Wednesdays with James
Lesson Ten: The Old “Faith & Works” Debate — Completely Unnecessary
We continue our study in the central section of the Epistle of James today. In the body of this encyclical, the author takes up the three themes he introduced in chapter one, addressing them in more detail and in reverse order. The first theme James discusses is, “Faith Works through Impartial Generosity.” Last week, we explored the “impartiality” part of the theme, today we look at what it means that faith works through loving generosity.
That brings us to the most famous text in this epistle.
What use is it, my dear family, if someone says they have faith when they don’t have works? Can faith save such a person? Supposing a brother or sister is without clothing, and is short even of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; be warm, be full!”— but doesn’t give them what their bodies need— what use is that? In the same way, faith, all by itself and without works, is dead. But supposing someone says, “Well: you have faith, and I have works.” All right: show me your faith— but without doing any works; and then I will show you my faith, and I’ll do it by my works! You believe that “God is one”? Well and good! The demons believe that, too, and they tremble! Do you want to know, you stupid person, that faith without works is lifeless? Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by his works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You can see from this that faith was cooperating along with the works, and the faith reached its fulfillment through the works. That is how the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called “God’s friend.” So you see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she gave shelter to the spies and sent them off by another road? Just as the body without the spirit is dead, you see, so faith without works is dead.
• James 2:14-26, KNT
Peter Davids puts his finger on why this passage has proven controversial, when he writes:
The problem with James arises because he stresses the results of commitment to Christ and uses much of the critical theological terminology in a way different from Paul.
In particular, James’s use of “faith,” “works,” “save,” and “righteous/righteousness” appear to respond to such Pauline texts as Romans 3:20 — “No mere mortal, you see, can be declared in the right before God on the basis of the works of the law,” and Galatians 2:16 — “But we know that a person is not declared ‘righteous’ by works of the Jewish law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah [or, through faith in Jesus Christ]” (Kingdom New Testament).
Based on texts like those, the common evangelical interpretation boils down to their understanding of the Pauline perspective: A person cannot be saved or declared righteous by God through works, but only through faith in Jesus Christ.
But then they run into a problem when they read James, for James says that Abraham, for one, was “justified by his works.” He also indicates quite clearly that you cannot so quickly divide faith and works, for they are part of an organic whole when it comes to being “saved” and being “righteous.” The question then naturally arises: Do Paul and James contradict each other?
I happen to think this is a completely unnecessary debate.
- James is not addressing Paul’s teaching.
- James is addressing a completely different situation.
- Paul’s concern is the inclusion of the Gentiles into the community of the Messiah. “Works” in that context mean “works of the Jewish law,” as N.T. Wright’s translation above shows. Gentiles can be included in the community of the Messiah (and thus, saved, declared ‘righteous’) apart from having to keep the requirements of the Mosaic law, such as circumcision, food laws, and sabbath. They are accepted solely on the basis of “faith,” which usually refers to the “faithfulness of Jesus.” In shorthand: Gentiles do not have to become Jews to become Christians.
- When Paul (or a “Pauline” author) does expand beyond this specific concern of the inclusion of the Gentiles and speak of faith, works, and salvation in a more universal sense, his message turns out to be the same as James (we’ll come back to this in a moment).
- James’s concern is to convince his Jewish-Christian readers that genuine faith leads naturally to loving deeds. In the context of this letter, he is expanding upon an issue he introduced in chapter 1. In times of testing, it is easy to turn inward and forget about serving those who are truly vulnerable. In our study on 1:22-27, I put it this way: “James reminds these communities that there are needy, vulnerable people among them who need loving care. What good is it to keep myself pure if my brother or sister is suffering and I do nothing about it? So, James says, don’t stop at receiving the word which means your own salvation. Instead, practice the love that God’s word everywhere commends. Guard yourselves, yes, but even more, love your neighbors. …When you consider that James is writing to communities who find themselves under severe trials, the task becomes even more daunting. When under that kind of stress, folks, no matter how strong their faith, can easily become selfish, withdrawn, impatient, angry, snippy with others, and forgetful of those in their midst who have it much worse.”
- And so James speaks here in chapter 2 about the duty to care for poor brethren who have insufficient clothing and food, and he reminds them of Abraham, who was under a test and faithfully did what God had told him and Rahab, who met another test with faithful care for others.
- In other words, this is one of those instances where James is applying teaching that his Jewish readers would have known from childhood, “Torah” about the moral and ethical life that comes forth from fearing and trusting God. Those who so trust and those who so live are known as “the righteous” throughout the Hebrew Bible. They are people whose professed faith shows itself in a life of loving deeds, especially toward those in need. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
- James has already magnified the grace of God as that which saves us and brings us into God’s family: “Don’t be deceived, my dear family. Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes down from above, from the father of lights. His steady light doesn’t vary. It doesn’t change and produce shadows. He became our father by the word of truth; that was his firm decision, and the result is that we are a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” (1:16-18, KNT)
Now let me expand upon something I said earlier. There are Pauline (or pseudo-Pauline) texts about faith and works that are not specifically addressing the inclusion of the Gentiles. For example, the most well known is Ephesians 2:8-10 —
How has this all come about? You have been saved by grace, through faith! This doesn’t happen on your own initiative; it’s God’s gift. It isn’t on the basis of works, so no one is able to boast. This is the explanation: God has made us what we are. God has created us in King Jesus for the good works that he prepared, ahead of time, as the road we must travel. (KNT)
A couple of other passages are found in Titus:
God’s saving grace, you see, appeared for all people. It teaches us that we should turn our backs on ungodliness and the passions of the world, and should live sober, just, and devout lives in the present age, while we wait eagerly for the blessed hope and royal appearing of the glory of our great God and savior, Jesus the king. He gave himself for us so that he could ransom us from all lawless actions and purify for himself a people as his very own who would be eager for good works. (2:11-14, KNT)
We ourselves, you see, used at one time to be foolish, disobedient, deceived, and enslaved to various kinds of passions and pleasures. We spent our time in wickedness and jealousy. We were despicable in ourselves, and we hated each other. But when the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, he saved us, not by works that we did in righteousness, but in accordance with his own mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewal of the holy spirit, which was poured out richly upon us through Jesus, our king and savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and be made his heirs, in accordance with the hope of the life of the age to come. (3:3-7, KNT)
When you read these texts and compare them with chapter 2 of James, it is obvious that the Pauline perspective matches James to a T.
- God saves us by grace through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.
- Our good works do not earn us any merit before God. It’s by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone that we are declared righteous.
- In saving and justifying us, God made us new, to walk in lives of loving good works.
Of course, there is much to add to all of this, but this is the essence.
Tomorrow, a final reminder that God’s grace to us in Christ sets us free to love.
• • •
Wednesdays with James
- Lesson One: Background and Big Picture
- Lesson Two: To Whom Was James Written?
- Lesson Three: The Ongoing Teaching Ministry of Jesus
- Lesson Four: An Encyclical from James (1:1)
- Lesson Five: Eschatological Joy and Growth through Suffering (aka Life) (1:2-4)
- Lesson Six: Asking for Wisdom (1:5-8)
- Lesson Seven: The Great Reversal (1:9-11)
- Lesson Eight: Taking Responsibility, Receiving from God (1:12-27)
- Lesson Nine: Are You Not Discriminating among Yourselves? (2:1-13)