6-Part Series on the Process of Salvation (Part 4: Paul vs. James on Faith and Works)

Regarding works in scheme of salvation, James 2:14-26, says, “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works?  Can his faith save him?  So, faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  Do you want to be shown, you foolish fellow, that faith apart from works is barren?  Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?  You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness;’ and he was called the friend of God.  You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.  For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.” 

Additionally, James 1:22-27 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Finally, regarding sins of omissions, James 4:17 says, “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”

In the first paragraph, James said, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  This is correct.  Abraham’s faith truly justified him.  If, however, Abraham failed to do the works to which God called him (e.g. circumcision and offering Isaac on the alter), his faith would have been dead. 

One might respond by saying, “If Abraham did not do good works, he never had real faith.”  However, this misunderstanding of faith contradicts James 2:14, which states, “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works,” upon which James’ teaching on works is based.  It also contradicts James 2:24, which says, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”  A person can have real faith “alone” without works.  This is called sloth, a spiritual laziness.  I could truly believe in God and put my full trust in Him, but if I do not do His will, my faith is dead.  Faith, good works and refraining from sin are how we remain justified. 

Compare what James is saying with Paul’s statements in Romans 4 referenced in article 2 of this series.  James is talking about a person who already has faith and the importance of continuing in the faith with good works.  Paul, however, it is talking about someone who has not yet assented to the faith.  This person, as previously stated, cannot work their way to God.  They must be justified by faith first.  Otherwise, works count for nothing. 

Paul concludes his point on faith without works nicely in Romans 9:30-32.  “…Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law.  Why?  Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works.”  Most of Romans chapter 2 through chapter 11 is dealing with works of the Law preceding faith rather than faith completed with good works.  Paul then rounds out the first three chapters of Romans with this statement, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith?  By no means!  On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom 3:31).

Both James and Paul use Abraham as their example but from different points of view.  Paul describes Abraham’s transition from lacking faith to having faith.  James describes Abraham’s actions after having faith.  When a man moves from having no faith to having faith, his faith is credited to him as righteousness, just as Paul says.  When a man does good works because of his faith and grace, his works are credited to him as righteousness.  Otherwise, his faith would be dead, just as James says. 

One cannot earn salvation, but one can surely lose it by refusing to obey God.  Paul’s words about boasting because of our works should keep us humble.  For it is only by the grace of God that our good works, and even our faith, count for anything, and only by His grace that we can have faith and do good works in the first place.  A proper understanding of both James and Paul (and Jesus, of course) is necessary in understanding faith and works.  Still, someone might look at the very first article’s statement about baptism and ask, “What is baptism’s role in the economy of salvation?”

5 Replies to “6-Part Series on the Process of Salvation (Part 4: Paul vs. James on Faith and Works)”

  1. Thank you for your question! If by “in all, the action is on the part of God,” you mean that God’s grace underpins and prompts the believer’s good works, then yes. If you mean all the believer’s good works are God performing the actions by some kind of divine puppeteering, then no. Rather, God provides the grace and other physical/spiritual tools, and Christians are called to cooperate by using them. Let’s go back to the Garden of Eden for a moment. Adam and Eve were created in a state of justice (“very good” as Genesis says), they were created to live without physical or spiritual death, they had everything good, God walked with them in the cool of the evening, and they had dominion over creation. In other words, they were designed to be with God and to have authority over His creation. They were “very good” while they stayed in this state.

    If God puppeteered them, they would have never sinned. They sinned because of temptation and by their free will; a free will God gave them, a free will that was “very good.” If we say that God puppeteered their good actions, then we would have to say he either stopped controlling them when they sinned or that God caused their sinful acts. Neither option makes sense. In fact, if God’s desire is to control human behavior, we are left with only two conclusions: God is a dictator who, thus, needs to dictate, or he causes sinful behavior. Since God is perfect (an imperfect God could change, but God is always the same according to Scripture), He is perfectly happy without us. Creating rational creatures in order to manipulate them would necessarily mean God needs to manipulate and that He would not be happy unless he had others to manipulate. The second option, He causes us to sin, is even worse. If God causes evil, the evil would come from within God’s very being and He would, therefore, be evil. Therefore, God does not dictate. He instructs with truth, gives grace and allows us to participate in His eternal plan. Furthermore, all Jesus’ admonitions to do good works and avoid sin would be pointless if God simply dictated our behavior.

    Hebrews 5-11 states, “And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.’ Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

    If God controls the Christian’s behavior, this passage would not make sense. Why would God discipline us if he controls our behavior? This would add to the above problem. If God controls us and, yet, disciplines us, He created us for the purpose of discipline. If these things were true, we would have a dictator god and/or a sadist god. Instead, and thankfully so, we have a Father God.

    God bless!

  2. On discipline, what strikes me is the comparison of a father and his son as it is an exact reflection of the state of this nation and the world today. We’ve gradually become so undisciplined that any truth whether it be doctrine or anything we know to be morally and spiritually correct is made out to seem against the norm and offensive and we as Christians are ostracized for it.

    1. I agree! I think St. Paul agrees with you as well. In 2 Tim 1:1-5, he says to Timothy, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” When people are not instructed in sound truths, they wander into distorted truths and lies.

      God bless!

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