Faith and Works

Complete Chapter 6 of Beyond Shallow Faith, copyright 2018, 2019

What did James have in mind when he said “faith, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17) and “faith without works is useless” (James 2:20)? Did he really mean that faith without works cannot save, as he implies in James 2:14?:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?

When James said, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), was he contradicting Paul, who said, “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (Romans 3:20) and “a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 2:16)?

Actually, James and Paul do not disagree, but to see this clearly we must view these verses in context.

As Paul says in Romans 3:20 and Galatians 2:16, he is talking about “works of the Law”—that is, the Jewish effort to please God by obeying the Jewish Law, as contained in the first five books of the Bible.[i] These “works of the Law” include, among other things, offering the required animal sacrifices, obeying the Ten Commandments and other laws, and circumcising all males.

The Jews had repeatedly failed in their attempts to scrupulously observe the Jewish Law, as Peter recognized when he admitted that the Law was a “yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.” (Acts 15:10) Therefore, the early Christians quickly concluded that Gentile converts to Christianity need not comply with the requirements of the Jewish Law.[ii] Indeed, Paul went further and warned the Galatians not to even try to follow the Law, because: “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” (Galatians 5:4)

For Paul, the only way to be justified—that is, to be made just and righteous in God’s sight, and thus be saved—is through faith in Jesus Christ: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” (Romans 3:28) Because of our faith, God saves us through his grace (unmerited favor): “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) And what does this faith involve? Paul tells us:

But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.

—Romans 10:8-10[iii]

For Paul, faith requires more than mere intellectual assent to certain biblical truths. We must sincerely believe in Christ’s resurrection, which is the cornerstone of Christianity and the ultimate proof of Jesus’ claims of divine status. Therefore, when we believe in our hearts that Christ was raised from the dead, we acknowledge him as God. Then we must act on that belief through an honest confession that Jesus is Lord—not merely a lord, mind you, but our Lord. In doing so, we surrender ourselves to Christ and submit to his Lordship over our lives.

Now let’s look at what James means by “works.” He gives us two examples from the Old Testament. First, there’s Abraham:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

—James 2:21-24[iv]

What James calls Abraham’s “works” had nothing to do with law or righteous behavior or a kindness extended to strangers. Abraham’s “works” were simply an act of obedience. God told him to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Abraham obeyed—until an angel stopped him at the last moment.[v]

The other example James uses to illustrate “works” is Rahab the harlot, who hid the Israelite spies from the authorities in Jericho and then helped the spies escape, all because of her faith in the Lord:[vi]

In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

—James 2:25-26

As with Abraham, Rahab’s “works” did not involve righteous behavior—she was a prostitute, after all. And while she showed kindness to the two Israelite spies by hiding them and helping them escape, this wasn’t exactly an act of charity. She believed the Lord would help the Israelites destroy Jericho, and she wanted to save herself and her family from the coming devastation. Nevertheless, she acted in faith by hiding the spies, at great risk to her own safety.

So we see that by “works” James just means faith in action. As with Paul, this kind of faith goes beyond mere belief. Such faith does not simply wish that the poor would be helped, but acts to help them in tangible ways:

If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.

—James 2:15-17

Bungee-jumping is a terrifying experience for those of us who have a fear of falling. I can say that I have faith in those elastic cords that I hope will save me from certain death, but the proof of my faith is when I actually jump. Similarly, I may agree that flying is the safest form of travel, but if I refuse to get on an airplane for fear of crashing my agreement is just words. When I get in my car to drive somewhere, I am putting into action my faith that the other drivers on the road will obey the traffic laws that keep us all safe, such as stopping at red lights and driving on the right-hand side of the road. In each instance, James would say my faith is dead unless and until I act on it by jumping, flying, or driving.

Of course, Christianity is not about having faith in elastic cords, airplanes, or other drivers, but about faith in Jesus Christ. But the principle is the same. I can say that I have faith in Jesus Christ, but if that faith never translates into action—if it never affects the way I live—then James and Paul would agree that I lack genuine, sincere faith.

Real faith requires action, such as: praying, reading God’s Word, and trying to obey the two greatest commandments: (1) “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30),[vii] and (2) “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).[viii] We obey those two greatest commandments, for example, when we worship God, give back to God, give to the poor, and serve others.

Faith in action will gradually result in spiritual growth, spiritual maturity, and, yes, good works. In other words, faith in action leads to more Christ-like behavior. But to be clear, good works and Christ-like behavior are not the cause of our salvation, but the result of it. We are saved by God’s grace. He gives us salvation, which we do not deserve, because of our faith in Jesus Christ. James and Paul would agree on that, too.

[i]. The first five books of the Bible are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

[ii]. See Acts 15:1-29.

[iii]. The quotation is from Deuteronomy 30:14.

[iv]. The quotation is from Genesis 15:6.

[v]. See Genesis 22:1-14.

[vi]. See Joshua 2:1-21.

[vii]. See also Matthew 22:37, Luke 10:27, and Deuteronomy 6:5.

[viii]. See also Matthew 19:19, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27, Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14, James 2:8, and Leviticus 19:18.