James 2:14-26 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Welcome back to James 2:14-26. Since this is part two, if you weren’t here last week, I’d strongly encourage you to go back and read/listen to that sermon in order to make the most sense and get the most out of this sermon. The things I’m about to say are built on the foundation I laid last week.
In the way of a very brief recap, the main thing for you to know about James 2:14-26 is that in it we see James’s answer to one main question: What is the relationship between living a holy life and salvation through faith in Jesus?
By way of four examples, James answered that question in a small handful of ways. He said that in order to be saved, a person must have faith. However, he also said that a claim to faith is not the same as actually having faith. In fact, a claim to have faith apart from corresponding good works is dead faith, not-good-for-anything faith, useless faith, and incomplete faith. He went on to explain that even faith rooted in true things about God is not enough to save someone.
In the end, James’s main answer is that a person can only rightly claim to have saving faith when their faith is marked by good works. All of that is what we covered last week.
Having considered James’s (1) basic argument, then, we will turn our attention to the final three sections of this two-part sermon: (2) the “problem”, (3) the “solution”, and (4) the application.
Let’s pray that by doing so, God would help us understand and appreciate James’s contribution to the larger biblical picture of salvation, the real impact that ought to have on our lives, and that these things are the reason it is good to celebrate Psalm Sunday and the rest of Holy Week.
As I mentioned at the end of last Sunday’s sermon, if this passage from James was all we had on the relationship between faith and works, we’d be left with clarity, but we’d also be left with no small amount of concern. Thoughtful readers of James are left wondering, how many good deeds do I need to have in my life to be confident that my faith is genuine? What happens when I find some measure of hypocrisy? What do I do when I want to have good works, but they don’t seem to be coming?
On top of those concerns, and more to the point, as you all know, James isn’t the only biblical writer to address this subject. This letter is a part of the Bible, and all of the writings in the Bible are equally inspired by God and equally true. Therefore, when we read James say, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” and another part of the Bible say, “… by grace you have been saved through faith… 9 not a result of works…” (Ephesians 2:8-9), we need to get to the bottom of it.
Before I begin to help you see the “solution”, though, I want to first help you better understand and appreciate the “problem”. I mean to do so by first considering the larger story of salvation and then by reading a number of biblical passages from James and Paul that speak to the relationship between faith and works in salvation.
In order to get our heads around the reason James felt compelled to write what he did (in our passage), and the problem Paul’s teaching on the same subject seems to create, we need to zoom out a bit. This sermon is mainly about explaining the apparent contradiction in James’s and Paul’s answers to the question of the role of good works in salvation. But to really grasp that, we need to make sure we really get the larger question of salvation. In other words, we can only make sense of James’s and Paul’s (“contradictory”) answers after we’ve first made sense of their common question.
God made mankind to glorify and enjoy Him forever (Isaiah 43:7). The problem, however, is that since the first man and woman ate of the forbidden fruit, no one has done that. We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Consequently, we all stand guilty before God. Worse still, this is no mere misdemeanor. This is cosmic treason. The wages of our sin is eternal physical and spiritual death (Romans 6:23). The good news, however, is that God loved the world in such a way that He gave His one and only Son, Jesus Christ, as a ransom for sin (1 Timothy 2:6). Jesus, the very Son of God, was conceived by the Holy Spirit (was born without a sinful nature), lived a perfect life (had no sin of His own), and willingly offered Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind (2 Corinthians 5:21). Most simply, Jesus died and then rose from the dead to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
I said earlier that the main question James was answering in 2:14-26 concerned the relationship between good works and faith in salvation. That’s still true, but the larger question that James and Paul were both answering is this: How do we gain access to the saving, sacrificial work of Jesus? By what means are we connected with the salvation won by Jesus on the cross? And then, more specifically, are faith and/or works a part of that means?
With all of that in mind, then, let’s consider again the answer James gives in our passage for this morning and then that of Paul.
James and Paul on the Means of Salvation
To make the point clear, consider James’s main statements regarding faith and works.
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? [implied: none]
17 … faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 …Show me your faith apart from your works [implied: you can’t], and I will show you my faith by my works.
20 … faith apart from works is useless…
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works…? [implied: yes]
24 … a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
26 … faith apart from works is dead.
For James, the means by which sinful man gains access to the saving work of Jesus seems to be by some combination of faith and works together. Again, on the surface this seems clear enough. The “problem” comes when we lay that down next to some of what we find in the rest of the NT (especially Paul).
Romans 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
Philippians 3:9 not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ …
Galatians 2:21 … if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
And, perhaps, clearest of all, in Ephesians 2 we read…
Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
For Paul, the answer to the question of how we gain access to the saving work of Jesus seems clearly to be by faith alone, not by works. And that, of course, appears to be in direct contradiction to the answer given by James. What, then, are we to make of the different answers given by these men? What is the “solution” to this “problem”?
How do we reconcile James and Paul? I want to suggest and briefly explain five parts to the biblical “solution” to the “problem”: (1) Understanding Paul’s full teaching on faith and Works, (2) Understanding the distinct question James and Paul were attempting to answer, (3) Understanding what James and Paul meant by “justification”, (4) Understanding what James and Paul meant by “faith”, and (5) Understanding the order of salvation. As we dive in, it’s important for you to know that we’re barely scratching the surface. Brilliant God-loving men and women have written volume after volume on this subject. Think of this as a basic primer.
Paul’s Other Writing
The first part of the “solution” is actually to further complicate the “problem”. We just read a number of passages in which Paul clearly stated that salvation is by faith, not works. But in a number of other passages Paul seems to agree with James and contradict himself.
Romans 1:5 we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations…
Galatians 5:6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
1 Thessalonians 1:2-3 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
And maybe most importantly of all, consider Ephesians 2:10.
Ephesians 2:8-10 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
The main point for us to see here in this first prat of the “solution”, is that Paul clearly had an understanding of salvation that included good works as well as faith. Therefore, if it is right to assume that Paul was not contradicting himself (especially in passages like Ephesians 2:8-10 where the two thoughts exist right next to one another), that faith and works both play a role in our connection to Jesus’ saving work, there is good warrant for us to assume that he was not contradicting James either. The question, of course, is how these seemingly contradictory statements—made by James toward Paul, and Paul toward Paul—fit together.
Our next step in untangling all of this is to consider the main purpose for which James and Paul wrote.
Purpose in Writing
Imagine for a moment that you have a burst pipe and a basement filled with water. Now imagine two contractors describing how to fix your problem. One might say something like, “The solution is first to turn off the main water line. Then you need to cut away the section of pipe that failed. And finally, you’ll need to replace the failed section.” And the other might say something like, “Well, we’ll need to remove the carpet, trim, and damaged sheetrock. Then we’ll make sure everything is dried and bleached to avoid mold problems. And then we’ll get to work replacing everything we had to demo.”
These are two very different answers. On the surface they even seem contradictory. But in reality, they are simply offering solutions to two different aspects of the same problem.
That is very much what we find with Paul and James. The apparent contradiction between the two men fades even further when we recognize that they were offering solutions to two different aspects of the same problem.
In the “faith alone” passages we read earlier, Paul was addressing people who wrongly believed that access to the salvation won by Jesus came through obedience to the law of God, apart from faith. For that reason, he emphasized grace and faith.
On the other hand, James was primarily dealing with people who had swung the pendulum too far the other way. He was addressing people who wrongly believed that access to the saving work of Jesus came through nothing more than belief in (or acceptance of) certain facts about God, apart from holiness. For that reason, James emphasized the good works that always flow from genuine faith. These two men were offering solutions to two different aspects of the same problem. Therefore, they emphasized different aspects of the same answer.
Definition of Faith
The third part of the biblical “solution” to the “problem” of James and Paul concerns their use of the term “faith”. They both used the same Greek word, but they used it differently. This happens all the time in the Bible and in our own lives. For instance, when I say to Gerri, “It’ll be a minute,” I mean, “It’ll be a relatively short amount of time.” When she uses the same word (minute), she usually means “exactly 60 seconds or less.” That’s lead to some miscommunication and apparent contradictions.
When Paul spoke of faith in the passages I read above, he was using the term in reference to the authentic variety. Faith, for Paul, was a gift straight from God (Ephesians 2:8-9). He used the term to refer to the genuine fruit of God’s regenerating work in a person. Of course it didn’t need to be tested for purity, since it was directly from God and God only gives pure faith. Of course, Paul had a category for false professions of faith as well, but in the passages we read, he was referring to true faith.
On the other hand, James used the term “faith” differently. He used it to refer to any claim to believe in Jesus. For James, faith may or may not be genuine. Therefore, claims to faith must always be tested against the effects they produce.
Again, then, when Paul claims that we gain access to the benefits of the cross of Christ through faith apart from works, it is critical for us to understand that he understands “faith” as God-given, genuine trust in Jesus. But when James claims that salvation in Jesus comes by way of faith and works together, he has in mind a profession of belief in Jesus that must be verified by works of righteousness. That’s a big deal.
Definition of Justification
There’s one more definition that we need to settle on before coming to the final and most significant part of the solution. We must consider how Paul and James use the term “justified” because, once again, they use it in a significantly different way.
For Paul (and we’re going to come back to this in the next section), “justification” is a legal declaration. It is when God declares someone to be righteous based on the righteousness of Jesus imputed to them through faith.
For James, however, “justification” is different. Rather than a legal declaration, it is the proof or vindication of a claim. Again, James speaks of “faith” in terms of a claim that needs to be tested. A person is “justified,” then, at the point their claim is verified (by good works). I hope it’s easy for you to see that this too is a big deal.
James seems to say that access to salvation in Jesus comes through a combination of faith and works. Paul seems to say that it comes through faith alone. This apparent contradiction is shown to be only that—apparent—when we consider that Paul “contradicts” himself in a number of passages, linking faith and works together, that the two men were writing to different people, struggling with different problems, and that they were using two key terms (faith and justification) differently.
Order of Salvation
All of that brings us to one final piece of the “solution” to the James/Paul “problem”. And this is the one that brings it all together.
Most people, whether consciously or not, understand salvation to refer merely to an initial decision to trust in Jesus, and then a future, heavenly destination. The salvation God gives in Jesus definitely involves those two things, but the Bible paints a much bigger picture of the salvation than just those two things. In fact, in God’s Word we find ten, not two, aspects of salvation. (See the handout you received.)
- Election – God’s choice of people to be saved (Acts 13:48; Rom 9:11-13; Eph 1:4-6; 1 Thess. 1:4-5)
- Hearing the gospel call – proclaiming the message of the gospel (Rom 8:30; 1 Pet 2:9; 1 Cor 1:9; 1 Thes 2:12)
- Regeneration – being made spiritually alive/born again (John 1:13; John 3:3-8; 1 Pet 1:3; Acts 16:14)
- Conversion – responding in faith and repentance (John 1:12, 3:16, 6:37, 7:37, Matt 11:28-30)
- Justification – divine declaration of right legal standing (Rom 3:26-28; 5:1; 8:30; Gal 2:16)
- Adoption – membership in God’s family (John 1:12; 3:2; Rom 8:14-17; 9:7-8; Gal 3:23-26; 4:28)
- Sanctification – growing in holiness (Titus 3:5; 1 John 3:9; Rom 6:11, 14, 18; Col 3:10; Heb 12:23)
- Perseverance – God keeping us faithful to Himself (John 6:38-40; 10:27-29; Rom 8:30; Eph 1:13-14; Phil 1:6)
- Death – final sanctification of our souls (Rom 8:17; Phil 3:10; 1 Pet 2:21, 4:3)
- Glorification – final sanctification of our bodies (1 Cor 15:12-58; 1 Thess 4:14-17; Rom 8:19-23; John 5:29)
All ten of these “steps” are part of the salvation God works in everyone who trusts in Him. The radical truth is that if any of them are true of a person, all of them will be, forever! And that’s the key to really understanding the “solution” to James and Paul. When James says that salvation comes through faith and works, and Paul says that it comes by faith alone, they are referring to different aspects of the order of salvation. This is also where the different definitions of faith and justification come into play most clearly.
Remember, for Paul, the faith that stands alone is always the authentic kind, and justification is always a legal declaration of God. With those things in mind, it is much easier to understand what Paul was actually talking about. When he wrote of “faith alone,” he was referring to the basis on which God justifies sinners—declares them to be righteous. No part of our works contribute to our being declared righteous by God (for Paul or James). It is only and entirely on the basis of Jesus’ righteousness. This is also why Paul is able to say in so many other passages that our works are inseparably tied to our salvation, because our sanctification is every bit as much a part of our salvation as our justification. I hope you can see how remarkable this really is.
In the same way, when James says that salvation is faith and works working together, he was referring to the fact that true conversion (a legitimate claim to have faith) is always accompanied by sanctification. This is why a right understanding his use of “justification,” is critical. By it, he was not referring to the fifth aspect of salvation like Paul was. He was, rather, referring to the proof that observable sanctification is to a person’s claim to faith. No observable sanctification (no good works; no actual growth in holiness), no justifiable claim to saving faith since, once again, sanctification is a part of God’s gift of salvation in Jesus.
In short, when each man’s audience is rightly identified, when their terms are rightly defined, and when we understand which aspects of the order of salvation they are referring to, there is not only no actual contradiction, there is also glorious unity and a fuller explanation of salvation than either man offers by himself. I hope this is clear and I hope this is as awe-inspiring for all of us as it ought to be.
FAITH AND WORKS TOGETHER IN PRACTICE
With all of that, I hope some of you are thinking, “All of that seems biblical and sounds fine in principle, but what does it look like in my daily life? What does it actually look like to live in light of these things? How do I get the works James and Paul require?
When we talk about truly good works, we’re talking about the kind worked in us by God as a result of our salvation. That is, we are talking about the part of our salvation the Bible calls sanctification. This means that apart from election, the gospel call, regeneration, conversion, justification, and adoption happening first, there are no truly good works. But this also means that in a very real way, if you’ve ever produced even a single, truly good work, you are a Christian and your ultimate salvation is secured. Since genuinely good works are always a part of our salvation, wherever there are genuinely good works, there is salvation!
But how, exactly does this work? Very briefly (for this is another sermon for another day), consider again Ephesians 2:8-10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” .
In saving us, God prepared good works for us to walk in. But we must still choose to walk in them and work at them. He gives us the will and strength to do so, but we must still fight to obey. The Holy Spirit changes our actual appetites in ways we cannot understand or predict and burdens us to choose to walk in faith even before the appetite transformation is complete. It’s a beautiful, mysterious combination that we will likely never fully understand, but it is also the clear teaching of the Bible. Awesome!
On one hand, this might not seem like a Palm Sunday message. On the other hand, it doesn’t get more Palm Sunday than this. The entire reason Jesus rode into Jerusalem was to accomplish the things that this sermon describes. It was because Jesus willingly rode to the cross that our salvation could be on the basis of His works and not ours. It was because Jesus remained faithful until the end that sinners like us can be reconciled to God and know His pleasure forever!