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Faith and Works

James 2:14-26

by
Gary Young

It is certainly a privilege to once again participate in the Eastern Shore lectureship, and to share in the wonderful edification we can all gain from this time of learning and fellowship. The lectureship theme, the book of James, is a very well chosen and important study. The theme “Be ye doers of the Word” certainly sums up the message of James, and we have already been privileged to hear several important and edifying lessons on this theme.

Nowhere is the principle of “be ye doers of the Word, and not hearers only” (James 1: 22) better illustrated than in the passage we have under consideration in this lesson. In chapter 2, verses 14 to 26, James vividly contrasts the life and actions of the one who does the Word with the one who hears it only. One, we will learn, has a faith that is living and active, the type of faith that will lead one to obey God in all things (John 14: 15), whereas the other has a faith that is dead, being alone (James 2: 17).

Of course, the dispute about “faith versus works” has been one of the most enduring of religious arguments for the last almost two thousand years.  Various religious groups have emphasized works as the path to salvation, notable among whom has been the Roman Catholic church. These groups teach, in effect, that we can only go to heaven if we do good deeds: our salvation is dependent upon our own earned merit. Those who advocate such views will quote passages such as Matt. 25: 31-46 and John  5: 29, and say that God will only allow us into heaven if we have earned it. The role of Jesus, in such views, is limited to the provision of extra merit which will allow us to make it into heaven.

Among many of the Protestant reformers, however, such views were rejected. These men saw such Scriptures as Romans 3: 23 and Ephesians 2: 8, and recognised the impossibility of earning our way into heaven on our own merits. No matter how many good deeds we perform, they recognised, we cannot atone for even one sin; we cannot pay the price for the tiniest of our many transgressions. Instead, they saw that salvation came by faith, not works. As a result, they reasoned that it is faith alone that saves, and works have no part in the salvation and redemption of fallen man. Some took this still further and reasoned that man is so fallen and depraved that he is of his own will able to do nothing to seek or find God - all action in salvation is attributed to God, who randomly chose certain individuals to be saved from before the foundation of the world. Many recognised also the conflict of these doctrines with the message that we see in James and elsewhere in Scripture, resulting in their rejection of this and other parts of Scripture. Martin Luther, for example, made his infamous description of James as “a right strawy epistle” for this very reason.

So what is it then? Is salvation by faith, or is it by works? The first thing we must realise, of course, is that there is in fact no conflict at all. There may be conflict between the doctrines and interpretations of men (giving us yet another paradigm of denominationalism in action), but there is no conflict at all between Paul and James, or indeed between any of the inspired writers of Scripture. The problem lies not with the Bible, but with man’s interpretations and perversions of it. The correct answer to the question: “is salvation by faith or by works?” is to deny the validity of the question altogether: salvation is in fact by faith (Eph. 2: 8) and by works (James 2: 14-26).

The solution is readily available when we examine all the Bible’s teaching on the subject, and so build up a complete picture of revealed truth on this topic.

In defining the relationship of faith and works, we are able to distinguish two major types of works which we must perform in order to be pleasing to God. Some of these are works of obedience, by which we appropriate the gift of salvation (Rom. 6: 17-18; Heb. 5: 9), whereas others are works which we do for our fellow saints and for the needy of this world, in order to glorify our Father who is in Heaven (Matt. 5: 16). In both cases, however, we are looking at works of obedience, the only difference is the time in relation to our salvation and the object in view: but both are seen as acts of obedience to God and both, it would seem, are essential for our salvation. In the former case, we have such Scriptural instructions to believe the  Gospel (John 3: 16), repent of sins (Luke 13: 3, 5), confess the name of Jesus before men (Matt. 10: 32-33) and be baptised by immersion for the remission of sins (Mark 16: 16). Each of these is described in such terms as to leave us in no doubt as to their importance: each has dire warnings attached for those who refuse to undertake these works. Such warnings should leave us in no doubt whatever that these works of obedience are absolutely essential, and that God will not be pleased with us if we do not do these things. Indeed, as we have seen, Romans 6: 17-18 makes it very clear that it is only when we obey God from the heart that we are taken out of the power of sin and become the servants of righteousness.

The second category of works, the deeds of benevolence and love which we do both for our brethren and for those in the world, are, we should carefully note, no less necessary to our salvation.  The lost in the parable of the “sheep and the goats” (Matt. 25) are lost because they have not done acts of kindness and love for their fellow man. Christ assures them, when they failed to do these things for their fellow man, they failed to do it for Him (Matt. 25: 45). As a direct result of this failure, they were lost (Matt. 25: 46). Thus, while these deeds of benevolence are not done in order to appropriate the gift of salvation, it is still nonetheless necessary for us to be benevolent and charitable people in order to be saved. This indeed is the clear message of such Scriptures as Matthew 25, and we ignore it at our great peril. We can therefore include both of these types of works in the context of James 2: 14-26. It is quite apparent that the absence of  either of these types of works will render our faith dead, ineffective and entirely unprofitable. Without the kind of works that James describes, we will be lost - it is as simple as that.

What then is the relationship of this undeniable Scriptural fact with the Biblical teaching that salvation is by grace through faith (Eph. 2: 8), and we are entirely unable to bring about our own redemption, or to earn a place in Heaven? How can it be that we must do good works, that we are not saved by them? We can see the answer to this question by examining the examples which James uses in the passage that we have under consideration.

The examples that James gives us allows us to see the important fact that a saving, living faith is a working faith. It is certainly faith that saves, and James offers no contradiction to that. What he allows us to see, however, is that the kind of faith that God requires, the kind of faith that saves, is a faith that finds its expression in works of obedience to God, whether they are works of obedience before salvation or after salvation. For example, James puts forward the picture of a brother or sister who was in desperate need, without adequate clothing or food (James 2: 15-16). While to us such a situation might be unusual or even extraordinary, to the Christians of the first century it would be almost commonplace. Virtually all Christians would without a second thought have provided what was needful for their brother, as we see done so often in the pages of the New Testament (Acts 2: 44-45). James however puts forward an alternative - what if we just give them good wishes, claim that we desire that they are warmed and filled, yet do nothing to help them? The foolishness of such a course of action is immediately apparent to the reader: in answer to James' question "what doth it profit", the answer can only be: "nothing"! John describes a similar situation, and asks a similar rhetorical question: "how dwells the love of God in him?" (I John 3: 17). Again, the kind of love and faith demanded by God is one that acts, not merely thinks or feels.

It seems then that, while it is true to say that we cannot be saved by our own works of merit, we nonetheless are saved by works in the sense that a faith devoid of works of obedience is a faith that is dead, empty and useless. Paul indeed explains this principle immediately after his statement that we are saved by grace, not by works:

For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2: 8-10).

Thus, we can see that although we are not saved by works in the sense that we must merit our salvation through good deeds (for then salvation would not be of God), God nonetheless decrees that we walk in them - when we become Christians, we become His workmanship, we become a new creature (II Corinthians 5: 17), and we walk in good works and righteousness because this is God's decree. James then goes on to illustrate this principle by the examples of Abraham and Rahab (James 2: 21-25), both of whom are also listed as examples of faith in the gallery of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. By their deeds, these two individuals expressed and perfected (ie completed) their faith (James 2: 22): without such expression and completion, moreover, their faith would have been dead and valueless. What would have happened, we might reflect, if Abraham had refused to offer Isaac? What if Rahab had not hidden the spies? As James himself would ask, what would it profit? We recognise that if their faith had not found this expression and completion, it would be no faith at all. Abraham and Rahab did not merit their relationship with God because of these deeds, but without their deeds their faith would have been valueless, both to themselves and to God. As James tells us, true Bible faith is more than belief, because if that were all that was required then even the demons would be saved (James 2: 19). True Bible faith is a faith that believes and obeys (John 14: 15; Heb. 5: 9), the kind of faith that is exemplified in Hebrews 11. We know that we can never perfectly obey everything we are told, and that is where the grace of God is particularly apparent - when we fall short of God's standard, we know that we have an intercessor and advocate, Jesus Christ, whose blood will wash away our sins and shortcomings (I John 1: 7 - 2: 2). But this does not apply to us when we willfully refuse to do what God has commanded!

The true relationship of faith and works is perhaps best of all illustrated by Jesus Himself. Jesus told a parable of the unprofitable servant (Luke 17: 7-10), in which He asked if a servant did everything he had been commanded, has he merited any particular attention? The answer is no - all the servant has done is that which he had been told to do. He has fulfilled his purpose, nothing more. So it is with us: if we successfully and faultlessly complete absolutely every command that God has given us, what have we merited? Certainly we have pleased God in that we have done what we were told, and we certainly would have been punished had we not done what we were told, as is the common lot of servants (Matthew 24: 48-51). But have we merited anything? Jesus Himself answers us: "So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which were commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do" (Luke 17: 10).

Salvation is, as Paul stated, by grace through faith. Both Paul and James, however, explain to us that if we have the kind of faith that is pleasing to God, the kind of faith that leads us to loving obedience to His Word, then we will do the things that God has commanded us. The contradiction between Paul and James that Luther found simply is not there - indeed, both Paul and James, along with the rest of the Bible, contradict the doctrine of "faith alone" which Luther promoted. If we do what God tells us, we in no sense merit our salvation. However, if we refuse to do what God has told us, we do merit the punishment that is due to a servant that willfully disobeys his Lord. Let us resolve then to joyfully and obediently live in the way God would have us, walking in joy, good works and the Light of God (I John 1: 7)!

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