Can that faith save him? James 2:14
In speaking with a UPCI minister once about my newly discovered understanding of justification and sanctification in the scripture, particularly in looking at Romans 3 and 4, one of the immediate responses was, “but you can’t just ignore works….”
On the one hand, when you come from a legalistic mindset that emphasizes man’s performance and meriting the favor of God by doing certain things, it is only natural that you are going to feel that something is terribly wrong with the idea that God forgives me of my sins when I, in my repentant state, turn to God in faith. Surely that can’t be all. Yes and no. Yes, that is all that it takes for God to declare me righteous. It isn’t about anything that I have done or could do – it is all about what Christ did on the cross and, in his sovereign prerogative, he placed within me the gift of faith and granted me the opportunity to repent. End of story – and the beginning of the story.
On the other hand, the New Testament does talk about works, obedience, good deeds, and spiritual fruit. So how does this all fit together?
In Romans 3:38 Paul states, “we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” In James 2:24, James states, “You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” How do we reconcile these two passages? Are Paul and James simply contradicting one another? This would seem contrary to our understanding of the divine inspiration of scripture. Or should we simply look a little more closely at the context in which both men are writing and see if we can harmonize these passages?
Both James and Paul must be viewed in their context. They are both addressing different issues relating to the subject of salvation but as we will see they are coming at that subject with very different points.
As we are already aware, Paul is addressing justification from the context of redemption. We are at peace with God as a result of our being justified by grace through faith. We are saved not as a result of our works or any law keeping but because of our faith in God. One cannot work their way to heaven or merit God’s favor but the remission of sins is purely a gift of God through the grace of God. Paul is addressing how it is one moves from being an unregenerate sinner into the church of God and it is through justification by faith.
As we look at the context of James, he is writing to the church and is addressing some very specific issues that he is seeing in the church. He is not addressing justification from the standpoint of getting “into the church” but he is addressing those that claim to be a part of the church and having been justified by faith. The problem that James is addressing is those who claim to be believers but that proclamation of faith yields no further fruit. He addresses situations that he sees in the church that reflect a lack to true faith that would have led to justification in the first place.
James is drawing a line between those who have make an intellectual assent (a form of faith in that it is an intellectual acknowledgement of God) and those that possess true saving faith that results in spiritual fruit, such as obedience, in the life of a person that is truly trusting in Christ.
His point is that true saving faith results in a life of obedience to God – not that we live perfect lives and never make mistakes and fall – but there should be a manifest change in our lives if the Spirit of God is truly living in our hearts.
James writes of true religion being a faith in which professed believers are not merely hearers of the word but doers of the word. To be a hearer of the word only is to deceive yourself for we must be doers of what we hear. We must be obedient to the word of God in our lives. James speaks of true and pure religion being that which produces fruit in the life of the believer. It will change the way a man speaks and the things which concern man. He will be concerned with the poor and seek to remain unstained from the world. (James 1:19-27). A man will not show partiality among the believers but will seek to fulfill the royal law, which is to love ones neighbors as oneself. (James 2:1-9).
After showing that faith and religion should produce a change in the life of a professed believer, James asks, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or a sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warm and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead.” (James 2:14-17).
The point of James: How can you say that you have true saving faith in your heart if your life and behavior does not demonstrate that faith with consistent works of faith? Your behavior should reflect your profession of faith. The answer to James’ question, “Can that faith save him?” is No. A faith that is not accompanied by any fruit cannot be true faith.
“I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18). Works – not in the legalistic sense of meriting anything from God or somehow earning God’s favor by our actions – demonstrate the faith that is in our hearts. Our works reveal that faith that is within us and, thus, vindicates our profession of faith. James points out that the devils believe in God and they shudder. The point here isn’t that faith alone is insufficient to save because even the devils believe – the point being made by James is that the devils don’t have a faith that can restore their relationship and status with God because it does not and will not bring about a conformity on the part of the devil to the image of Christ. Their faith does not produce obedience. Their faith is not a saving faith.
John Calvin stated, “He says that faith is dead, being by itself, that is, when destitute of good works. Hence we conclude that it is indeed no faith, for when dead, it does not properly retain the name.” Thus, absent a demonstration of faith, there is truly no evidence that there ever was true faith to begin with.
James offers some examples and first cites to Abraham. In verses 20-24 he states, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’ – and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.’
Certainly this is a challenging text but if one looks closely at what is being stated by James, we see this comports perfectly with the notion that we are focusing on the evidence of faith in one’s life justifying or vindicating their profession of faith, not resulting in their justification/salvation by works.
We know, according to Paul and a reading of Genesis 15, that it was when Abraham believed God that his faith was counted to him as righteousness. Abraham was justified before God – he was declared righteous when he believed God. It was before the performance of any works, including circumcision and years before even the birth of Isaac. (See Romans 4:1-3). Nevertheless, Abraham’s claim to faith was justified or vindicated in the sight of man when he obeyed God, left his country and his family, was circumcised, and even when he offered up Isaac on the altar in obedience to God. When he was obedient to God, Abraham was demonstrating that his claim to faith was true and a reality.
When James cites to Abraham’s offering Isaac up on the altar, from Genesis 22, we know what Abraham had already believed God and was justified. God was examining Abraham’s heart by asking for his obedience and through his obedience, Abraham’s faith was justified or vindicated.
Abraham’s obedience was not the grounds for his justification in the sense of salvation. As James points out “and the scripture was fulfilled” – Abraham’s living out his faith through obedience was fulfilling or revealing that his profession of utter and complete faith in God was a true profession of faith.
Paul stresses that faith along brings about our justification but James shows that a faith that can save/justify us is one that will bring about evidence that faith is truly present in the heart. James is stressing the expression of faith. As James asked the question, “show me your faith apart from deeds” he looks to Abraham and says that Abraham’s profession of faith was demonstrably true – he was shown to be righteous – by his actions.
James cites to another Old Testament example in the prostitute, Rehab, of Jericho. “And in the same way was not also Rehab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” (James 2:25).
James compares the manner of Father Abraham’s justification with that of the prostitute Rehab. Rehab hid and protected the two spies from Israel sent to spy out Jericho for its eventual destruction. Abraham’s faith was revealed in his willingness to offer the son of promise, Isaac, on the alter. Rehab’s faith was revealed in the fact that she hid the spies when the men of Jericho came looking for them. This was a demonstration of the faith that was present within her. It was as clear a demonstration of faith in God as Abraham’s willingness to offer up Isaac. Hebrews 11:31 mentions Rehab as one of the heroes of faith and that it was her faith that motivated her actions in hiding the spies.
Afterwards, her words to the spies confirm the faith-based motivation of her actions: “I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. … And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” (Joshua 2:9-13).
There is no contradiction between Paul and James on the subjects of faith and works. To the contrary, Paul wrote many times on the subject of works or obedience or what he might call the fruit of the Spirit that results from a true profession of faith in God. In Romans 1:5, Paul ties faith with obedience.
Paul wrote to the Philippians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” So we have been saved by grace through faith – it is not of our own doing and it is not the result of works so no one can be arrogant concerning their salvation. In the very next sentence, Paul continues, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Philippians 2:8-10).
Paul further exhorted in Titus (2:7, 14, 3:1, 8, 14):
“Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity….”
“…who gave himself to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”
“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work….”
“The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.”
“And lot our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help in cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.
These are only a few examples from Paul out of Titus alone that stress the importance of living out our faith. Other passages include: 2 Cor 9:8, Col 1:10, 2 Thess 1:11, 2:17, I Tim 2:10, 5:10, 5:25, 6:18, 2 Tim 2:21, 3:17.
Certainly, Jesus himself taught over and over the necessity of living out our faith and obedience. Our justification by faith and call to good works are complementary and never in contradiction to one another so long as they are viewed in their proper context and in light of the larger understanding of the nature of man without Christ and with Christ. As we have previously discussed, can one who is dead in his trespasses and in rebellion to God truly perform good works to somehow earn the forgiveness of sins. Or is our obedience simply another outflow that results from the change that God has worked within in our hearts? Paul and James would seem to agree that faith brings about an internal change that brings about an external change through a life lived demonstrating the faith that is now within us.