James 2:17. So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
What is faith? What makes faith real? How does faith save us? Faith can be a very vague topic. Even a cliche of sorts. A person can say that they have faith, or that they believe something, but do they really? How can we know? What is the proof?
For James the proof was works.
Like that old Elvis song, James wanted a little less conversation and a little more action please. Less talk and more mercy (see day 176). He called out church members for telling a hungry man, “Go in peace, be warm and filled,” but then actually doing nothing to help the man. Church members who, like the demons, might say they believe in God, but then demonstrate no visible change in their lives. They had no demonstrable love for God or others.
Can we even call faith without works true faith? Or as he asks in 2:14 – What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
Wait a minute! I thought works don’t save us. I thought we were saved by faith alone. Aren’t we justified by faith apart from works? What about Paul? What about Ephesians 2:8-9? What about sola fide?!
These are all good questions, and questions that theologians have struggled with for years. Martin Luther thought James was just wrong and shouldn’t even be in the Bible. But is that right? Do James and Paul disagree? Or are they both warning us about two extremes that every Christian needs to avoid.
Extreme #1: Works alone save us – commandment keeping, religious acts, self-effort, these can make me right with God.
Extreme #2: “Faith” alone saves us – declarations, statements, knowledge, understanding, these make me right with God.
Nope and nope.
James 2:26. For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
OK, so how do faith and works go together to create “saving faith?” What is the relationship between the two? Or more practically, what should my faith look like in real life?
Whenever we talk about faith we must always begin with the OBJECT of our faith (never the amount of faith). James has already told us what the object of our faith must be – the Lord Jesus Christ.
James 2:1. My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.
Our faith is in the Lord Jesus Christ and his glory. The glory of the cross. The glory of self-sacrifice. The glory of unconditional love. The glory of mercy triumphing over judgment. The glory of grace, and goodness, and compassion, and “pure religion” (1:26-27).
Admittedly James (one of the first books of the New Testament) does not yet offer an in depth theology of our union with Christ. But through this teaching on faith and works we actually gain the groundwork for understanding what our union with Christ will look like. When James says that faith without works is dead, he is saying that the proof of the life of Christ IN us is the works of Christ THROUGH us. Or, more simply, faith in Christ WILL produce the works of Christ.
James will go on to illustrate the synergy between faith and works with two Old Testament examples: Abraham and Rahab. Their stories appear to be polar opposites. But what they have in common is that each of them demonstrated faith with a personal response. Offering Isaac. Hiding spies. Both responses coming from the power of faith. Both responses becoming the proof of faith.
Our faith cannot simply be words, because Christ’s life in us will not, it cannot, simply be a declaration. Christ’s life in us is a power generator. It is a love factory. Therefore, the passivity of faith in Christ’s indwelling love will result in the activity of Christ’s love poured out toward others. This love poured out is in no way how we earn God’s love and grace. These are not saving works of the law. Rather they are the sanctifying works of the Lord of glory – the author and perfecter of our faith.
“To live is Christ” means that our faith in the indwelling Lord of glory is transforming us. The indwelling Spirit is conforming us to his likeness. No, it can’t be quantified, measured, programmed, or planned. But it is happening. Your faith, if truly focused on Christ’s work for you (remember object, not amount), will result in works. The work of resting. The work of loving. The work of mercy. The work of justice. The work of worshiping. The work of receiving and giving grace. The work of Christ in all who are his work.
Do you tend to see salvation as all works no faith, or all faith no works?
You in Christ
In Christ you are his finished work. How does this truth allow us to practice pure good works?
Christ in you
What is one active way that you could respond to Jesus today?
Playlist: songs of faith.