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.