The Faith/Works Dilemma

James 2

Monday, October 3, 2022

In the second chapter of his letter, James continues with his onslaught of practical but difficult advice.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.” (James 2:14-19 NRSV)

It would seem from this section that just believing things is no good. If my interpretation of James is correct, that means it’s not enough to go around quoting John 3:16 and telling people they only need to believe in Jesus and they will be saved. There is no checklist of beliefs where you can just tick all the boxes and receive salvation. No single belief will save you, and neither will any magical combination of beliefs.

James is asserting that action must accompany faith in order for it to be the real thing. Doing good works is the evidence of your faith. Faith and good works don’t live isolated lives, but are coupled together. To decouple faith and works is to reveal an inconsistency.

Imagine that someone claims to believe in the value of human life as the image of God, yet they go around hurting or killing people. Or maybe they just neglect to help someone else they know is in need. You would notice the inconsistency in that. They must not truly believe in the value of human life since their actions show they don’t value it. James is telling us that actions are louder than words. He cuts right through the nonsense and says, “Hey, don’t just tell me what you believe. Show me.”

When we talk about this passage, it’s likely that we’ll also think of a passage from Ephesians that seems to be in tension with it.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:8-10 NRSV)

Paul here is saying that works can’t save you; it’s a gift you accept through faith. James is saying faith alone doesn’t save or justify you; you need works too. Is there a conflict between what James and Paul are saying?

Part of the beauty of this collection of writings we call the Bible is that different authors often have different perspectives on things. We have four different gospel accounts, each with their own angle and emphasis. The general story and message are the same, but some of the finer details differ. This is exactly what you would expect if you asked four different people to describe something they witnessed years ago. This is not a problem at all for the gospels, and in actuality, bolsters the case for their authenticity. It shows that four people didn’t get together in a room for a weekend and collude to produce the exact same fairy tale. Four real people wanted to pass on what they witnessed, and they did so under the inspiration of God.

We see the world with two eyes, each from a slightly different angle. This allows us to perceive depth, in other words, to see things in 3-D. Your brain does some kind of trigonometry with the signals from your eyes to give you an idea of how far away something is. If you had only one eye, it would be much harder to judge depth.

We can regard James and Paul as two eyes looking at the topic of salvation from two different angles, and the result is seeing it in 3-D. It’s the same core truth with different emphases. James sees something Paul doesn’t see, and Paul sees something James doesn’t see. At great risk of oversimplification, I’ll try to bring their viewpoints together. They would agree that faith and works go hand-in-hand. James is saying faith alone is not enough, and Paul is saying works alone are not enough. Neither would say that you can earn salvation by works, but would agree that the works are evidence of a saving faith. Well, I took a stab at it. My only hope is that they can get together sometime to discuss this topic and release it as a long-form podcast.

-Jay Laurent

Question Time

1. Why do you think it is so hard to really live out what you believe?

2. What small steps could you take this week to put your faith in action?

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