Feedback; Faith vs. Works

I recently had a reader ask about faith vs. works, and this is a very common question.  Often, the perceived conflict can come in another “vs.” form; Paul vs. James.  There is indeed a reason why many people have this question, it can indeed be confusing.

We have Paul on one hand who makes it absolutely clear that faith is a main component of salvation (Grace being the other), and works are not.  We cannot work our way to Heaven, nor can we work our way into God’s good graces.  It doesn’t function that way.  God’s grace is just that; it is unmerited favour; it is unearned favour.  Unearned is a clear word to use, as God gives His grace as a gift.  So if all of this is so clear, what’s the issue?

James 2:20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

That is the verse that throws a lot of people off.  There is a short answer to this question and a long answer.  Let’s do the long answer first.  The long answer starts with a few important facts.  First, James was the head of the church in Jerusalem, and was writing to Christians who were indeed Jewish.  James also came to faith after Christ resurrected.  If you read his story in scripture, James did not believe Jesus was the Son of God whilst He lived, but only after He was resurrected.  This means James would have been learning about the new covenant probably through the other apostles.  Scripture definitely reads as though James was more “clingy” to the old covenant system.

Paul, on the other hand, was specifically designated to be the apostle to the Gentiles.  His teaching, his letters were also labeled as scripture by the other apostles; this is a great honour and shows his teachings were held to the same level as the old testament.  He was taught his message by Jesus Himself after the resurrection.  We know Paul’s position on these issues to be airtight.  What does that mean for us as we read the scriptures in James that can seem a bit contradictory.  This means we need to interpret James through Paul, and not Paul through James.  This does not mean that James is completely wrong, it just means James needs to be put into context.

Paul taught about the New Covenant, and made himself abundantly clear about the role of faith, especially in books like Galatians, and Romans.  One of the things that James was apparently trying to get at was that if you are saved, if you have the transforming power of the Holy Spirit inside you, it will come out of you in such a way that others can tell.  We have a list of the fruit of the Spirit, so it is apparent that James isn’t wrong on this idea, but we must be very very careful in how we approach the idea lest we leave any room at all for legalism.

In James’ examples he’s careful to always include faith; why?  Because he knows, even if it seems he’s hedging a bit, that faith is where right action starts, and that is if faith where the righteousness comes in.  Any work that is really good is not of us, but of God; it is the Holy Spirit inside of us that pulls us toward righteousness.  In the examples that James gives, like Abraham, and Rahab, they started with faith; and it was their faith that God responded to, and that He considered righteousness.  James’ point is that they did not stop at that faith point, but continued on in action.  That has nothing to do with salvation.  Notice that James, rightly or wrongly, is discussing how we appear before other humans.  I can have true faith all day long, and God will know it regardless of physical action; but other humans can’t see “faith,” they can only see works.

One is saved by Christ, by grace and faith.  Our proper response to God’s grace is a faith response; to come to trust Christ utterly and completely for our salvation.  That brings me to the short answer to this question of faith vs. works.  James says to look at works, ok.  So, what does Jesus Himself tell us?

John 6:29 Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.

The word there for “believe” is Pisteuo in the Greek; that ye faithe on Him whom He hath sent.  Christ leaves no room for a legalistic interpretation of James; the work of God is to faithe on Christ.  Period.

Now, if one has the Holy Spirit, and lives long enough, will the Holy Spirit work on him/her?  Absolutely.  It doesn’t always happen over night, but it does happen over time…sometimes a long time.  That process of sanctification should not be confused with salvation.  Once we place our faith in Christ by God’s grace, that is what saves us.  Walking and living our lives in faith with the help of the Holy Spirit is a part of the process too, but it is a different issue than salvation.


Filed under Christianity, Theology

9 responses to “Feedback; Faith vs. Works

  1. Your post is so good and on time so many people have been hurt and are being hurt because of the word not being rightly divided! If we would just realize that God started this work in us through his Son Jesus and he will bring it to completion,but some people just try to be the Spirit and that ant happening. Only God can bring change and as you said it’s a process sometimes long! Thanks for sharing well done.
    Numbers 6:24~26

    • Kliska

      Thank you as well for stopping by and commenting!

      You are right, one of the issues when we start “trying” to finish the work that God started in us, we are inevitably going to fail if we think we do anything good on our own…Paul is quite clear in his instruction to yield to righteousness, which makes it obvious that it isn’t us doing the work, but we are to be yielding to Him who is. We should always keep our eyes on Christ and realize where all our righteousness come from…from Him!

      Grace and peace.

  2. DB Williams

    Great post, Kliska!

    This is so important to understand, because the enemies of God, including our own flesh, want to rob us of the freedom and life which Christ died to give us, “Once and for all!”

    We are not justified, in the eyes of Father, by works of the flesh. We, as Paul makes clear, “are justified by faith alone (in Christ crucified for our sins and resurrected) that no man should boast.”

    We are “free indeed!”

  3. Roger

    Very interesting. I’ve always favored works because of my thought that over the long run talk is cheap and true faith would show itself in works. Often it seems emphasis on grace is used as a subconscious and sometimes conscious way to excuse oneself from committing to works. On the other hand, works can be used as way to obtain bragging rights and status. Neither path, by itself, is true. You blend and make sense of the usual grace vs. works conundrum in a way I hadn’t heard expressed before. Nicely done.

    I find it interesting that you (and many others) give more weight to Paul than to James. Both apparently only knew Christ after his death/resurrection… James, according to Paul’s own account in Corinthians, was one of the person to whom the risen Christ showed himself… and he refers to him as one of the three pillars of the Church and as a brother of Christ (he apparently might have been a cousin). I’m no expert, but it seems to be more of an accident of history that Paul is the most famous of the apostles… probably mostly due to his success in spreading the church in the gentile world – in particular, making it palatable to the Romans (reportedly in part by down-playing the role of women and by blaming the Jews for the death of Christ [removing what should have been shared Roman responsibility]). Anyway, regardless… you bring the two together in regards to the grace vs. works question. Again – nicely done.

    • Kliska

      That’s the catch; true faith brings about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Who then produces truly righteous fruit through those that will yield…a Christian with good understanding will fully admit that truly good and righeous fruit (which can include, but is not limited to outward work) will come, but not by human effort, only by God.

      There are reasons why Paul is put forward a bit more than James. First, he was given charge over the Gentiles, both by the Spirit and by the apostles. Secondly he was taught God, not man, after Christ’s resurrection (see Galatians chapter 1). From scripture, it appears James was thrust into his leadership role because of his familial relationship with Jesus…and, yes, I do believe James was the (half) brother of Jesus via Mary. It would only make sense in a cultural context that the Jewish believers at the time of Jesus would put a relative in the position of leadership, so James was put at the head of the church at Jerusalem either rightly or wrongly. Also, it is interesting to note in scripture where the other apostles, esp. Peter put a lot of weight on Paul, blatantly placing Paul’s writings right up there with other scripture.

      You’ll also notice in

      Galatians 2:9 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.

      That Paul doesn’t come out and call them pillars…what does he actually do? He shows his annoyance with their tendency to try to lay down the law again on believers. Big no-no, as the whole of the letter to the Galatians attests to. To give those involved credit, they did eventually come to agree with Paul, who was in the right. It is clear, at least to me, that God chose Paul to insure proper teaching on matters of faith.

  4. jerry mcgrew

    I liked all the replies. please read First Cor. ch. 3, especially v. 15.Works don’t save.

  5. Mark

    I love your response, and as a Grace teacher it is refreshing to see this question answerred from the perspective of the (unadulterated) Word of God. I must say however that if you study Pauls writtings in Romans and Galations he constantly refers to works as works of the Law, and what is meant by this is that you cannot be justified, saved, obtain anything from God by works of the law. However if you look at James’ writtings you will see that he is talking about a different type of work, he is actually referring to works of faith(praying, positive confession, responding to the word over the flesh). Thank you agian for the perspective you have given.

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