FAITH AND WORKS – EITHER/OR, BOTH, OR WHAT?
Some believe that James was counter-balancing Paul’s doctrine of free grace, but that can’t be the case as, one, James wrote before Paul, and two, it denies the unity of inspired Scripture, setting one part at odds with another.
When studying the Scriptures we need to watch out that we don’t bring our own preconceived ideas, prejudices and external data, into the text. For example words in Greek can have different shades of meaning, as in our own language, therefore we cannot simply use a lexicon (a kind of Greek dictionary) and say this is what it means, when in actual fact one writer might use a word in a different way to another.
Context is always the key, we must not isolate this passage from who James is talking to and why, or isolate it from the rest of what he is saying, otherwise we can make it say something quite different! This is how cults work the Scriptures to their own end and can make them say all sorts of things.
We need to let James speak for himself, but first we need to rehearse and remind ourselves of the Good News, that way it will help us to hear what James is NOT saying, and what he IS saying.
1. A REHEARSAL OF THE GOOD NEWS
John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him, should not perish but have eternal life.” Notice, believes, not works.
Acts 16:3 says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved,..” Notice, believe not work.
Romans 3:24-28 provides us with a theological summary of the Gospel, saying that we, “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
Notice the words, ‘grace’, ‘gift’, ‘received by faith’, ‘justified by faith apart from works’. You can’t get much clearer than that!
But probably no text of Holy Scripture tells it quite as well as Romans 4:5: “And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,”
The old acrostic — Forsaking All I Trust Him is theologically perfectly accurate.
Ephesians 2:8,9 says,“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Romans 5:1, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And Romans 11:6 makes it abundantly clear when it says, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
2. WORKS AND THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
Now we recognise that the bible does speak of works regarding the Christian, but these are not saving works, or works done to make our salvation ‘more sure,’ they are simply the product and purpose of a new life. They are not the basis of salvation but the fruit of it. We have been saved for good works (Ephesians 2:10). At the same time we don’t do good works to prove we are saved, we do them because we are. One of the biggest dangers for the Christian is doing works to prove we are.
William Barclay says “We are not saved by deeds; we are saved for deeds; these are the twin truths of the Christian life. And Paul’s whole emphasis is on the first truth, and James’s whole emphasis is on the second truth.”
R. T. Kendall has some very startling words, “What startles me is the number of people who insist that one must have works to show he is saved but who themselves have virtually nothing of the very works James has in mind! They wish to use James as a basis of “assurance by works” but not the kind of works James has in mind—caring for the poor. I have yet to meet the first person who holds (or preaches) that giving another “those things which are needful to the body” must follow faith to show that it is saving faith indeed. We prefer to be selective in our use of James.”
SO BACK TO JAMES!
Two questions need to be asked, who is James addressing? And, why is he addressing them?
1. WHO IS JAMES ADDRESSING?
James is writing to Christians, to people who have a real faith. All the way through this letter James recognises and affirms their faith. In chapter 1:18 he spoke of them being ‘brought forth by the word of truth,’ a reference to the new birth. In chapter 2:1 he talks about them ‘holding the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.’ He doesn’t for one moment suggest that their treatment of the poor and favouritism towards the rich suggested that they weren’t saved, and throughout he makes constant reference to them as ‘brothers and sisters’ ‘my brothers and sisters,’ ‘my beloved brothers and sisters.’
2. WHY IS HE ADDRESSING THEM?
Because they were developing an inward, personal, self-serving Christianity. They were backing off from life as God’s people in this present world resulting in immaturity and inconsistency.
There was inconsistency and immaturity in their,
- Private lives
- Fellowship together
- Its real enough – James affirms their faith.
- In some way their faith is lacking. There’s a missing dimension, not that they need more of it.
- They need to do something about it.
In order to understand what James is saying here it’s best to regard James 1:21-2:26 as a single large section in the development of his letter, with James 1:21 setting out the theme, and the rest building on and working it out.
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (2:14).
Hang on a minute you say, what about ‘save or saved’ aren’t they to do with salvation?
First, we need to ask what James means by ‘save’ here? Saved from what?
Save comes from the Greek: Sozo and is a big word and can be interpreted as save, deliver, heal, protect, make whole, rescue from peril, keep alive. “To save the soul” (=“life”) is to preserve the physical life from an untimely death due to sin. James uses the word ‘save’ five times in his letter in 1:21; 4;12; 5:15; 5:20 and here in 2: 14. Remember context is key, and in the first four references it would appear to refer to some form of deliverance in the present, and not to eternal salvation from hell.
So what is James saying here? James has just made reference to the possibility of Christians transgressing the law of liberty (vs 9-13) and the question arises as to whether they can escape the consequences, and James’s answer is NO. Or to put it another way, can the fact that a man holds correct beliefs and is orthodox ‘save’ him from the deadly consequences of sin? Of course not! If this had been a salvation issue we would have expected a clear definition of the Gospel but not so. In fact James goes on to illustrate his argument with a reference to the brother or sister who is poorly clothed and lacking in food (v.15). So we could paraphrase the verse in this way “So of what advantage or benefit is it to anyone, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has holds the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ but does not have actions that correspond to it? Can faith in Jesus save him from judgment, and its consequences?”(Note 2:12). That is present judgment and consequences.
What about ‘FAITH’?
First we should note that, ‘That,’ is not in the original, but the translators have put it in as a qualifier in attempt to give what they believe is the sense. But there is reference to only one kind of faith in this chapter, that is, true faith. The reference cannot be translated ‘that kind of faith’ as some versions do, as if it were another kind of faith to real faith, either ‘false’ faith or ‘spurious’ faith or ‘head’ faith as some writers would suggest. It refers to ‘the’ faith, and we have already affirmed that anyone possessing the ‘faith’ is truly saved.
Note the last verse (v.26) “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” The body corresponds to faith, and the spirit to works. Where you have a body there is or has been life. So faith is there but its dead.
James concern is not whether they have faith, but the state of their faith, (vs 15,16,17 20,22, 26). Notice the references to ‘worthless’, ‘what good’, ‘dead’, and ‘useless’ in vs.1:26; 2:14,17,20 all saying much the same thing in different ways. The issue then is one of personal belief without corresponding actions, the uselessness of their faith apart from works not the absence or genuineness of faith because they are without works.
- The brother or sister who is poorly clothed and lacking in food – faith needs to be worked out in action
- Abraham – at this point he was already justified, this was an outworking of that. His actions demonstrated his faith to the world.
- Rahab. Again her actions demonstrated her faith to the world.
- Witness: the number of young people who grow in faith when they have been on a mission.
James B. Adamson says: “The force of the statement seems to be that faith is fulfilled, strengthened, and matured by exercise.” The Epistle of James, NIC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), p. 130.
Good works are not necessary to keep us from going to hell, faith in the finished work of Christ does that, however good works do keep us from coming under God’s disciplinary judgement, that could result in sickness, or premature death. (1 Corinthians 11: 28-32).
“Not only is the mature Christian patient and persevering in testing (James 1), but he also practices the truth. This is the theme of James 2. Immature people talk about their beliefs, but the mature person lives his faith. Hearing God’s Word (James 1:22-25) and talking about God’s Word can never substitute for doing God’s Word.” Warren Wiersbe.