7-Minute Parish Catechesis – Lesson 15 (St. Paul and St. James on Good Works)

Regarding good 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.”

Abraham’s Justification

In the first paragraph, James says, “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.  Read Genesis 12 to 15:6 and notice all that Abraham does before he is justified.  His faith is living, not 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 Saints Paul and James

Compare what James is saying with Paul’s statements in Romans 4.  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 (a living 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 in 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. 

Conclusion

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 for understanding faith and works.  In the next article, I’ll lay out an analogy for the roles of grace, faith, and works in the scheme of salvation.

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