The subject of faith and works comes up time and again in pastoral ministry – I’ve met saints wondering how much they need to do to prove to themselves they are really saved; I’ve met saints coming towards the end of their days here on earth wondering whether they have done enough to get to heaven, and much of it comes from knowing that scripture says, “faith without works is dead.”
A large part of the problem here (apart from the enemy trying to get us away from Jesus and onto ourselves) is the failure to understand an authors use of words.
In Alice Through the Looking Glass we find this conversation:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”
How someone uses a word is vitally important. When reading James it’s frequently assumed that James is using words in the same way as Paul, and so we read James through Paul. Save/saved becomes eternal salvation, justified becomes being made right with God, faith becomes saving faith, works the means of earning something.
When doing a degree course one of the things you have to do is explain how you are going to use a particular word (obviously not your everyday words – but those terms that are more technical) because there can be variance’s of meaning, understanding and usage. People who read what you have to say need to know how you use those words – the same applies to the Bible.
As we believe in the inspiration an unity of scripture we need read everything in context.
A Reminder of the Gospel
One thing we need to be sure of is what is the gospel, so let’s take a look at some scriptures:
John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him, should not perish but have eternal life.” Notice it is believes, not works.
Acts 16:31, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved,” Notice again, believe not work.
Romans 3:24-28 provides us with a theological summary of the Gospel, saying that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (High-lighting mine).
Notice the words, ‘grace,’ ‘gift,’ ‘received by faith’, ‘justified by faith apart from works’. You can’t get much clearer than that!
But probably no text of Holy Scripture tells it quite as well as Romans 4:5: “And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
Ephesians 2:8, 9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Romans 5:1, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
And Romans 11:6 makes it abundantly clear when it says, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
If the Gospel is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, then we can indeed say with all confidence, Jesus plus nothing = everything. This is truly the good news, anything else or less is not, the moment works enter into the frame we’ve lost it and it then becomes the measure of our works, 60/40, 50/50 etc… to which there is no answer.
When counselling those who’ve said, I don’t know whether I’ve done enough, my answer has been, it’s never about whether you have done enough, it’s about whether Jesus has.
So back to James.
In my Bible it’s got a heading put in by the makers over the section beginning at chapter 2:14, Faith and Works. That’s wrong and I’ve crossed it out. It tells us something the text doesn’t. It makes faith and works the two parallel lines of a train track – keep them together and you’ll get there in the end, but if one doesn’t go all the way you will be derailed.
Another thing, it disconnects it from what James has been talking about and appears to make it a new subject, it isn’t!
Third, some Bibles also add extra words, so “Can that faith/such faith save him…” That or such is not there in the original. Some commentators don’t help either by taking their cue from such a reading and talking about it in terms of a spurious or false faith – that is not what James says.
James affirms their faith, calling them brothers and sisters time and time again, people who have the implanted word and hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (the New Living Translation is wrong in saying, “How can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you show favour…” 2:1). At no point does he doubt their faith or feel the need to share the gospel with them because they might not be saved. They are.
The problem is they are not living the gospel. They have been experiencing various trials (certainly not what they had expected) and they had lost sight of God’s purpose and failed to obtain his wisdom, and therefore become prone to temptation and were now behaving like the world around them. Their faith was private and personal. It was self-serving rather than other-serving, and James writes not to question their salvation but to call them up. To lived saved. To a faith that works. To be salt and light. To a faith manifested before the world.
What about your faith are you giving life and energy to it – or is it hidden away and private?
Why not look out for opportunities this week to give life and expression to it.