In dealing with the issue of theological pre-conditions to the Gospel, we must deal with the question of any and every demand for "works" up front. The apostle Paul has far too much to say about the vanity of putting any hope whatsoever in human labors for obtaining a right standing before God for anyone who is willing to accept his words to seriously believe that human labors have any efficacy in moving God to grant a decree of justification.
However, the issue is not settled just because Paul removes efficacy from human labor.
Because there is more involved in human labors than simple efficacy. Efficacy, as I am using the term in this study, is the ability to accomplish an objective. The particular objective about which we are concerned in this examination of the issue of theological pre-conditions is the acquisition of a decree of justification from God. The question of efficacy is rather simple: what does it take to get God to grant a decree of justification to a sinner? Paul did remove human labors from any sense of efficacy in the answer to this question, but, as we said, human labors are not just efficacy-oriented.
The biblical answer to this question has always been that God grants a decree of justification to a sinner when that sinner meets His demand for faith. As early as Genesis 15:6 we are told that God reckoned Abraham's faith to him as righteousness. Habakkuk was told by God that it would be those who were righteous by faith that would live (Hab. 2:4 -- but beware of the English translations here!). The inspired author(s) of the New Testament appealed to Habakkuk 2:4 three times to establish the truth that justification is by faith (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11 and Hebrews 10:38). There is really no question at all that justification comes from God to man when man believes God's promise in the Gospel. Jesus said of the publican who appealed to God to be merciful to me, the sinner, that he went away justified. He also said to one of the thieves, who were crucified at the same time He was, Today you shall be with Me in paradise. These were declarations that God had justified these men apart from any so-called human efforts, or works. They had met God's condition of faith. The thief, at least, had no opportunity to add works to his faith because of his impending death.
So, where is the problem?
In respect to human labors in contrast to the issue of faith stripped of human works, there is no problem. Paul is too plain for us to blunder around pasting first one human work, and then another, on to the demand for faith in order to be accepted by God under a decree of justification.
So, then, where is the problem?
It is in the ambiguity regarding the nature of saving faith in respect to two significant questions. First is the question of the objectives of the one who exercises saving faith. Second is the question of what saving faith produces. The issue of objectives is the issue of pre-cursors to justification. The issue of production is the issue of post-justification labors that are driven by the faith that has been exercised. To clarify, justification occurs at a specific point in time when God acknowledges the saving faith of a sinner. Before this faith comes to the point of being saving faith, there are some objectives issues that must be addressed. After this faith has been accepted by God as of saving quality, there are some consequential issues that must be addressed.
We are primarily interested, in these studies, with theological pre-conditions that lead up to justifying faith, not post-consequences that follow justifying faith. So, our investigations will focus upon the question of the preliminary objectives that run before the exercise of justifying faith.
The issue of objectives is addressed by the question: What do you want? It is not, How will you get it? Its importance can be seen by the following questions. First, is it possible to believe God for forgiveness when a person doesn't particularly care if he is forgiven? Is it possible to believe God while maintaining such a personal distance from Him that one cannot get to know Him well enough to know if He is trustworthy? Is it possible to believe God for reconciliation while maintaining personal independence in regard to decisions about whether to yield to God's will? Can a person exercise saving faith while intending to maintain a commitment to bondage (in other words, can a person be saved who doesn't want to be saved?). Will God forgive a person who wants to escape the consequences of his deeds but doesn't want to cease those very deeds (God, save me from venereal disease while I pursue my promiscuity!). And, can a person believe God for a place in His kingdom who doesn't want to participate in that kingdom?
This issue of objectives is not a matter about which the Bible is silent. Most of them can be reduced to a single question: why does God offer man justification? In other words, what does God want?
Thus, there are two objectives in view. The first is God's objective because He is the One Who offers justification to man. Why does He do this? What does He want? The second is man's objective because he is the one who will either accept God's offer or reject it. Is the offer appealing? Why? Faith becomes saving faith when both objectives come together so that God gets what He wants and man gets what he wants.