Is it wrong for a Protestant church to have a Creed that says something to the effect that we are saved by faith evidenced by works or Abraham was saved by faith demonstrated by works?
No, that’s I would say, that the biblical view is that we are saved through faith alone – that’s the instrument that joins us to Jesus – but saving faith is never alone; it always has works. If it is truly saving faith, it will produce works because it’s a divine faith given by God that’s real.
Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. (Romans 4:3) God credits to us righteousness apart from works of law but then he asked the question in Romans 4 – When was Abraham justified by faith? Was it before circumcision or after circumcision? Before. Was his faith and justification before the law or after the law? Before. He was justified by faith before circumcision, before Isaac on the altar and before the law given by Moses. That’s Paul’s whole argument, his entire summary of justification is ultimately Abraham – his faith before circumcision, before Isaac, before the law.
When you open your Bible to James 2:10 “Whosoever shall keep the whole law and stumble in one point, he’s guilty of all of it.” But then he goes on to say Abraham, was he not justified by works? Are Paul and James fighting? Then you recognize if you read James too that they’re not even in the same discussion. In Romans chapter 4, Paul argues about our justification this way: Abraham, when was he justified? Through faith before circumcision, before Isaac, before the law. That’s when he was justified through faith apart from any work of law, before circumcision, nothing. Before God he was counted righteous. That’s his entire argument of justification in Abraham. He’s the central figure. When did it take place? Paul says through faith before circumcision, before Isaac, before the law.
Now you run over to James and James is wisdom literature – it’s how you live. He talks about someone’s tongue and how it’s like this ship, its rudder. He talks about the tongue, the mouth and what we speak and how it destroys and it blesses. And then in James chapter 2, he asked the question. James 2:14 What good is it my brothers if someone SAYS he has faith but does not have works. What’s the point there? It’s the PROFESSION. Someone says he has faith but he does not have works. Can that faith save him? We’re talking about kinds of faith here. Notice Paul’s discussion in Romans 4 is about how a person is justified before God. James’ discussion is about what kind of faith saves. And he says “Can a faith that is a mere profession (but not a real possession) save? And his answer is “of course not.” And he goes on, he says: If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food and one of you says to them “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? (James 2:15-16) It means you’re lying, you didn’t mean it because you didn’t provide anything. He says profession is one thing but if there’s not something following it, you don’t know that it’s real. So he says “Also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17) The question here is not whether we are saved through faith alone or through faith plus works, it’s the question of whether dead faith saves or living faith saves. He says faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say “You have faith and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? (James 2:18-21) However, Paul uses the words “justification through faith apart from works of law” and here James is saying “wasn’t Abraham justified by works in the offering of a son on the altar”. Are they contradicting each other? Absolutely not, they are not even in the same conversation. Paul says “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” before circumcision before Isaac, before the law. About 20 years before Isaac. In James’ discussion, he says about Abraham “Wasn’t he justified by his works when he offered up Isaac on the altar?” They’re not even at the same point of Abraham’s life in the discussion. James is talking about Abraham’s faith vindicating him. The word “justified” in the Greek can be used in about seven different ways. It can be used to describe “being declared righteous before God through faith.” It can also be used to describe vindication. I give you an example. Jesus, when he was accused of being a drunkard, said “Wisdom is justified by her children.” Is Jesus teaching that wisdom is declared righteous by God by her children? No, “wisdom is justified by her children” means “if you want to know what Godly wisdom is, look what it produces.” It’ll vindicate what you’re saying, what you’re doing. And so James is using it in exactly the same way. He says “You want to know how Abraham’s faith was true faith, living faith? He offered up Isaac on the altar. That’s how you know his faith was living and not dead.” If a church doesn’t have a statement of belief that says that true faith is always accompanied by works, then that church does understand the gospel. All the confessions of the Christian Church from beginning until now agree that something fundamentally changes within us when we’re saved. You go from death to life, your hearts change from stone to flesh, you’re indwelled by the Spirit of God. If there are no good works, there was no real faith to begin. Repent and believe the gospel. Make sure that your faith is real, contemplate your sin and the holiness of God and turn from your sin to Christ and cast yourself only on him to believe in him. And if you are in Christ and alive from the dead, good works follow.
Ephesians 2:8-9 By grace are you saved through faith and that not of yourselves, it is a gift of God, not according to works, lest any man should boast.
But it is not done. Ephesians 2:10 says “for we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God has already prepared beforehand that we would walk in them.”
One of the things we need to talk about more today in the Christian Church, what needs to be heard often is George Whitfield’s preaching of the gospel – the message of repentance and faith and salvation only in Christ and faith alone and the absolute necessity of the new birth. He taught that if you don’t have a new life, you don’t have any faith. Is that saying that Christians are going to be sinless and perfect? No. It means you’re going to be at war with your sin until Jesus brings you home.