Faith and Works

Admittedly, the thought that Christ did everything to make us acceptable to God and we don’t do anything violently clashes with what we naturally think. We just assume that we have to do something to merit God’s favor. The apostle Paul acknowledged that when he wrote, “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” (1 Corinthians 1:23) A little bit later he added: “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14) As these passages bring out, in spiritual matters, it is vitally important to rely on what Scripture says rather than on what we think.

What does Scripture say? It states that we are saved without any of our doing. “For by grace are we saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:  Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Some argue that Paul is referring to the works demanded by Old Testament law. But the context doesn’t allow that interpretation. Paul was writing to the Ephesian congregation, the majority of whom were not Jews and were not even familiar with Old Testament law. Instead, as he says just a few verses before, they “walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” (2:2). They were walking or living according to the course of this world, not Old Testament law. Therefore when he continues by saying that we are not saved by works it is apparent that this means works that are considered good by all people and not just Jews.

Jesus also emphasized that we are saved by faith and not works in his famous words recorded in John 3. Read the following verses and compare the times he talks about believing with the times he talks about working. “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.  He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (3:15-18).

Five times he talks about believing. But he never even mentions works. This is especially striking because the topic is everlasting or eternal life, i.e. being saved. This, Jesus says, come solely through believing. Salvation by faith alone is the consistent message of Scripture. “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life though Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

Faith Is Not a Work

But isn’t faith itself something we must do and thus a work? That sounds reasonable. But that isn’t scriptural.  Look again at Ephesians 2:8-9. “For by grace are we saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:  Not of works, lest any man should boast.” If God considered faith a work, that passage makes no sense. It would have to say “not of any other work except faith”. But that isn’t what it says. It says “not of works” period.

This isn’t just playing with words either. Although believing or trusting that Jesus did it all is something people do -according to Scripture, the power to do that doesn’t come from within a person. It comes from outside a person. It comes from the Holy Ghost. (1 Corinthians 12:3)

The Bible emphasizes this in a striking way. It always pictures God as the one doing the work when someone first believes. He is the one who causes spiritually dead people to become spiritually alive.  (Ephesians 2:1)  Another picture it uses is God giving birth to believers.  (John 1:13) In still another picture, God is the one who enlightens people about the truth of salvation when they were blind to that fact.  (2 Corinthians 4:6) This passage is especially instructive because it compares God’s activity with his creation of light. Just as his command, “Let there be light”, actually created the light at creation so also his command to believe actually creates the faith to believe.

No place is this better illustrated than in the conversion of St. Paul in Acts 9. He was the last person who wanted to believe in Jesus. Rather he was “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). He had made it his life’s mission to wipe out the Lord’s church. But then Jesus literally knocked him off his high horse, and although he temporally became physically blind, his spiritual eyes were forever opened to the truth. From that moment on he dedicated his life to sharing the wonderful truth that in Christ’s one offering we can meet God’s standard of perfection! It was God who changed Paul from being a persecutor of the faith to a defender of the faith.

In these and other ways, Scripture consistently gives God the credit for bringing people to faith. Faith itself is a gift from God.

How About James 2:24?

This is a legitimate question. James 2:24 says, “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” That seems to clearly state that works play a part in a person’s salvation.

Before looking at this closer, let’s briefly consider the validity of the argument that the Bible was intentionally corrupted after the death of the apostles by leaders in the church. If that truly happened, it seems as if this would have been one of the first passages removed! For, on the surface, it appears to contradict many other passages – passages like Ephesians 2:8-9. It would have made sense to remove it. Just its presence speaks against the idea of an intentional manipulation of the Bible by the ancient church.

But back to the original question. Doesn’t James 2:24 teach that works are necessary for salvation? As is always the case, it’s extremely important to see this verse in its context. Verse 18 is especially pertinent. “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” The context is about people showing their faith to others. It’s dealing with how people demonstrate that they have faith. They show it and others see it – and then they are justified in the eyes of others – when they see believers acting out their faith.

Abraham’s example wonderfully illustrates that.  (James 2:21-23) It says that he was justified by his work of offering up his son Isaac. It further says this fulfills the Scripture that God credited Abraham’s faith as righteousness. That is a reference to Genesis 15 where Abraham believed God’s promise that he would have many children. His offering of Isaac is recorded in Genesis 22 which happened, and this is a very significant point, decades after Genesis 15. In other words, decades before Abraham was willing to offer up Isaac, God had already credited his faith as righteousness! In other words, God didn’t wait to credit Abraham’s faith as righteousness until Abraham did some work. He did it immediately. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, decades later, only served as evidence that he believed. In other words, his “work” of sacrificing Isaac was not part of the root system of his righteousness; rather it was the result or fruit of his righteousness.

The central fact on which James 2 rests is that faith is invisible to man. As 1 Samuel 16:7 says, God can look into the heart but we can’t. Therefore the only way we can see faith in others or show others that we believe is by the deeds faith produces. (v.18) As James points out, faith and works are in a similar relationship as our soul and body. Both faith and our souls are invisible to the human eye. How do we know when the soul is gone?  It’s when the outward body has no life. That is why we check for a pulse. So also with faith. How do we detect the presence of faith? By a person’s works. Their works are like the body’s pulse.  They show signs of life – of faith. “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.” (v.26)

It is absolutely true that faith and works are closely connected. Faith is like the sun while works are like the rays beaming from the sun. But it is also absolutely true that they are distinct from each other. Faith alone saves, but faith is never alone. It’s vitally important to keep that distinction clear. Placing works into the root system of salvation by regarding them as a cause of salvation is an error that has eternal consequences. Since all human works is imperfect, adding them to Jesus’ masterpiece of perfection would be like adding a few brushstrokes to a Rembrandt. It ruins the masterpiece.

Works are not an essential element of faith. They are fruits of faith. As such, they naturally flow from faith and show the presence of faith. That is what James 2 is all about.

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