Faith and works

This blog post was published on Saturday 10 May 2008.

I read James 2 this morning, the almost infamous passage which apparently contradicts Paul’s theology that we are saved only by faith, that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation. I don’t think it does say that, however. Here is the passage in full, from the ESV:

2.14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 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. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (ESV)

The particularly difficult verse is 24: ‘You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.’ This seems to contradict Paul’s assertion in Romans (which intriguingly quotes the exact same verse about Abraham from Genesis):

4.1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. (ESV)

Even more starkly, in Romans 3.28 Paul says, ‘For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.’ What is this apparent contradiction? Are Paul and James saying the exact opposite?

Well no, actually! One of Paul’s main points throughout Romans is that salvation depends entirely on God’s grace. No-one can keep the law, no-one can be holy as God is holy, everyone messes up, except Jesus. In and through Jesus God offers us the free gift of life, of redemption, salvation and justification, all those long words that basically mean we are given the gift of new life. We don’t earn it, we are simply given it.

Now James is making a different point. He is saying that faith on its own means nothing - even the demons believe in God! If you have no works - if your faith does not affect how you live your life - then your faith is not really faith. Works demonstrate whether or not you really have faith, and so in that sense ‘complete’ it. The works in v.24 are therefore the ‘works of faith’, rather than ‘works without faith’.

In other words, James is not saying that ‘works without faith’ justify, but he is saying that ‘faith without works’ is not really faith. He is arguing that we need ‘faith that produces works’.

Looking at the context of both passages from James and Romans demonstrates that they are not contradictory after all. In fact, much later in Romans (12.1 and onwards) Paul writes one of his great ‘therefore’s. Having expounded grace and the need for it over the previous eleven chapters, he begins his section on ethics. We have been given a great gift, therefore we must live our lives accordingly. In other words, faith on its own is not faith: real faith produces works, produces love for our neighbours, generosity, etc.

We need to get away from the absolute contrast between faith and works. We can sometimes make it sound like we have no responsibility to do anything except ‘preach the good news’. We must of course do that, but we must also demonstrate and ‘complete’ our faith by the ‘good works’ that God has ‘prepared in advance’ for us to do (Ephesians 2.10).