Faith that Works

Those who theologize as they are reading the Scriptures (we all do, as a matter of fact) sometimes stumble as they encounter a seeming contradiction between Paul and James. 


What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter?  If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness (Romans 4:1-5).


What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds (James 2:14-18).

A close and honest look at the two passages reveal, however, that there is no contradiction but rather, they are complementary.  James is revealing the quality of faith that is required for salvation.


Throughout the history of the Church, people have always struggled to keep the balance between faith and works.  The Protestant Reformation was launched in large part because the Catholic Church had drifted into a works-based salvation.  Medieval Catholics had to do all the seven sacraments in hopes of achieving eternal life.  There was always the gnawing fear that the adherent somehow wouldn’t measure up when he died.  Sadly, such works-based understanding is still prevalent in some Catholics and even Protestants.

Another distortion comes from the other side of the spectrum emphasizing God’s grace.  If God’s grace abounds where sin is abundant, then why not go out and “party on?”  The theological term for that persuasion is antinomianism and it has always been recognized as a gross misunderstanding of the Gospel.  Paul, seemingly thinking out loud, counters the lie in Romans 6:1-2:

What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?  May it never be!  How shall we who died to sing still live in it? (NASB)

Evangelical Foibles

Evangelicals have generally avoided both the work-based or libertine distortions.  Instead, we have our own complex misunderstanding of faith and works. We have always been concerned about right living and devotion to God.  We have, however, often become legalistic and performance-oriented rather than grace-oriented in our approach to the Christian life.  We tend to think that we are good Christians if we have our morning devotions and go to church regularly.  If we don’t do our morning devotions, Bible study, prayer and attend church, we develop a deep sense of guilt.  Somehow, we are not measuring up. 

That is not New Testament faith. Such a faith is a variation on Pharisee faith.  Our approval from
God is based on our performance.  We would never blatantly teach such a thing, but our guilty conscience and our judgmental spirit belie such an understanding. 

The questions we need to entertain are more to the core of who we are rather than doing “works” to gain God’s approval:

·         Are we overcoming sin in our lives?

·         Are we forgiving those who have wronged us, or are we holding grudges?

·         Are we truly trusting God in the circumstances of our lives or are we overcome by worry?

·         Are we doing acts of mercy and justice?

·         Do we think and act humbly before others and God?

·         Is the fruit of the Spirit manifest in our lives?

The answer to those questions will tell us whether or not we are living by faith – real faith as James is teaching.  The reality is that we cannot have a life that is being transformed by God if our mind is not being bathed in God’s Word, if we are not praying “without ceasing” throughout the day, and regularly being encouraged by true and authentic (vulnerable) fellowship with other believers.

Legalistic benchmarks such as quiet time, prayer, and church attendance miss the mark.  We can do those things and not be transformed if they are not motivated by faith but rather by fear and duty.  Here is the crux of the matter regarding faith and works:  We are approved by God when we live by faith – approval flows from his grace received by our faith.  We do good works not to gain approval, but because we are responding to the approval God has given to us by his grace.

Paul sums it up perfectly in Ephesians 2:8-10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (NIV)



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