The Faith | Works Conundrum
Acceptance By Grace Through Faith Alone
The simple truth that we find acceptance with God through faith in His grace alone is the Bible’s most beautiful theme. Grace began long ago when God set in motion the means for humanity to find their way back to Him, to find their way home. He promised Adam and Eve that a redeemer would come who would save humanity from the consequences of their sin. That redeemer would be His very own Son, born for the specific purpose of reconciling the world back to God (John 3:17). The earth waited, enduring times of difficulty and futility, restless and expectant for the promised Prince of Peace to appear.
With the arrival of Emmanual, ‘God-With-Us’, the reality of a whole and healed relationship with God for every person was realised. Brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death was finally overthrown in the person and ministry of God’s Son, whose death on the cross struck the final blow to sin and mortality.
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.” – Isaiah 9:6-7, NIV
Salvation Isn’t Earned
This work of salvation, in its entirety, was set in motion and completed by God. Humanity had no contribution in any of this. The Bible is very clear that salvation is given freely, as a gift, and is never attained by works.
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.” – Romans 5:1-2, NIV
Paul the Apostle was a champion for the need for a grace-led, faith-full life. He had been converted from a life steeped in religious tradition and law, a life in which a man could become ‘more righteous’ before God than his fellow man, simply by achieving greater adherence to law. Yet Paul learned that right standing with God was not to be achieved through law-keeping – and in fact was impossible to be achieved this way – but by personal belief in God’s promises. Paul learned of the true gospel and He speaks of it often throughout his letters in the New Testament – that of being ‘saved by grace through faith alone and not by works, least any man should boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Paul is very adamant that justification – that is, “right standing with God” – is by faith alone. What are we to make then of the words of Paul’s contemporary, James, who writes “As you can see, a man is justified by his deeds and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24). It seems, at least initially, that these two men are in contradiction with each other.
Justified By Deeds And Not By Faith Alone
In reality, James and Paul are actually in complete harmony and a closer look at James’ letter not only gives us a better understanding of what faith really is, but also warns us of the sobering reality that information doesn’t always equal transformation.
Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians addressing the growing idea at that time that right standing with God depended on what Jesus did plus additional ‘spiritual acts’ that are undertaken, that we are made “right with God by what we do“. This is performance-based Christianity and Paul reaffirmed to the Galatians that anything which adds to our standing in the eyes of God, apart from the performance of Jesus on the cross, is legalistic teaching and counterfeit Christianity.
James, when writing his letter and speaking of ‘what we do’ is concerned with counterfeit Christianity of another kind – the unauthenticity of a life that is ‘Christian’ in name only. He is tackling another dangerous distortion of the gospel of grace, the idea that believers can ‘continue in sin that grace may abound’. That the new life is the same as the old life, the only difference being that a person has become ‘saved’. That is to say, that nothing about the way the believer behaves or lives after being saved is necessary to change, that verbally expressing our faith in Jesus is enough and that we don’t need to ‘do better’ because God’s grace covers all our shortcomings anyway.
The truth, James says, is that yes, we are made right with God by believing and professing our faith in His promises. Yet, it cannot be real faith, the faith that counts with God, unless its demonstrated by an active, loving response to God’s grace. This is, as Paul agrees, “faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6), demonstrated by a Christian in ‘what they do’.
James starts his letter by asking an important question:
“Do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup – where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense.” – James 2:24-17, MSG
He goes on to reiterate his meaning in the plainest of language, saying “Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works.” (James 2: 26, CSB).
Works Are Essential Evidence Our Faith Is Real
The kind of faith that is real, saving faith is shown to be vital, living and demonstrable in action.
To illustrate his full meaning, James gives two examples from the life of Abraham, whom he describes as ‘the friend of God’ (James 2:2). The first was when God promised Abraham a great line of descendants, even though at the time Abraham and his wife were both old and childless. Abraham didn’t doubt God for a second and James cites this faith (Genesis 15:6) as “reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” Abraham believed God was ‘good for His word’ and this is why, James says, he was justified.
Paul, when also commenting at length on the life of Abraham (Romans 4), does not say “Abraham worked for God and therefore was justified.” Neither does he say “Abraham undertook acts of love and, because of this, was justified.” or that “Abraham made progress in character reformation and therefore was justified. He says, “Abraham believed God and that faith was credited to him as righteousness.” He and James are both referring to the same event in Abraham’s life and are both drawing the same conclusion – that Abraham was ‘made right with God by his faith.
However, James goes on to reference a second event in Abraham’s life, found in Genesis 22. Here, God is testing Abraham, looking for the kind of works that show Abraham’s faith to be not just words but real and living – demonstrable in action. This is not the same kind of justification which gave Abraham right standing with God, but rather a test of Abraham’s original profession of belief. Was it the living kind of faith which produces a genuine response or a dead faith that has no effect on life at all?
James therefore has a different meaning in mind than Paul when Paul concludes that people aren’t justified by works. James is answering another question entirely: Does the ongoing and final reckoning of our righteousness depend on works as the necessary evidence of a true and living faith? The answer to that question is an unequivocal yes!
If you were to ask James and Paul, “How does a person obtain right standing with God and receive ‘the righteousness of God‘?”, both men would answer “As a gift of grace. Trust God, believe His promise and that faith alone will be counted as righteousness.”
However, if you asked them, “Does our final right standing with God depend on works of love?”, Paul will answer “No, not if by ‘works’, you mean deeds done to show that we somehow deserve God’s blessings” (his point in Romans 4) but James will answer “Yes, if by ‘works’, you mean evidence of a faith that is alive and active in a believer’s life”. Both are in agreement with each other, based on those definitions.
Works, in the way that James defines them, prove that our faith is real. When James says that we are not justified by faith alone, he means that the faith which justifies or makes us ‘right with God’ does not remain alone but bears the fruit of the new, spirit-led life. Any other kind of faith is counterfeit, in reality, dead, and completely useless.
What Does Living Faith Look Like?
“Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” – 1 John 4:11
Living faith is really another name for discipleship; learning to replicate the pattern and example left by Jesus in both word and action. Paul concludes his letter to the Galatians by discussing this very thing, making it clear that being called to ‘freedom in Jesus’ is not an excuse to do whatever we want, but rather ‘freedom to serve one another in love’ (Galatians 5:14). It’s in the believing and doing that faith is made alive, vibrant and visible.
James agrees with Paul in this, again referencing the life of Abraham:
“Wasn’t our ancestor Abraham “made right with God by works” when he placed his son Isaac on the sacrificial altar? Isn’t it obvious that faith and works are yoked partners, that faith expresses itself in works? That the works are “works of faith”? The full meaning of “believe” in the Scripture sentence, “Abraham believed God and was set right with God,” includes his action. It’s that mesh of believing and acting that got Abraham named “God’s friend.” Is it not evident that a person is made right with God not by a barren faith but by faith fruitful in works?” – James 2: 21-24, MSG
Depending on God and accepting His gift of grace – truly accepting it – will radically transform our lives. It will challenge everything we do, our belief systems and possibly even misplaced prejudices about others. It will compel us to behave justly to others, with impartiality, even though the world around us might not be just or impartial. It will compel us to do better and be better, not so that we ‘earn God’s favour’ but so that our faith can be seen as a reality, not just a matter of empty words.
“But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives.” – Galatians 5:22-25, MSG
Awareness of, and responding to the love of God is at the heart of our Christian lives. We are who we are, first and foremost, because of God revealed in Christ. Yet if our ‘loving union with God’ doesn’t result in a living faith, shown by our good works to others, then, as 1 John 4:7-21 says so eloquently, our love for God simply isn’t real. This kind of faith is a counterfeit Christianity and nothing more than a corpse.