Faith and Works
Sometimes people get confused when they compare James’ and Paul’s teachings about faith and works. Such confusion is resolved when Bible students consider all that both men wrote that is contained in the Bible.
- Context is crucial. Paul wrote largely to Gentile believers, and James wrote largely to Jewish believers.
- Paul focuses on how works is not related to our justification, or establishment in salvation.
- James focuses on how works necessarily relate to our sanctification, or experiences of our salvation.
- Paul’s audiences often distrusted grace, so they fell into legalism and earning favors from God.
- James’ audience often distorted grace, so they fell into denying works were necessary in the Christian life.
Trusting works to earn salvation or favor with God is false faith. Ephesians 2:8-10 clearly teaches against relying on such works to earn favor with God. God inspired Paul to declare, “It is by grace you have been saved … not by works, so that no one can boast.” No one can be saved (in the sense of being justified) by human works. In Galatians, Paul even pronounces a curse on anyone who would dare to teach differently (1).
However, Ephesians 2:8-10 also includes, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” Here, Paul speaks about works to be done by those already justified in salvation. In this case, works are essential. Paul proves God ordains works for all who are born again. James focuses on these kinds of works in this letter.
James declares this truth: authentic faith is a faith that works. Tragically, some people believe salvation is about saying words without caring to live by them. They believe conduct is irrelevant. James disputes this thinking. He says God-given, saving faith is a living faith, a faith that works in obedience to God’s Word through the Spirit after the example of Christ.
If works are not present, it is best for people with “such a faith” to examine themselves. The command “to examine ourselves” means to seek wisdom through the Holy Spirit about our own salvation. A mere profession alone is not enough. A sincere profession of faith, followed by a changed life with good works, confirms proof of a person’s salvation (2).
Examples of Faith
In 2:15-26, James gives examples of both false and authentic faith. The examples have to do with outward actions. The conclusion in verse 26 could not be clearer, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”
James first addresses false faith, a faith of empty words. False faith is powerless, useless, and dead.
Powerless: False faith “knows” about saving truths but is a stranger to living by their power. God-given faith includes transformation in accordance with proclamations. Tragically, people can say they have faith but not have saving faith in Jesus Christ alone. James says in effect, “If your faith is only an intellectual faith, you are at the level of demons and Satan.” What we “know” and how we feel are not proofs of salvation.
Useless: False faith does nothing of value. It produces no results. John 3:8 records Jesus teaching that the Holy Spirit is like a wind. He says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” God the Holy Spirit is invisible, yet He is observable in His effects. In the same way, authentic faith, which produces fruitfulness as believers cooperate with the Spirit, is also observable in its effects.
Dead: False faith is a dead faith. A faith without works is not God-given faith that saves. Dead faith can deceive its owners into believing they have life. James had already mentioned the importance of how we treat distressed orphans and widows. Here again, he brings them to his readers’ attention in his commands against favoritism (discrimination) as well as giving empty words but nothing to live on to “a brother or a sister without clothes and daily food.”
James contrasts false faith with examples of his ancestors’ authentic faith. Authentic faith is complete – words and deeds working together.
Abraham’s authentic faith: James makes clear that works never justified Abraham. Instead, Abraham’s faithful obedience when God commanded he sacrifice Isaac proved his faith. God had already declared Abraham justified – meaning righteous, or right with God by grace through faith (3). The evidence of action outwardly confirmed faith for Abraham and Isaac’s benefit. Faithful action also serves as a testimony from God’s people to encourage one another and to display God’s power to the world.
Rahab’s authentic faith: James confronts any discrimination in his letter’s first readers. God upholds the Gentile prostitute Rahab as equal in authentic faith to Abraham, the beloved patriarch of the covenant. Look how the unifying power of Christ exposes and overcomes worldly prejudices in race, gender, heritage, education, profession, class and past behaviors! By grace through faith, Rahab also believed God. He credited her with righteousness. She spoke her beliefs and confirmed them with self-sacrificing actions. Her family legacy includes her own Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (4).
Faith works! Faith lives in hearts born for obedient service through saving union with Jesus Christ. If such works are not present to express our union with Christ, then James denies the reality of the union. James’ unavoidable point is the nature of God-given faith is to work in cooperation with the Spirit to please God.
1. How does James’ explanation that works offer evidence of faith either help you or confuse you at this point?
INSIGHTS: James’ point is true faith in Jesus Christ is accompanied by good deeds. Personal answers will vary.
2.What is the difference between intellectual belief and true faith, and what examples of both have you seen that you could share with your group?
INSIGHTS: True faith is full faith and trust in Jesus Christ. It is not only professed but lived out through a heart that is transformed through surrender and submission to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It is not merely head knowledge or intellectual belief. Examples of both will vary among each group.
3.Which of James’ words about authentic faith followed by works motivate you to live out your faith?
We’ve reached a time in our study to pause. Let’s reflect on what we’ve discovered so far to help us grow. Reflect on the Scripture, your prayers and responses to the questions raised as you studied. Here are two questions to guide you into taking what you’ve learned into the rest of this study and into your daily life.
1.What new insights from James about trials, temptation and faith have already changed your thoughts and actions?
2. How do chapters 1 and 2 help you engage in and explain faith and works in true religion?
1 Curse for false gospel: Galatians 1:8-9
2 Proof of salvation: Romans 11:6; Galatians 2:16; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:4-8; James 2:14-18; 2 Peter 1:5-11
3 Abram credited as righteous: Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3
4 Rahab: Joshua 2:1, 8-14; 6:22-25; Matthew 1:1-17; Hebrews 11:31