There was much debate at that conference (Acts 15:6-7a). At some point Peter arose and gave an account of how God taught him through the experience with Cornelius that God justifies all men by faith in Christ (15:9). Paul and Barnabas affirmed Peter by giving an account of the miracles God was doing through them so that they could preach to the Gentiles (15:12). James, the Lord’s brother, put the case to rest by showing from the Jewish Scriptures that God had always planned to save both Jew and Gentile by faith (15:13-21). Shank points out that, “The success of twentieth-century legalists stems from the fact that their unscriptural doctrines appeal to a concept which is strongly rooted in the natural man: one dare not presume to trust God to save him in pure mercy and grace!” Truly it is a hard concept especially for the American to conceive. America was founded on the ideology that if a man worked hard and played things straight that his work would pay off with success. We value working for our achievements. Therefore, it can be difficult sometimes to convince our western mindsets that salvation cannot be earned.
Just a few weeks ago I had a skeptic comment on one of my blogs. I asked the question, “Would a just God send people to hell who haven’t heard the gospel?”. To which, in his comment, he responded, “Someone who is a lifelong pedophile can, in most Christians' minds, accept Christ on their deathbed and go to heaven. What we call justice on earth has now been thwarted. The pedophile goes unpunished for his crimes. Is that justice?”. You can see here clearly that he just cannot stomach the idea that God can forgive man of his sins freely. Shank goes on to point out that it was true in Jesus’ day that men wanted to earn their salvation by pointing to John 6:28, “Therefore they said to Him, "What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?" The problem is that people view themselves too highly. Surely a decent man isn’t as evil as the pedophile, my blog friend would argue. The solution, according to Shank, is that we recognize that the cross isn’t just a symbol of God’s grace but also the wickedness of man. Therefore the first step a man must take in order to accept the Gospel is a renunciation of the self-righteous spirit that thinks it has anything to bring before God worthy of praise.
Some may object that the epistle of James teaches that faith without works is dead. Many people have stumbled over James’ statements in contrast to Paul’s statements that we are saved apart from works. Martin Luther at one point considered James uninspired because of this paradox. But Shank has the right view when he says, “But a careful examination of James’ discourse (2:14-26) discloses that in no way does it contradict the principle of justification by faith alone, which is everywhere taught in the Scriptures. Actually it serves, not to establish works as a means of salvation, but to qualify the kind of faith that saves.” Quite right! Paul’s argument is that faith in Christ apart from works of the law is what justifies. James contends that faith cannot be limited to mental assent. That sort of faith is dead. The faith that saves and continues to save is the faith that produces works. The pithy statement I like to say is, “You can have works without faith but you can’t have faith without works.” That is the force of James’ point.
Shank aptly begins his book by emphasizing the grace of God in our salvation. Without grace there would be no salvation. Without grace we could not continue to have Life in the Son.