A Working Faith

“What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 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. But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? 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. 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 2:14-26)

In the protestant faith this passage of James’ letter to the Church has caused a bit of controversy. Martin Luther, an influential figure in the Protestant Reformation, who wrote the Ninety-five Theses of 1517, disliked this letter of James because of verse 24 in this text. “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” To Luther this was a contradiction to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians which read, “Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16) Other leaders of the Protestant Reformation did not share this view, but Luther’s objection came to dominate the Protestant reading of James.

The misunderstanding is that the passage ends with “Faith without works is dead.” This short passage is used over and over by those who would add works to obtaining salvation. Many Christians today do not know how to argue this seemingly contradiction of Scripture between Paul and James. Paul clearly writes in his letter to the Romans that we are justified by our faith in Jesus Christ and not by our works. “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” (Romans 3:28) So the question becomes who is right and who is wrong. I say they are both right because they wrote their letters under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. “For no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (2 Peter 1:21)

Paul clearly teaches that our Salvation is a free gift from God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)  That is too simple for a lot of people. People of good conscience cannot accept a free gift of that magnitude. It is too humbling for their self-pride that they have for themselves. Until they accept that there are spiritually impoverished they will never see the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus began His Sermon on the Mount with that very point. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) People of good conscience think that they can earn their salvation, but the cost of God’s sacrifice that they can have salvation is beyond what a man can earn. What is the price of the suffering and agony of the God-man dying on the Roman cross? He died that we may live. Can you die and yet live?

In Verse 14 James is asking two questions. “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” What is faith that has no proof of works, and can that faith save him? James then goes on to explain his position. I would not presume to argue against a great theologian as Martin Luther and those who agree with him, as I am sure they read the whole of this passage as I have. I have also read commentary that argue their point but I am sticking where the teachings of my father lie and where I fell led by the Spirit.

Just what did James mean by works? He is, I believe, speaking of works taken as a result of their faith which fits my definition of works as the proof of one’s faith. The point that James is making is not that works must be added to faith but that our faith causes our works. A true faith in Jesus will result in good works for the Kingdom. James and Paul are using the same word for works but are speaking in a different context. Paul is speaking of works in relationship to obedience to God’s Word. If we love Jesus then we are to obey His commandments. “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15) Keeping the commandments keeps us in righteous standing before the Father. Paul is saying that keeping the law is not an alternative to our faith because we would be relying on our own achievements rather than the blood of Jesus Christ and God’s redemptive work.

The context of James is using is that our works are a natural flow from our genuine faith. This would bring our faith and works into a union. The point being that we are not saved by our works but saved for works. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)

James provides us with an example of what he is saying to us. “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?” (James 2:15-16) The works that James has in mind is not the keeping of religious rituals but the command that we are to love God and our neighbor. Christians are responsible to care for one another and not just speak good wishes to each other but take practical action on their behalf. We love because God loves us. “We love, because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

Our faith without works then is a faith that produces nothing good or is not a benefit to advancing the Kingdom. A faith of no works is a faith that will not bring salvation to a person that has this kind of faith. And James says that a faith that has no works is a dead faith as he stated in verses 17 and 26. It is in verse 26 that James gives his analogy that gives his point perfect meaning. “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” Such a faith that is not producing good work for the Kingdom is a useless faith and is ineffectual for salvation. What is saddening about James’ illustration is that this is a letter to the Church. He is not speaking to the lost but to those who have professed a faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. His point then to use a Christian in his example of aiding the poor is that it is unthinkable for a Christian not to love and care for their brothers and sisters.

As a Church of the Lord Jesus Christ we must not ignore the needy people in the world around us. Certainly we must not turn our backs of those who are members of the Church. If the Church is not involved in taking the Gospel of Jesus to the spiritually needy in the world, then is our faith alive or dead? If we have a saving faith, then the point of this letter is to convict and motivate the Church to minister to the needy people in our work of faith.

What does James mean by faith? The kind of faith that his half-brother Jesus had. His faith was a stance based upon a belief and trust toward God. James grew up with Jesus and now he was growing towards Jesus. “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2) James teaches that a genuine faith is a working faith. It is a faith that endures trials, seeks wisdom from God, resists the temptation of the evil one, controls the tongue, cares for the widows and orphans, does not live as the world, loves his neighbors, gives to the poor, and is a doer of the Word of God.

James was passionate in his life for Christ but his earnestness was not distorted to expect sinless perfection. James knew of the struggle that all must face in their walk of faith in Jesus and this is why he wrote to encourage us about that walk. In spite of the hardship the Christian must embrace and practice real faith. It is the faith that spawns good works and gives authenticity to the faith. Genuine faith, the faith that leads to salvation must acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus and display actions of obedience. “Who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.” (Titus 2:14)

This is the faith that can save. “Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.” James 1:21) Jesus is both our Savior and our Lord and cannot be separated into two persons. A genuine saving faith includes trusting Jesus as our Savior and following Him as our Lord. “Faith is the root, good works are the fruits; and we must see to it that we have both.” (Matthew Henry)

Thomas N Kirkpatrick

First Baptist Church of Durant, June 7, 2016

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