The author of the article below is Dr. Ian Hodge. I count Dr. Hodge as a friend. We have entertained the Hodges in our home, and Dr. Hodge as filled the pulpit of the Church I serve on more than one occasion. We have had extended discussions on Federal Vision but Dr. Hodge goes further in this article in advocating a Federal Vision type of theology than I ever remember him going before.
Recently, my name was invoked in defense of this material and as such, I find it necessary to interact with this material so that it might be seen what I reject about this theology and what I accept.
The full article can be accessed here. There will be portions that I leave out in my interaction because I do not find it germane to the matter at hand.
Unbelief or Disobedience – Which Is It?
Dr. Ian Hodge
IS SALVATION BASED ON BELIEF OR ACTIONS?
Sometimes, you just have to charge into a controversy, head down, full speed ahead. And taking on a topic that has been debated for 2,000 years and still remains a dividing line among the Christian community, is asking for trouble. But, here goes. . . .
It is suggested that the Reformation “solved” the problem of salvation: faith or works. One or the other. Take your pick, choose sides, and do battle. There is, apparently, no compromise. Luther tried to simplify the problem by suggesting that the book of James did not belong in the canon of Scripture for it went against his idea of salvation by faith alone.
Dr. Hodge begins by subtly admitting that whatever he is going to say is a “asking for trouble.” Thus, he won’t be surprised when trouble is found.
The first thing we want to note here is the necessity to distinguish between salvation and justification. Scripture teaches that we are justified apart from works of the law (hence, Faith alone). Justification is one constituent component in the ordo salutis (order of salvation). It is proper, technically speaking, to say we are “justified by faith alone,” but when salvation as a whole is considered we insist that good works (sanctification) are the necessary consequence of faith alone justification. This is why we can say that justification is by faith alone but never by a faith that is alone. This distinction between justification as one component of the whole complex that is salvation and salvation, considered in toto is a distinction we will have need to keep our eye on as we move through Dr. Hodge’s essay.
“After making the statement that Luther used so effectively from Rom. 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law”, the writer, Paul goes on to point out that both the circumcised and the uncircumcised are to be justified through faith. But . . . he does not stop there. St. Paul then makes this often neglected statement in Rom. 3:31 (from the Wycliffe NT translation).
Destroy we therefore the law by faith? God forbid [Far be it]; but we stablish the law
Remember the old song, “Love and Marriage”? I forget who sang it. But the punch line said “you can’t have one without the other.” And so it is with faith and works, according to the Apostle Paul AND James.
James says the same thing as Paul when he insists that justification is NOT by faith alone. This is the ONLY time in the Bible when these two words — faith alone — are used together. They are NEVER used by St. Paul this way, even in Rom. 3:28.”
St. Paul does indeed establish the law and St. Paul would agree that faith and works go together like love and marriage. However, for St. Paul and St. James the faith that propels our works presupposes a faith that is alone resting in Christ for all. One might say that faith’s proper work in justification is resting in Christ’s works for us and imputed to us while faith’s proper work in sanctification is to work so as to increasingly become what we have freely been declared to be in Christ Jesus. However, the proper work of faith in sanctification presupposes the a-priori proper work of a justifying faith which rests in Christ alone. (It should be said here that we are speaking of logical a-priori and not a chronological a-priori.)
Dr. Hodge then abstracts James 2:24 from its context to make it suggest that justification is not by faith alone.
24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.
The problem with Dr. Hodge’s reasoning here is that St. James appeal to Abraham as his exemplar of the one who is justified by his works is not teaching what Dr. Hodge seems to be suggesting that St. James is teaching. St. James is not teaching that Abraham’s works contributed to his righteousness before God. St. James is not teaching that the works of Jesus for Abraham were not sufficient for Abraham’s status as “just.” St. James is not teaching that Abraham’s works and Jesus’s works combined together for Abraham were the ground of Abraham’s justification. St. James is teaching that the works of Abraham justified his justification.
If we avoid abstracting this James text from its largest Biblical context we learn that in Genesis 15 Abraham, well before the offering of Isaac, to which St. James appeals in chapter 2, was already justified. St. James appeals to the events of Genesis 22 where Abraham reveals his faith through his obedience. In Chapter 2 James is using the word “justified,” in the sense of “demonstration.” In Luke 7:35 Jesus uses the same verb “justified” as James uses in 2:21. In Luke 7 we read, “wisdom is justified by her children.” In the Luke passage the word “justified” is not being used to mean “to be reconciled to God” but rather it is used to demonstrate the truth of a prior claim. Just so in James 2. Just as true wisdom in Luke 7 is demonstrated by its fruit, Abraham’s claim to faith is justified by his obedience in offering up Isaac. If we are careful not to abstract from the James 2 text, we see that this is exactly the point of the text. The James 2 text is dealing with the issue of how justification is demonstrated, not with how a man is reconciled to God. So, we would say that in James what is being dealt with is how a man’s justification is seen as justified – demonstrated (by works) whereas for Paul in Romans 3 what is being dealt with is how a man’s person is justified (by faith alone).
Now combine what Paul says in Romans 4,
“But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly his faith is accounted for righteousness.”
And it is only an abstractionism that could find James 2, in contradiction to Romans 4, saying that God only justifies the godly who are working.
It is a mark of abstractionism that pulls things out of its context then misreads the meaning of the words. Paul and James can NEVER be opposed to one another. And here’s the reason why. “For it is not merely the hearers of Torah whom God considers righteous; rather, it is the doers of what Torah says who will be made righteous in God’s sight.” Here’s the ESV version of the same passage: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” Doers of the law justifified! Does that sound familiar? It should, because it’s almost exactly the same words used in James’s letter. Except these words were written by St. Paul in the same book of Romans that people like to quote “faith alone” from. The only problem is that if you read Romans 3:8 as a faith “alone” idea, you’ve abstracted the verse from its context and given it a meaning that Paul could never have intended. Why? Because he’s already laid down the principle that it is doers of the law who will be made righteous.
The problem here with Dr. Hodge’s reasoning is that what the Torah requires above all else is faith alone in Christ.
St. Paul is not saying in Romans 2 that people could possibly be “enough doers of the law” that they could achieve self justification. The fact that those outside the law (and in Romans 2 it is Gentiles who are being referenced) are responsible to be “doers of the law,” does not mean that they are therefore able to be justified by doing the law.
When Dr. Hodge insists that it is doers of the law who will be made righteous, in contradiction of the Biblical principle of justification by faith alone, he abstracts the text from the corpus of all of Scripture. The only way that any of us can be doers of the law is to rest in Christ alone who has done the law for us and imputed to us His law doing righteousness so that we are now reckoned as “doers of the law,” who then as doers of the law increasingly become what we have been freely declared to be.
When Paul says we are justified by faith, an obvious question might be this one. “Does any old faith save us?” James gives us a clear answer. “No. Only the kind of faith which has works attached to it.” As Robert Johnson points out in his Banner of Truth commentary on James,
“To him who asks, ‘Is it faith that justifies. Or works?’ Paul replies, ‘Faith alone (sic) justifies, without works.’ To him who, knowing and believing this, asks further, ‘But does all faith justify?’ James answers, ‘ Faith alone, without works does not justify.’ — for an inoperative faith is dead, powerless, unprofitable. Both statements, looked at in connection with the questions they are respectively meant to answer, are true, and both of vast important. Faith alone justifies, but not the faith which is alone.”
We quite agree here with both Dr. Johnson and Dr. Hodge when they imply that dead faith can not justify. (However, I’ve always thought that dead faith is a bit oxymoronic since a “dead faith,” is a no thing.)
An interesting juxtaposition of unbelief and disobedience is given in Hebrews 3:18-19. “And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.”
That makes it pretty clear. They are interchangeable concepts. Inseparable.
So it is not faith OR works, as both Paul and James are made to say. It is both.
And contemporary Christianity’s emphasis on faith alone at the expense of works indicates how far Christian theology has removed itself from clear biblical teaching.
First, in terms of the Hebrews passage we would say that they were disobedient precisely because of their unbelief. Their disobedience was the natural consequence of their unbelief.
Faith and works are interdependent and certainly imply one another in the way I have spoken of but to say that they are interchangeable concepts so that “faith alone,” could be as easily be made to say “works alone,” is not helpful. If those two words were exactly synonymous there would be no need for one of the words. I quite agree that it is both faith and works but each in their proper place. Faith does its proper work in justification when it rests in Christ alone and faith does its proper work in sanctification when it works out salvation in fear and trembling.
Consider this: The Greek philosophers debated over whether ultimate reality was mind or matter. Rationalism (mind) or empiricism (the senses) is how this played out in the post-Reformation period. As a result, the common understanding of the word “faith” in Scripture is that it is a cognitive activity. Thus, if you can give mental and verbal assent to a series of verbal propositions, you can consider yourself a Christian because that is all that is needed to be justified. Respond to the alter call, repeat the Sinner’s Prayer, say ‘amen’ to a series of propositions, and you are saved. Living a godly life, good works they are called, are not necessary for justification. These come after justification but have no meritorious effect in justification.
With this statement Dr. Hodge seemingly overthrows the whole Reformation and insists that we are not saved by faith alone but are only saved by Christ’s work for us combined with our works. This is most unfortunate.
Dr. Hodge seems to misunderstand the nature of mental assent. If someone genuinely mentally assents to the truth of the Gospel the consequence is the beginning of living a godly life. Where there is no godly life there is either no understanding of the truth or no mental assent and the course of action that one must take with such a person is to take them back to the truth of the Gospel in search of a mental assent that demonstrates its genuineness.
Faith is a cognitive activity though it always more than a cognitive activity. Orthodoxy (right faith) drives orthopraxy (right practice). There can be no right practice where there is no right faith.
Now, I agree with Dr. Hodge that mechanistic approaches to faith are suspect, however, having said that the problem isn’t with faith as being cognitive, but rather the problem is the mechanistic approach to securing faith.
That’s not quite how St. Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans. And for good reason. Because if you start in the Old Testament, you never get the idea that justification is merely a mental activity exercise. St. Paul, raised in the Old Testament tradition, knowing this, is not about to let a Greek neopolatonic concept of mind/matter become the controlling principle for understanding biblical faith. And this is the basis of his statements, first in Romans 2:3 and then in Romans 3:31. And in between those two statements you have his words in 3:28. So do not take his words there out of context. The law is not an add-on to faith alone. It is an integrated component, which is why “disobedience” and “belief” are interchangeable for the writer of Hebrews.
There is nothing neo-platonic in faith alone. Paul supports it Romans 3-5. Faith alone is a Scriptural principle that is supported in the book of Galatians. Paul appeals to faith alone by appealing to the Old Testament saints who were justified by faith alone. It looks to me that Dr. Hodge is either departing from the Reformed faith in this article or else he is seeking to redefine the Reformed faith.
And, the idea that justification is our mental activity is something that no knowledgeable person in the Reformed faith has ever advocated. Justification is not what we think or do. Justification is not about our mental activity nor about our combing our works with Christ’s works in order to be reconciled to God. Justification is God’s work whereby He imputes the righteousness of Christ to sinners who have not the righteousness required in order to be God’s friend. Further, a full orbed understanding of justification requires more than a consideration of subjective justification (which seems to be Dr. Hodge’s only consideration) but only requires a consideration of objective justification. When we consider that we, as God’s people, were objectively justified when Christ was crucified and resurrected we realize that subjective justification can’t include our performative works in any way.
Faith means action — not just intellectual assent. That’s the biblical version of faith, not the Greek version superimposed over Scripture.
Faith does mean action. But action does not result without thought. Orthopraxy presupposes orthodoxy.
In other words, Luther introduced a Greek concept of faith when he added the word “alone” to St. Paul’s words in Romans. And that neoplatonic concept has played absolute havoc with Christianity ever since.
A Trentian Roman Catholic could not have said it better.
Of course such a statement is Baloney.
“It is in this context that we need to understand R.J. Rushdoony’s call back to the law of God — the Torah — as the way of necessary godly living. It is not an option. It is the mark of the Christian without which, he will not be saved.”
Godly living is most certainly necessary but necessary in it’s proper place. The full blown Pelagian would agree that Godly living is necessary. So, nobody but the antinomian denies that Godly living is necessary. But the answer to the antinomian is not neonomianism or semi-pelagianism or covenantal moralism or legalism. The answer to anti-nomianism is a proper understanding of the third use of the law in the Christian’s life.
And in terms of Rushdoony we should listen to what RJR had to say on justification,
“In any court of law, to be transferred from legal guilt to legal righteousness is a tremendous fact of life. It is totally so in God’s supreme court of law and life. Justification by faith is thus a fact of life because it is an act of God’s absolute law court.”
Note that RJR — the man who properly emphasized the necessity for Christians to honor God’s Law-Word — disagrees with Hodge here when he observes that justification is an act of God’s absolute law court. RJR disagrees with Hodge when RJR writes about being transferred from legal guilt to legal righteousness. RJR never taught that we are justified by faith plus our works though he did teach that salvation includes our grace given and Spirit driven obedience — an obedience that is the consequence of justification and not causative of justification.
Not sure? Listen to the Second Person of the Trinity speak with authority:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
And this passage proves what? Does Dr. Hodge really believe that those who affirm justification by faith alone don’t also affirm Jesus words here?
Now in the process of understanding salvation, it is tempting to argue that faith and works are opposites rather than complementaries. In the former view, works are essential and meritorious. In the latter view, works are essential, but they are not meritorious, unless they are the works produced by trusting God (faith).
Faith and works are complementaries but not in the way that Dr. Hodge advances in this article.
In my estimation this last paragraph reveals that there is some kind of contradictory thinking going on here. I would note here that R. L. Dabney taught that even our good works must be imputed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ in order to be acceptable. If that is true I’m not sure how our works could ever be meritorious in the sense that they contribute to our justification.
Finally in terms of abstractionism, I would recommend reading Dabney on his chapter title “Abstractionists,” in his Vol. IV of his works. One can find it online.