply not a word spoken in favor of the teachings of the Federal Vision, which was very encouraging to me. Given the mood of the body, a person with such sympathies might have been afraid to voice them. But I'm fine with that. Anyone who had such sympathies needs to feel that their beliefs are unwelcome in the RCUS, and in fact in any orthodox denomination, and be lovingly rebuked to turn back to orthodoxy.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Sermon Audio sermons 

I have uploaded my most recent two sermons from the Gospel of John. These last three cover the prologue of John.

I am trying out SermonAudio.Com. That's where these last two are posted, and the first one on John as well. You can go here- providencercus.sermonaudio.com to hear them. If you go there, let me know what you think of that as opposed to the system we were using before at providencercus.com.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


We will webcast tonight's Bible study. If anyone would like to receive the notes ahead of time, just email me and I'll send them to you. It will be at 7:15. Go to providencercus.sermonaudio.com and wait for the webcast button to the right of our name to say "live" and then click on it- then you select low or high bandwidth and pick a server- that should be it.

UPDATE: We will not be able to do IM during the webcast- that apparently caused us some performance problems last time.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

I Think It Might Be Time for a Third Party 

I'm really really sick of the Republicans. I remember an old poli sci joke- "If the Democrats proposed a bill to burn down the capitol, the Republicans would offer a counterproposal to phase it in over three years."

We've had both the White House and Capitol Hill for six years and what do we have to show for it? Domestically, almost nothing. The biggest thing is the tax cut, which is likely to be undone soon because of the out-of-control spending. Otherwise, the best argument you could make would be, "Think how bad it would be if the Republicans weren't in power". But I can think how bad it would be- 1994-2000, when power was split. Internationally it was a disater, but domestically, I really can't say it was any worse. A Republican congress that acted a lot more like Republicans because there was a Democrat to fight in office, restrained the worst of Clinton's liberal tendencies, kept him ineffective by impeaching him, and in general just got out of the way of one of the best economies we ever had. We still have a good economy, but it seems largely in spite of anything the Republicans have really done.

Yes, the tax cut. I like the tax cut. But what's it going to do to us if we lose the tax cut over pressure about our deficit?

They're just thieves and con-men, the lot of them. There's the occasional guy like Tom Coburn who apparently thinks that being a congressman doesn't mean unfettered access to the treasury of the country. But did you hear about this railroad in Mississippi? Trent Lott attached a $700 million amendment to an Iraq funding bill to move a railroad further inland, so they can build casinos on the coast. This for a railroad that the federal government just spent $250 million on repairing after Katrina. And then there's the Northrup Grummann bailout- $200 million dollars in loss protection, in a special bill, to a company that made a $2.4 billion profit last year, up from the previous two years. This was once again Lott, but there's enough Republicans to support him that make you seriously wonder where the head of this party is.

Again, what have we got from six years in power? Steel tariffs? Medicare prescription drug benefits? No Child Left Behind? Which one of these exactly has anything at all to do with conservative values? Anything worthwile, like the Social Security reform attempt, wasn't supported enough to get it off the ground.

We knew from the start what we were getting from Bush- he was a "compassionate conservative", and anyone who feels the need to put that qualifier on their version of conservatism doesn't understand or doesn't agree with traditional conservatism. Reagan knew that being a conservative was compassionate- it's what freed people to solve their own problems, freeing resources from government control and wastage, freeing businesses from regulatory strangling so they could grow and succeed. I'm glad Bush was there for the war. I think it likely that not many presidents, and certainly not the alternative in 2000- would have handled it with anywhere near his guts and integrity. And this isn't about Bush particularly, it's about Republicans.

And then this immigration nonsense. Why the so-called "law-and-order" party can't get it through their heads that a country cannot survive without law and order blows my mind. Eleven million people in this country whose first act here was to break our laws. And a million of them march in our streets demanding the right to continue doing so. I wish we'd surrounded those marches with tanks, and then kept the marches going right on down to Mexico. Give 'em plenty of Aquafina for the hike.

But if they can't get control of spending, nothing else matters much. If they succeed in stealing the wealth of this country for all their pet projects, to buy themselves votes, then they will destroy this country.

And don't think that any of this means I'm considering the Democrats. They've got all the faults of the Republicans, plus they're baby-killers. I'd take a fag-loving, hooker-chasing, swindling, greedy fraudster any day over a baby-killer. It's kind of like God preferring Jehu over Ahab. He still worshiped the golden calves, but at least he wasn't a Baal-worshiping baby killer.

But I don't think I buy it any more- the argument I used to make myself, that I should vote for the Republicans instead of a third party because a vote for a third party is a vote for the Democrats. I've come to the realization- so what? Would it be much worse? What would they do? Unfettered abortion? Oh wait, we've got that. Gay marriage? A matter of semantics at this point. Ridiculous spending? Check.

There's the judges, of course. But remember, if the conservatives hadn't practically shoved Alito down Bush's throat, we'd have Harriet Myers today. So I'm not sure that even that argument's worth much. There's foreign policy- and here's where it sticks in my throat a little. With a Democratic president, the foreign policy would undoubtedly be much much worse (although it does depend on which Democrat).

I just don't know anymore. Fact is, if the election were held today between Generic Republican and Generic Democrat, I'd vote for the Republican. I am just really ready for a choice. And I think the Republican Party needs to have some competition for the conservative mantle in this country. Right now, I'm pretty sure the only reason they win elections is because it's either them or the baby-killers.

Strep Throat 

I've had strep throat for the last week or so. For any of you that hasn't had it, it stinks, a lot.

Strep throat doesn't even really do justice to what I had. It was more like strep face. It had spread into my ears and sinuses as well.

I'm here to tell you, if you get strep throat, don't be a hero. Just go get antibiotics. This is not the time for herbal remedies or stoic character-building. This is the time for penicillin.


There will be no webcast tonight, because there will be no Bible study tonight. Tune in next week, though.

Wow, I can't believe I just said that. Tune in next week, when we'll find out who the Phantom really is.

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