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The Relationship Between Faith and Works
The Faith That Doesn’t Work
Sanctification … is the invariable result of that vital union with Christ which true faith gives to a Christian. “He that abideth in Me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit” ( John 15:5 ). The branch which bears no fruit is no living branch of the vine. The union with Christ which produces no effect on heart and life is a mere formal union, which is worthless before God. The faith which has not a sanctifying influence on the character is no better than the faith of devils. It is a “dead faith, because it is alone.” It is not the gift of God. It is not the faith of God’s elect. In short, where there is no sanctification of life, there is no real faith in Christ. True faith worketh by love. It constrains a man to live unto the Lord from a deep sense of gratitude for redemption. It makes him feel that he can never do too much for Him that died for him. Being much forgiven, he loves much. He whom the blood cleanses walks in the light. He who has real lively hope in Christ purifieth himself even as He is pure ( James 2:17–20 ; Titus 1:1 ; Gal. 5:6 ; 1 John 1:7 ; 3:3 ).
J. C. Ryle
A tract written by one of the most extreme defenders of no-lordship salvation seeks to explain redemption: “Even at your best, you can never earn or deserve a relationship with God. Only the object of your faith, Jesus Christ, has the merit.” I agree with that. It is the clear teaching of Scripture ( Titus 3:5–7 ).
But the same tract also says, “Your personal sins are not an issue to God.” When the author attempts to explain faith in practical terms, he says this: “You respond to God the Father by simply forming the words privately in your mind, ‘I believe in Christ.’ ”
All of that adds up to a notion of faith that is little more than a mental gambit. The “faith” that tract describes is not much more than a cursory nod of the head. It is bare intellectual assent.
As I noted in chapter 3 , many no-lordship apologists resent being accused of portraying faith as mere mental acquiescence. Dr. Ryrie, for example, calls it a straw-man argument.
Being convinced of something or putting one’s trust in the Gospel could hardly be said to be a casual acceptance of something. When a person gives credence to the historical facts that Christ died and rose from the dead and the doctrinal fact that this was for his sins, he is trusting his eternal destiny to the reliability of those truths.… Make no mistake, non-lordship people do not say what [this] straw man … alleges they say ( SGS 30).
But many no-lordship people do say precisely what Ryrie denies they say. Zane Hodges, for example, practically concedes that “intellectual assent” adequately describes his idea of faith. He is uncomfortable with that phrase’s “prejudicial connotation,” but he doggedly defends its gist. Assent, he points out, simply means “meaningful agreement.” The negative undertone, Hodges suggests, is caused by modifiers like mental or intellectual. Though they mean “nothing more than ‘of or pertaining to the intellect,’ ” he says, they are often taken to imply “detachment and personal disinterest” ( AF 30). “In this context we should discard words like mental or intellectual altogether,” Hodges adds. “The Bible knows nothing about an intellectual faith as over against some other kind of faith (like emotional or volitional). What the Bible does recognize is the obvious distinction between faith and unbelief!” ( AF 30).
How does Hodges describe faith? “What faith really is, in biblical language, is receiving the testimony of God. It is the inward conviction that what God says to us in the gospel is true. That—and that alone—is saving faith” ( AF 31, emphasis in original).
Is that an adequate characterization of what it means to believe? Is faith totally passive? Is it true that people know intuitively whether their faith is real? Do all genuinely saved people have full assurance? Cannot someone be deceived into thinking he is a believer when in fact he is not? Can a person think he believes yet not truly believe? Is there no such thing as spurious faith?
Scripture plainly and repeatedly answers those questions. The apostles saw counterfeit faith as a very real danger. Many of the epistles, though addressed to churches, contain warnings that reveal the apostles’ concern over church members they suspected were not genuine believers. Paul, for example, wrote to the Corinthian church, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” ( 2 Cor. 13:5 ). Peter wrote, “Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble” ( 2 Pet. 1:10 ).
Evidently there were some in the very early church who flirted with the notion that faith could be some kind of static, inert, inanimate assent to facts. The Book of James, probably the earliest New Testament epistle, specifically confronts this error. James sounds almost as if he were writing to twentieth-century no-lordship advocates. He says people can be deluded into thinking they believe when in fact they do not, and he says the single factor that distinguishes bogus faith from the real thing is the righteous behavior inevitably produced by authentic faith.
These are the questions the lordship debate must ultimately answer: Is it enough to know and understand and assent to the facts of the gospel—even holding the “ inward conviction ” that these truths apply to me personally—and yet never shun sin or submit to the Lord Jesus? Is a person who holds that kind of belief guaranteed eternal life? Does such a hope constitute faith in the sense Scripture uses the term?
James is expressly teaching that it does not. Real faith, he says, will no doubt produce righteous behavior. The true character of saving faith may be examined in light of the believer’s works. This is consistent with all Old Testament and New Testament soteriology. One enters into salvation by grace through faith ( Eph. 2:8–9 ). Faith is by nature turned and toned toward obedience ( Acts 5:32 ; Rom. 1:5 , 2:8 , 16:26 ), so good works are inevitable in the life of one who truly believes. These works have no part in bringing about salvation ( Eph. 2:9 ; Rom. 3:20 , 24 ; 4:5 ; Titus 3:5 ), but they show that salvation is indeed present ( Eph. 2:10 ; 5:9 ; 1 John 2:5 ).
“It is evident that there is faith and FAITH,” Roy Aldrich wrote in reference to James 2. “There is nominal faith and real faith. There is intellectual faith and heart faith. There is sensual faith and there is spiritual faith. There is dead faith and there is vital faith. There is traditional faith which may fall short of transforming personal faith. There is a faith that may be commended as orthodox and yet have no more saving value than the faith of demons.” James attacks all brands of “faith” that fall short of the biblical standard. What I and others have sometimes termed “mental acquiescence” or “intellectual assent,” James characterizes as mere hearing, empty profession, demonic orthodoxy, and dead faith.
James wrote, “Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” ( 1:22 ). James uses a substantive ( pōietai ) “doers of the word,” or “Word-doers” instead of a straightforward imperative (“do the word”). He is describing characteristic behavior, not occasional activity. It is one thing to fight; it is something else to be a soldier. It is one thing to build a shed; it is something else to be a builder. James is not merely challenging his readers to do the Word; he is telling them real Christians are doers of the Word. That describes the basic disposition of those who believe unto salvation.
Hearing is important, as James has emphasized in 1:19–21 . Faith comes by hearing ( Rom. 10:17 ). However, actual faith must be something more than mere hearing. Hearing is a means, not an end. The end is faith, which results in obedience.
True believers cannot be hearers only. The Greek word for “hearer” (v. 22 ) is akroatēs , a term used to describe students who audited a class. An auditor usually listens to the lectures, but is permitted to treat assignments and exams as optional. Many people in the church today approach spiritual truth with an auditor’s mentality, receiving God’s Word only passively. But James’ point, shown by his illustrations in verses 23–27 , is that merely hearing God’s Word results in worthless religion (v. 26 ). In other words, mere hearing is no better than unbelief or outright rejection. In fact, it’s worse! The hearer-only is enlightened but unregenerate. James is reiterating truth he undoubtedly heard firsthand from the Lord Himself. Jesus warned powerfully against the error of hearing without doing ( Matt. 7:21–27 ), as did the apostle Paul ( Rom. 2:13–25 ).
James says hearing without obeying is self-deception (v. 22 ). The Greek term for “delude” ( paralogizomai ) means “to reason against.” It speaks of skewed logic. Those who believe it is enough to hear the Word without obeying make a gross miscalculation. They deceive themselves. Robert Johnstone wrote,
Knowing that the study of divine truth, through reading the Bible, giving attendance on the public ordinances of grace, and otherwise, is a most important duty,is, indeed, the road leading toward the gate of everlasting life,they allow themselves, through man’s natural aversion to all genuine spirituality, to be persuaded by the wicked one that this is the sum of all Christian duty, and itself the gate of life, so that in mere “hearing” they enter in, and all is well with them. To rest satisfied with the means of grace, without yielding up our hearts to their power as means, so as to receive the grace and exhibit its working in our lives, is manifestly folly of the same class as that of a workman who should content himself with possessing tools, without using them,madness of the same class as that of a man perishing with hunger, who should exult in having bread in his hands, without eating it,but folly and madness as immeasurably greater than these, as the “work of God” ( John 6:29 ) transcends in importance the work of an earthly artisan, and “life with Christ in God” the perishable existence of earth.
James gives two illustrations that contrast hearers-only with obedient hearers.
The mirror. “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does” ( 1:23–25 ).
“Not a doer” is literally “a not-doer,” or someone whose disposition is to hear without doing. Contrary to some commentators, “looks … in a mirror” does not describe a hasty or casual glance. The verb ( katanoeō ) means “to look carefully, cautiously, observantly.” “The man carefully studies his face and becomes thoroughly familiar with its features. [He] listens to the Word, apparently not momentarily but at length, so that he understands what he hears. He knows what God expects him to do. Any failure to respond cannot be blamed on lack of understanding.” James’ point is not that this man failed to look long enough, or intently enough, or sincerely enough—but that he turned away without taking any action. “He has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was” (v. 24 ). This passage is reminiscent of the unproductive soils in Matthew 13. The person who hears the Word does not have the proper heart response. Therefore that which has been sown cannot bear fruit.
The point is twofold. First, James is illustrating the urgency of actively obeying the Word. If you don’t deal with what you see while you are looking into the mirror, you will forget about it later. By Monday morning you may forget the impact of Sunday’s sermon. By this afternoon, this morning’s readings might be a dim memory. If you do not make the necessary responses while God is convicting your heart, you will probably not get around to it. The image reflected in the mirror of God’s Word will soon fade.
Second, and more pointedly, James is illustrating the utter uselessness of passively receiving the Word. Verse 21 spoke of how we are to receive the Word: “Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.” The conjunction but at the beginning of verse 22 is equivalent to moreover, or now, implying that what follows is not a contrast but an amplification of the command in verse 21 . In other words, James is saying it is wonderful to be receptive to the Word—to hear with approval and agreement—but that is not enough. We must receive it as those who would be doers. Non-doers are not true believers.
James gives a contrasting example. This is the effectual doer: “one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does” ( 1:25 ). The word translated “looks intently” is parakuptō , the same word used in John 20:5 , 11 to describe how John stooped to peer into Jesus’ empty tomb. The word is also used in 1 Peter 1:12 of the angels who long to look into things concerning the gospel. It speaks of a deep and absorbing look, as when someone stoops for a closer examination. Hiebert says the word “pictures the man as bending over the mirror on the table in order to examine more minutely what is revealed therein.” Implied is a longing to understand for reasons that go beyond the academic.
This is a description of the true believer. In contrast to the hearer-only, “he bent over the mirror, and, gripped by what he saw, he continued looking and obeying its precepts. This feature marks his crucial difference to the first man.” This man is gazing into “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (v. 25 ). That refers to the gospel in its fullest sense—the whole counsel of God, the implanted word that saves (v. 21 ). Burdick writes,
It is not merely the OT law, nor is it the Mosaic law perverted to become a legalistic system for earning salvation by good works. When James calls it the “perfect law,” he has in mind the sum total of God’s revealed truth—not merely the preliminary portion found in the OT, but also the final revelation made through Christ and his Apostles that was soon to be inscripturated in the NT. Thus it is complete, in contrast to that which is preliminary and preparatory. Furthermore, it is the “law of liberty” (Gr.), by which James means that it does not enslave. It is not forced by external compulsion. Instead, it is freely accepted and fulfilled with glad devotion under the enablements of the Spirit of God ( Gal. 5:22–23 ).
James is not speaking of law in contrast to gospel. “The perfect law of liberty” is the implanted Word (v. 21 ). Those who understand the phrase “the perfect law of liberty” to mean something separate from the gospel miss James’ point. In describing the man who looks at the Word, continues in it, and is blessed, he is portraying the effect of true conversion.
Does this mean all true believers are doers of the Word? Yes. Do they always put the Word into practice? No—or a pastor’s task would be relatively simple. Believers do fail, and they sometimes fail in appalling ways. But even when they fail, true believers will not altogether cease having the disposition and motivation of one who is a doer. James, then, offers these words as both a reminder to the true believer (the “effectual doer,” v. 25 ), and a challenge to unbelievers who have identified with the truth but are not obedient to it (the “forgetful hearer[s]”).
The unbridled tongue. James further illustrates the deceptive nature of hearing without obeying: “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” ( 1:26–27 ).
The word translated “religious” in verse 26 is thrēskos , a word often used in reference to ceremonial public worship. It is the word Josephus used, for example, when he described the worship of the Temple. Thrēskeia (“religion,” vv. 26–27 ) is the same word Paul used in Acts 26:5 to refer to the tradition of the Pharisees. It emphasizes the externals of ceremony, ritual, liturgy, and so on. James is saying that all such things, when divorced from meaningful obedience, are worthless.
All of us struggle to control our tongues. It was James who wrote, “For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well” ( 3:2 ). But this man’s tongue is like an unbridled horse. He lets it run wild while deceiving his own heart ( 1:26 ). He is not battling a transitory lapse in tongue control. He is dominated by a pattern that characterizes his very nature. Though he professes to be religious, his character is out of sync with his claim. While he undoubtedly thinks of himself as righteous, he is misled about the efficacy of his own religion.
Despite this man’s external religion, his constantly unbridled and out-of-control tongue demonstrates a deceived and unholy heart, for “the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart” ( Matt. 15:18 ). “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” ( Luke 6:45 ). Our Lord warned, “By your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned” ( Matt. 12:37 ).
Kistemaker notes the significance of the expression “deceiving his own heart”:
This is the third time that James tells his readers not to deceive themselves ( 1:16 , 22 , 26 ). As a pastor he is fully aware of counterfeit religion that is nothing more than external formalism. He knows that many people merely go through the motions of serving God, but their speech gives them away. Their religion has a hollow ring. And although they do not realize it, by their words and by their actions—or lack of them—they deceive themselves. Their heart is not right with God and their fellow man, and their attempt to hide this lack of love only heightens their self-deception. Their religion is worthless.
This worthless religion contrasts sharply with the true religion that is “pure and undefiled … in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (v. 27 ). James is not here attempting to define religion, but rather to set forth a concrete illustration of the principle he began with: that true religion involves more than mere hearing. True saving faith will inevitably bear the fruit of good works.
The first thirteen verses of James 2 continue to expand on James’ contention that believers are by disposition doers of the Word, not mere hearers. He confronts the problem of favoritism, which evidently had arisen in the church or churches James was writing to. Bearing in mind that this is the context, we move ahead to James 2:14. Here, after warning his readers that they were facing judgment for their unholy and unmerciful behavior (v. 13 ), James turns to the heart of the matter: their apparent misconception that faith is an inert ingredient in the salvation formula. His challenge could not be clearer:
What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works, when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
James 2:14–26 , emphasis added
No less than five times in that passage (vv. 14 , 17 , 20 , 24 , 26 ), James reiterates his thesis: passive faith is not efficacious faith. It is a frontal attack on the empty profession of those whose hope is in a dormant faith.
Reicke writes, “It must be noted that the discussion is about a person who only asserts that he has faith. This person has no real faith, since his faith does not find expression in deeds. The author does not take issue with faith itself, but with a superficial conception of it which permits faith to be only a formal concession. He desires to point out that a Christianity of mere words does not lead to salvation.” Cranfield likewise observes, “The clue to the understanding of the section is the fact (very often ignored) that in verse 14 … the author has not said, ‘if a man have faith,’ but ‘if a man say he hath faith.’ This fact should be allowed to control our interpretation of the whole paragraph.… The burden of this section is not (as is often supposed) that we are saved through faith plus works, but that we are saved through genuine, as opposed to counterfeit, faith.”
James cannot be teaching that salvation is earned by works. He has already described salvation as a “good thing bestowed” and a “perfect gift” given when “in the exercise of His will [God] brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we might be, as it were, the first fruits among His creatures” ( 1:17–18 ). Faith is part and parcel of that perfect gift. It is supernaturally bestowed by God, not independently conceived in the mind or will of the individual believer.
As we noted in chapter 3 , faith is not a wistful longing, or a blind confidence, or even “ inward conviction. ” It is a supernatural certainty, an understanding of spiritual realities “which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him. For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God” ( 1 Cor. 2:9–10 ). Faith is a gift of God, not something conjured up by human effort, so no one can boast—not even about his faith (cf. Eph. 2:8–9 ).
In the phrase “if a man says he has faith, but he has no works” (v. 14 ), the verbs are present tense. They describe someone who routinely claims to be a believer yet continuously lacks any external evidence of faith. The question “Can that faith save him?” employs the Greek negative particle mē , indicating that a negative reply is assumed. It might literally be rendered, “That faith cannot save him, can it?” James, like the apostle John, challenges the authenticity of a profession of faith that produces no fruit (cf. 1 John 2:4 , 6 , 9 ). The context indicates that the “works” he speaks of are not anyone’s bid to earn eternal life. These are acts of compassion (v. 15 ).
Faith in this context is clearly saving faith (v. 1 ). James is speaking of eternal salvation. He has referred to “the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” in 1:21 . Here he has the same salvation in view. He is not disputing whether faith saves. Rather, he is opposing the notion that faith can be a passive, fruitless, intellectual exercise and still save. Where there are no works, we must assume no faith exists either. On this matter James merely echoes Jesus, who said, “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit” ( Matt. 7:16–18 ). No works, no faith. Real faith inevitably produces faith-works.
Here even Charles Ryrie sounds like an advocate of “lordship salvation”:
Can a non-working, dead, spurious faith save a person? James is not saying that we are saved by works, but that a faith that does not produce good works is a dead faith.…
Unproductive faith cannot save, because it is not genuine faith. Faith and works are like a two-coupon ticket to heaven. The coupon of works is not good for passage, and the coupon of faith is not valid if detached from works.
James follows with an illustration comparing faith without works to phony compassion, words without action: “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” ( 2:15–16 ). The faith of a false professor is similarly useless: “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (v. 17 ).
James concludes with a challenge to those whose profession is suspect: “But someone may well say, ‘You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works’ ” (v. 18 ). Commentators disagree on whether “someone” refers to an objector and how much of the discourse that follows is to be attributed to this “someone” as opposed to James himself. However one reads it, the essential point James is making is clear: The only possible evidence of faith is works. How can anyone show faith without works? It cannot be done.
Barnes distills the sense of the passage:
James was not arguing against real and genuine faith, nor against its importance in justification, but against the supposition that mere faith was all that was necessary to save a man, whether it was accompanied by good works or not. He maintains that if there is genuine faith it will always be accompanied by good works, and that it is only that faith which can justify and save. If it leads to no practical holiness of life … it is of no value whatever.
James continues his assault on passive faith with this shocking statement: “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (v. 19 ). Orthodox doctrine by itself is no proof of saving faith. Demons affirm the oneness of God and tremble at its implications, but they are not redeemed. Matthew 8:29 tells of a group of demons who recognized Jesus as the Son of God. They even exhibited fear. Demons often acknowledge the existence and authority of Christ ( Matt. 8:29–30 ; Mark 5:7 ), His deity ( Luke 4:41 ), and even His resurrection ( Acts 19:15 ), but their diabolical nature is not changed by what they know and believe. Their fearful affirmation of orthodox doctrine is not the same as saving faith.
James implies that demonic faith is greater than the fraudulent faith of a false professor, for demonic faith produces fear, whereas unsaved men have “no fear of God before their eyes” ( Rom. 3:18 ). If the demons believe, tremble, and are not saved, what does that say about those who profess to believe and don’t even tremble? (cf. Isa. 66:2 , 5 ).
Puritan Thomas Manton perfectly sums up the subtly deceptive nature of the sterile orthodoxy that constitutes demonic faith:
[It is] a simple and naked assent to such things as are propounded in the word of God, and maketh men more knowing but not better, not more holy or heavenly. They that have it may believe the promises, the doctrines, the precepts as well as the histories … but yet, lively saving faith it is not, for he who hath that, findeth his heart engaged to Christ, and doth so believe the promises of the gospel concerning pardon of sins and life eternal that he seeketh after them as his happiness, and doth so believe the mysteries of our redemption by Christ that all his hope and peace and confidence is drawn from thence, and doth so believe the threatenings, whether of temporal plagues or eternal damnation, as that, in comparison with them, all the frightful things of the world are nothing.
James utters his strongest rebuke so far: “Are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” ( 2:20 ). He labels the objector “foolish,” meaning “empty, defective.” The man is hollow, because he lacks a living faith; his claim that he believes is fraudulent; his faith is a sham.
Hiebert writes, “ ‘Wilt thou know’ ( theleis gnōnai ), ‘are you willing to know,’ implies an unwillingness by the objector to face the issue. His unwillingness to agree with the truth set forth is not due to any obscurity of the subject but to his reluctance to acknowledge the truth. The aorist infinitive rendered ‘know’ also can mean ‘recognize’ or ‘acknowledge’ and calls for a definite act of acknowledgment by the objector. His refusal to do so would imply inner perversity of will.”
Both “faith” and “works” in verse 20 carry definite articles in the Greek (“the faith without the works”). “Useless” is argē , meaning “barren, unproductive.” The sense seems to be that it is unproductive for salvation. The King James Version uses the word dead. Certainly that is the sense conveyed here (cf. vv. 17 , 26 ). Dead orthodoxy has no power to save. It may in fact even be a hindrance to true and living faith. So James is not contrasting two methods of salvation (faith versus works). His contrast is between two kinds of faith: one that saves and one that doesn’t.
James is simply affirming the truth of 1 John 3:7–10 : “Little children, let no one deceive you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.” Righteous behavior is an inevitable result of spiritual life. Faith that fails to produce such behavior is dead.
For brevity’s sake, we must forego looking closely at the examples of living faith from the lives of Abraham and Rahab ( 2:21–25 ). Nonetheless, here is an abridged statement of the point James is making: Abraham and Rahab, though they came from opposite ends of the social and religious spectrum, both had an attitude of willingness to sacrifice what mattered most to them because of their faith. That submission was proof their faith was real.
The most serious problem these verses pose is the question of what verse 24 means: “You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” Some imagine that this contradicts Paul in Romans 3:28 : “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” John Calvin explained this apparent difficulty:
It appears certain that [James] is speaking of the manifestation, not of the imputation of righteousness, as if he had said, Those who are justified by faith prove their justification by obedience and good works, not by a bare and imaginary semblance of faith. In one word, he is not discussing the mode of justification, but requiring that the justification of all believers shall be operative. And as Paul contends that men are justified without the aid of works, so James will not allow any to be regarded as Justified who are destitute of good works.… Let them twist the words of James as they may, they will never extract out of them more than two propositions: That an empty phantom of faith does not justify, and that the believer, not contented with such an imagination, manifests his justification by good works.
James is not at odds with Paul. “They are not antagonists facing each other with crossed swords; they stand back to back, confronting different foes of the gospel.” As we have seen, in 1:17–18 , James affirmed that salvation is a gift bestowed according to the sovereign will of God. Now he is stressing the importance of faith’s fruit—the righteous behavior that genuine faith always produces. Paul, too, saw righteous works as the necessary proof of faith.
Those who imagine a discrepancy between James and Paul rarely observe that it was Paul who wrote, “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!” ( Rom. 6:15 ); and “Having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (v. 18 ). Thus Paul condemns the same error James is exposing here. Paul never advocated any concept of dormant faith.
When Paul writes, “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight,” ( Rom. 3:20 ), he
is combatting a Jewish legalism which insisted upon the need for works to be justified; James insists upon the need for works in the lives of those who have been justified by faith. Paul insists that no man can ever win justification through his own efforts.… James demands that a man who already claims to stand in right relationship with God through faith must by a life of good works demonstrate that he has become a new creature in Christ. With this Paul thoroughly agreed. Paul was rooting out ‘works’ that excluded and destroyed saving faith; James was stimulating a sluggish faith that minimized the results of saving faith in daily life.
James and Paul both echo Jesus’ preaching. Paul’s emphasis resounds with the spirit of Matthew 5:3 : “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” James’ teaching has the ring of Matthew 7:21 : “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.” Paul represents the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount; James the end of it. Paul declares that we are saved by faith without the deeds of the law. James declares that we are saved by faith, which shows itself in works. Both James and Paul view good works as the proof of faith—not the path to salvation.
James could not be more explicit. He is confronting the concept of a passive, false “faith,” which is devoid of the fruits of salvation. He is not arguing for works in addition to or apart from faith. He is showing why and how true, living faith always works. He is fighting against dead orthodoxy and its tendency to abuse grace.
The error James assails closely parallels the teaching of no-lordship salvation. It is faith without works; justification without sanctification; salvation without new life.
Again, James echoes the Master Himself, who insisted on a theology of lordship that involved obedience, not lip-service. Jesus chided the disobedient ones who had attached themselves to Him in name only: “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” ( Luke 6:46 ). Verbal allegiance, He said, will get no one to heaven ( Matt. 7:21 ).
That is in perfect harmony with James: “Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” ( 1:22 ); for “faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” ( 2:17 ).
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