Challenge #4: Faith Needs Works vs Faith Needs No Works
On one hand, Ephesians 2:8,9 says, “It is by grace you have been saved though faith… not as a result of works.” On the other hand, James 2:24 says, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
I know the easy answer: “James is talking about justification before man; Paul is talking about justification before God.”A
I’m not going to pretend like this is an easy issue deal with. Many people will dismiss the paradox too quickly by reciting a quick slogan. The fact is, evangelical Christians have become afraid of the terms “works” and “good works” because such terms have been so misused by numerous false religions. To see this issue most accurately, we need to strip away their influence that has made us apprehensive toward particular verses of the Bible. We should rethink the entire issue, letting the words of Scripture pierce through our cultural biases.
In addition to James 2:24, James 2:14 is the other commonly used verse. But I don’ think that this verse says what advocates for works-based salvation want to force it to say. It’s easy to mishear James as saying in essence, “If that person does not have works, that faith can’t save him can it?” (rhetorical). What he actually says is, “what is the ὄφελος? What is the benefit/ advantage?” Context would imply a practical, earthly benefit. So what if someone says he has faith. We know from our current culture that faith itself does not save; the saving is dependent on the object of that faith.
Then there is the big question: We usually try to ease the paradox by emphasizing “such.” Can “such” faith save him? “Such” is not there in the Greek: μὴ δύναται ἡ πίστις σῶσαι αὐτόν;. Or literally: not—able—faith—to save—him?B. I fully believe that James is talking about a certain type of faith, so “such” is an appropriate clarification (but we shouldn’t pretend like it says it patently in the text). This is the last time in the chapter that James uses σωζω (σωσαι), “save/deliver”, which can mean things besides “eternal salvation.” For instance, Daniel was saved from the mouth of the lion. It’s used 53 times in the Gospels, including to refer to one delivered from illness or disability. It is translated into a form of “save” only 37 times (salvation is a slightly different root).
The context of James must be taken into account. While Paul speaks of salvation by grace and through faith in several ways and contexts, James really only has only this passage. Therefore, the less clear needs to be interpreted by the clearer. I believe that looking at the early parts of James’s letter will clue us into the greater purpose James had for addressing the works of those to whom he was writing. “The testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” And also, “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life.” This relates greatly to his example of those acting on their faith, persevering through it, in order to be delivered from their present situation. His main challenge may be, “Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.”
What does this big word “faith” even mean? Why are we so confident in saying “it’s only by faith” when we don’t clearly know what faith is? Faith is the Greek noun πιστις. The verb form is πιστευω, and is typically translated “believe.” An alternate meaning would be “trust” or “assurance.” Faith implies a forsaking of self-sustaining and permanence of confident dependence on the other. It is simple but it is deep and multi-faceted. It’s certainly more than “hoping for the best.” It’s more than trusting inanimate circumstances.
We would do well to realize that faith works itself out in so many different ways. Saying that we are saved by faith does not encompass the scope of what faith does in the life of a believer. Notice that not all of these are inward expressions of belief; some direct the faith outward:
Faith toward justification—Faith toward salvation—Faith toward righteousness—Faith toward acts of ministry—Faith toward signs and wonders—Faith toward understanding—Faith toward perseverance—Faith toward peace—Faith toward being healed—Faith toward stewardship—Faith toward approval—Faith toward pleasing God—Faith toward cleansing of hearts—Faith toward propitiation—Faith against boasting—Faith toward a promise—Faith toward life—Faith toward access to God—Faith toward encouragement—Faith toward obedience
There is no question that the Bible teaches that we are saved—in an ultimate salvific sense—through faith, made available by the grace of God. “By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” We are “are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” The Jailer asked the apostles, “‘What must I do to be saved?’ They said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.’” After the resurrection, Jesus said, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be savedC; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” D The seed on the roadside are those that will not believe and be saved (Luke 8:12).
The parable of the sower in Luke 8 also will gives us hints about the place of works. Unlike the other seeds, the seeds that went into the good soil “grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great.” Jesus brought more clarity to this by saying, “These are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.” According to this teaching alone, what is important to Jesus—faith or works? He indicates that both are important. Does he indicate the importance of works anywhere else? Matthew 6 records Jesus making seven references to receiving rewards based on acts of love toward God and others.
If works were such a big deal to Jesus, then why doesn’t Paul seem to share the importance of works? He does, but he has to be particular to the audience to whom he is writing. Paul is an apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jewish) (Rom. 11:13). In the earliest days of the church, there were disputes about whether non-Hebrews (Gentiles) would have to go through the Jewish rituals in order to be received into the body of the church—those saved by Christ. Paul’s duty and calling was to dispel the myth that people would have to become, shall we say, physically Jewish in order to really be accepted by God. Usually when he is talking about works he is talking about “works of the law.” He isn’t saying, “don’t go out doing good things or bearing good fruit.” He is saying, “Don’t consider your good works to be granting you salvation.” On one hand, Paul must focus a lot of attention on the necessity of grace for salvation. On the other hand, he does give a lot of input about what it means to live in the faith.
James and Ephesians both use the word πιστεως for “faith”; so they are not talking about different kinds of faith. James says ἐξ ἔργων, “from works”; Ephesians says οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων, “not from works.” The big textual difference in that James says δικαιοῦται, “made right”/ “be vindicated”; Ephesians says σεσῳσμένοι, “having been saved/delivered.” James is using the present tense verb, while Ephesians is using the perfect past tense participle. Paul is addressing something having been completed; James is addressing present action. Paul is talking about our salvation as a completed past event; James is talking about being made right in the present moment.
Paul actually comes to show agreement with James when, after describing salvation by God’s grace through their faith, he says, “Therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20). James, not disagreeing, goes a step further by saying in essence, “Those that don’t show their faith don’t have it.” This past event will have present effects. The good actions don’t save you in an ultimate sense, but “such faith” saves you. “Such faith” (from James 2:14) is the faith that is genuine because of the fruit that flows from it. Does that mean that a person doing good actions must be saved? Not at all, because it is talking about faith and works. Works apart from faith are impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6).
Though declared ultimately righteous by a past act of grace through faith, a person is considered righteous in the present moment by producing the actions that such faith asks of him. This is not to say that salvation is ever in jeopardy in a person because they act against their Christian faith. However, we are taught to know them by their fruit. Much of the time, bad fruit is flowing because they have never really been rooted in Jesus. If they have been rooted in Jesus, we can be sure that some of the fruits of Jesus would flow from them.
These two moments, present and completed past, as mentioned earlier, are brought together in Jesus’s parable in Luke 8. There are 4 types of soil. Only in the first type does Jesus give the clear indication that they are not saved. Notice that certain seed “believed for a while” (8:13), but were not in good soil for producing good fruit. So the salvation of the second and third types are unclear, possible since the parable is more about the work of God in a life than eternal salvation. The fourth type is clearly saved and bearing fruit. The sequence illustrated in Luke 8:15 sheds light and brings harmony to the paradox. First, they heard the word—faith comes by hearing this word (Rom 10:17). Second, they received it—with honesty to the core about what they were hearing. Third, they had a tight grip on what they received. Fourth, naturally, they grew and showed fruit by continuing in faith.E
From hearing this teaching of Jesus, James taught, “In humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.” And Paul taught, “The word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” They taught the very same initial salvation. The difference in emphasis came when Paul told the Gentiles about the completed historical salvation, while James emphasized continual active belief toward present deliverance.
The outcome of faith is salvation (1 Peter 1:7).
DVery relevant to this: believing and baptism seem to go hand in hand. Notice that he doesn’t condemn those who are not baptized. However, Jesus expected an action to follow those that received him. The other possible (or dual) interpretation is that baptism refers to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which was promised to those that receive and follow Jesus. The Holy Spirit would then change the nature and passions of the individual, causing different fruits to be exhibited in their lives.
BThe question mark “;” could make a huge difference in the verse meaning. The Nestle-Aland has the question mark. The question mark would almost reverse the meaning from “The faith is not able to save him” to “Is not faith able to save him?” There are many examples of these types of phrased questions from Jesus; and they do not imply a necessary negative.
EI’m not about to say that we fall in and out of the faith according to whether we are able to obey enough standards—that’s plain heresy. But I do think that we are able to recognize the good soil according to whether they grow to be the tree that they claimed to have planted. If a different tree grows, then a different tree was planted. If a tree does not grow, then a tree is not planted.
AWhere do we get this idea that James was talking about justification before man? In my conversations with LDS I would love to see where it says James is talking about justification before man.
CThe main point here is not the necessity of baptism. I could go in depth, but I don’t want it alone to take over the topic. Just note, first, that those aren’t condemned for not being baptized, but for not believing. Second, the salvation is both acted upon and received. Believe is an active verb; baptized is a passive verb. This hints at the idea of something more than a ritualist baptism (a ritual baptism would seem to necessitate an active or middle voice). Third, Jesus promised that they would be baptized in the Holy Spirit (John 1:33, Acts 1:5). Ritual baptism is to reflect this sort of baptism.
 Aland, K., Aland, B., Karavidopoulos, J., Martini, C. M., & Metzger, B. M. (2012). Novum Testamentum Graece (28th Edition, Jas 2:14). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft.
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