Faith Without Works Is Dead
Vol: 95 Issue: 29 Saturday, August 29, 2009
“Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” (James 2:17-18)
The second chapter of James, often called the “works” chapter, seems to contradict other places in Scripture that salvation is by faith and stands independent of works.
Paul writes to the Galatians; “I do not frustrate the grace of God, for if righteousness comes by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” (Galatians 2:21)
To the Ephesians, he writes; “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
And to the Romans, Paul writes: “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.”
Then, just about the time you think you’ve got this whole thing figured out, somebody whips out James 2:20: “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”
And you’re right back where you started. A recent email illustrates my point:
“But this very issue keeps me on the edge of my seat. . . I am nowhere nearer understanding it than I was 40 years ago. Doesn’t this verse prove that one must have works to go along with their faith? As usual, I am completely confused.”
We’ll get back to James in a minute. First, let’s deal with the confusion. “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.” (1st Corinthians 14:33)
The Apostle Paul outlines the “whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:13-17) with which Paul says “ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” Paul names truth, righteousness, peace, faith and salvation as the Christian’s defensive weapons.
In Paul’s day, armor had to put on in a particular sequence in order for all the parts to fit together properly. And until one was properly armored, one didn’t pick up one’s sword.
The last defensive weapon one puts on before picking up the Sword of the Spirit is the helmet of salvation. In hand to hand combat, the quickest way to win is to score a head shot. Stun your opponent and his sword is useless to him.
What then, is the ‘helmet of salvation’ and how does it protect you in combat with the enemy?
The most fearless warrior is the one who is certain the odds are with him. That’s why Paul equated the head with salvation. The first area that the enemy targets is one’s perceived position with God.
Satan means ‘accuser’. If the enemy can convince you that you aren’t worthy to share the Gospel, you won’t.
So his primary focus is to convince you that you aren’t really saved. Every time you pick up the Sword to explain the Gospel to somebody else, it cuts you and you put it back down.
Is this not logical? If you are in constant conflict and turmoil about your own failures to live a perfect life, what time do you have left to tell other people about Jesus?
And if you aren’t sure whether or not you are truly saved, how convincing are you going to be? And finally, how joyful are you about your salvation?
Don’t forget the context of this war we’re in. The enemy can’t touch you directly without seeking permission from God. (Job 1:12) You’re beyond his reach, but tactically, you are still a threat that needs to be neutralized.
If he can’t get through your armor (truth, righteousness, peace and faith) then maybe he can stun you by attacking you at your weakest point.
“Am I really, truly saved?” . . . “Was I ever truly saved?” . . . “Am I saved at this moment?” . . . “I am completely confused.” . . . “Hi. Let me tell you about Jesus. . . ”
If you aren’t convinced about your own salvation, you’re not going to be very convincing sharing it with somebody else. Score one for the enemy side. That’s why Paul’s epistles are so filled with references to eternal security.
Paul was called to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 18:16, 22:21) and was trained in his calling by Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:16)
Here’s the point. It is important to understand that the epistles of Paul, James, Peter and John are letters written to different churches with which each was intimately acquainted.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians in the context of their local customs, culture and conditions. He approached the Romans in the context of their own cultural understanding. His letters to Timothy were written in the context of a teacher to a beloved student.
Peter was a Galilean. His epistles were primarily addressed to the Jews of Galilee who were steeped in a thousand years of customs and traditions and understandings and written in that context.
James was the Lord’s Brother — and that fact tended to color most of his teaching. Perhaps consequentially, a faction emerged within the early Church, led by James the Lord’s Brother and supported by Peter, that argued that Gentile Christians should have to convert to Judaism and obey the Law in order to become Christians.
On the other side was the Apostle Paul, who put forth the opposite position that the Law was fulfilled in the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I don’t want you to take my word for it. The dispute was aired in its entirety in Scripture. The disagreement over legalism was the reason for convening the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35) Here are the high points:
“And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.” (Acts 15:1-2)
(“No small dissension and disputation” is Bible-talk for a HUGE doctrinal fight.)
The Jerusalem Council was convened to settle the issue. The Council heard first from Paul and Barnabas, then Peter and James.
Peter largely agreed with Paul in this instance, asking the Council why they would seek “to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (15:10)
On the other side of the question, James eventually settled for a watered-down form of legalism, saying that Gentiles needed only follow three Jewish laws.
“Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.” (Acts 15:19-21)
These three exceptions indicated James believed Gentiles should be bound by those portions of the Law of Moses intended for Gentiles, which roughly coincided with Judaism’s Seven Noachide Laws.
They were derived by the rabbis from Genesis 9:1-17 in which God charged Noah and his sons to replenish the earth:
“Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” (Genesis 9:3-4)
This argument continued, back and forth, for some time within the early Church. It is one of the things about the Bible’s narrative that argues for its truthfulness — it tells the story as it happened, warts and all.
Paul tells the story of the Confrontation at Antioch between Peter and Paul over James and his followers.
“And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. . . But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.” (Galatians 2:9-10)
Paul’s chief complaint was that Peter would “eat with the Gentiles” until the followers of James showed up, when Peter would suddenly get all legal again.
Paul called that “dissembling” — the dictionary defines ‘dissembling” as concealing one’s true motives, feelings or beliefs” — a pretty serious charge to lay at the feet of two Apostles.
Not just any two Apostles, but Peter the first Apostle called, and James, the brother of Jesus. Those are the two he accused of dissembling.
“For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. ” (2:12-13)
Notice that even Barnabas, who was commissioned with Paul, got carried away into legalism, separating himself from the Gentiles. Paul lowered the boom on Peter and James, whom he accused of not walking upright according to the truth of the Gospel.
“But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?” (2:14)
Paul then presented his argument in favor of salvation by grace through faith to his two toughest critics, James and John.
“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” (2:16)
The entire six-chapter Letter to the Galatians was a refutation of legalism and salvation by works.
Understanding Scripture in context goes a long way towards rightly dividing the Word. The ministry of James and Peter was to the Jews, whose unique relationship with God went back to the time of Abraham.
The ministry of Paul was to the Gentiles whose gods and goddesses were mainly a matter of social intercourse, not eternal matters of faith and salvation.
Peter and James were burdened with explaining that the Gospel of Christ was not a refutation of Moses and the Prophets. That the liberty of Christ was not the embrace of a false god.
They had to explain to people who lived all their lives under the 613 rabbinic Commandments that obedience to the Law would not save them.
That is not to say that James and Peter are doctrinally untrustworthy. The books they penned were composed long after the Jerusalem Council or Confrontation at Antioch.
Doctrine continued to be harmonized as God provided the revelation and consequently, no Book of Scripture contradicts another. James does not contradict salvation by faith nor does he preach salvation by works.
In understanding what James means in the “Works Chapter” you first have to get a grasp of what constitutes “works” from God’s perspective — as opposed to ‘works’ from the perspective of an observant Jew.
God’s entire plan for the ages is about only one thing — your salvation. “The Lord is not slack concerning His promises, as some men count slackness, but is long-suffering, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”( 2nd Peter 3:9)
Nowhere in Scripture that I can find is God’s will so perfectly and succinctly expressed as in this verse. It’s all about your salvation. And once you’re saved, the next guy’s salvation — something the Great Commission makes your responsibility.
The Bible lists the fruits of the Spirit. Those “fruits” are evidence of salvation but they are not a prerequisite. You don’t first get the fruits and then later get the Spirit. It works the other way round.
And there is but one ‘work’ that bears fruit — work that brings about the salvation of a lost sinner.
This is the only direct expression of God’s universal will that I can find in Scripture — the salvation of the repentant. It is the only thing we can logically do for God. We are saved by grace through faith but we are obligated to spread the Gospel. We are His messengers by Divine Appointment.
Every work is judged at the Bema Seat for rewards according to whether it serves God’s will or our own. Our faith is demonstrated by our works, James says. “. . . shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. ”
That is different than faith PLUS works. “. . . faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
Faith can only be demonstrated by works. Works do not demonstrate salvation — or the Pharisees would have been saved without Christ.
It is works as a demonstration of faith that James is discussing here, not works as a requisite element of salvation. First comes faith and faith is demonstrated by works. Works are a byproduct of faith, a person who is saved is spiritually compelled to see others saved. But works can’t save somebody who is already saved by faith.
The fruit of our works, when taken to its logical conclusion, can only be those we lead to Christ. “Even so, faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” James 2:17)
What does that mean? Consider an orchard of peach trees. All of them are bearing peaches except one tree that can barely manage to produce leaves. As a peach tree, it is ‘dead’ even though the tree itself may just be withered and barren and unable to produce fruit.
But it is STILL a tree!
A person whose faith does not bear fruit has a dead (unproductive) faith. He will stand before the Bema Seat without receiving any crowns, Paul says.
“If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire. (1st Corinthians 3:14-15)
Note, however, that he is still standing before the Bema Seat. His salvation was not effected by his lack of good works or by the preponderance of his bad works. His salvation was effected by his faith that Jesus did for him what he could not do for himself.
Faith without works IS dead. That is clear enough, when one understands it in context. That’s why Paul says to put on the helmet of salvation first.
So that you don’t cut yourself on your Sword — before you have a chance to do any works worth bragging about.