by Julia M. Bruce, MSPC, Mental Health Coach,
Keynote Speaker, CEO, Wellspring Christian Ministries
Faith without works: The Sin of Partiality
Can there be faith without works? The book of James has some basic theological doctrine that is fundamental to the Christian beliefs. If we want to know what the life of a person who professes to be a Christian looks like, we can find it in the book of James. For example, James 1:22 tells us that we are to be doers of the word, and not hearers only. He tells us that there is a problem if we are just hearers and not doers and that problem is the Sin of Partiality.
The Sin of Partiality is a result of judging others and doing so unfairly. Like two sides of a coin, this partiality involves both loving and hating. James is specifically speaking about how people are treated when they enter into the presence of God with other believers. The assembly he writes to was showing favoritism to the rich while treating the poor with disdain as if they were inferior. They were making a distinction among themselves: a distinction that was evil and sinful. They were holding the faith in partiality, showing favoritism, and thus judging in a manner inconsistent with the faith they held.
The Relationship Between Faith, Works, and Justification
At the end of Chapter, 2, James continues the theme that hearing and faith must lead to doing or works. And again, we find that James warns about a potential problem: faith without works. For centuries, faith, works, and justification found in James 2 has created much controversy. In fact, some would argue that James 2:14-26 is a direct repudiation of Paul’s doctrine of salvation through faith alone.
Faith without Works: Paul vs. James
Let’s look at four scriptures written by Paul that teaches that it is faith alone that saves, not works. For Paul, we are justified by faith apart from works.
- Romans 3:8. What then can we say that Abraham, our physical ancestor, has found? If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to brag about—but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness.
- Romans 3:28. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
- Romans 5:1. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
- Ephesians 2:8-9. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast.
But then, it would appear that James has a different opinion. At first glance, one would think that James is teaching that faith cannot be separated from works and that justification comes through works and not by faith alone.
- James 2:17. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
- James 2:21-24. Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was perfected. So the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, and he was called God’s friend. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Can both Paul and James’ teachings be harmonized?
Paul and James would appear to have very different opinions on the matter, but when we look at the context. Whenever we study the Bible we must be very careful to not take scripture out of the intended context. When taken out of context, the result is all kinds of errors, misinterpretations, and misunderstanding. Therefore we must take the time to exam the literal meaning, the historical setting (such as the events, to whom it is addressed, and how it was understood at the time), grammar, and synthesis (comparing it with other parts of Scripture for a fuller meaning).
When examining both Paul and James’ teaching, we must find how the correlation because it becomes essential to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy and the doctrine of inspiration. Since we believe that all scripture is inspired by God and without error, then there has to be a harmonization of these two teachings. Dr. Adrian Rogers helps us find that harmonization.
“Now, Paul speaks of the root of salvation. James speaks of the fruit of salvation. Now the root is beneath the ground. The fruit is above the ground. God can see the root, only man can see the fruit. Paul speaks of the foundation of our faith. James speaks of the building that is built on that foundation. Paul is speaking of that which is inward. James is speaking of that which is outward. Paul is speaking of the provision of our salvation. James is speaking of the proof of our salvation. Paul is talking about the means of our salvation. James is talking about the marks of our salvation. Paul is talking about a know so salvation. James is talking about a show so salvation.”
Faith without Works: Examining the Context
Much of the confusion about the apparent contradiction between James’ and Paul’s teachings on the relationship between faith, works and justification goes away when we simply consider the context of the letter of James and the Pauline letters:
Context of James’ writing
James’ Audience: Jewish Christians. Not one church but a scattered group of individuals living outside Palestine as a result of the dispersion of Christians because of Stephen’s martyrdom and the persecution by wealthy Jews. Look further, we find that James’ books is not a true epistle, but Wisdom Literature. James is not addressing specific issues that he knows are going on in the church like we find in Paul’s letters to the church. Rather James addresses certain typical issues that the Jews were most likely facing. In other words, he attempted to anticipate the questions the early Christian might have and provide answers to those questions. As Adrian Rogers puts it, “Faith is belief with legs on it!” James wanted the early Christians, and us today to know how to live out their faith.
Context of Paul’s writing
However, Paul’s writings are of a different genre from James. Paul writes directly to individuals and church in an effort to deal with specific issues that arose within local churches.
Both James and Paul are developing different issues in relation to faith, works and justification. It isn’t that they are teaching different doctrines, but rather different aspects of the same doctrine. So as we look at James 2:14-26, let’s see what James wants us to know about the relationship between faith, works and justification as it relates to genuine saving faith.
James’ Assertion: Faith Without Works is Dead (vs. 14-17)
To keep these verses in context, we first must look back at James 2:13 where James says, “ For judgment is without mercy to the one who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” This might then lead us to ask, “How can deeds of mercy help me in the judgment?” and, “Is not faith all that matters?” James’ response to these questions then are found in verses 14-17 where he shows us that we cannot divorce faith and works.
In verse 14, James ask two rhetorical questions: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him?” These rhetorical questions are important because it sets the stage for what James is going to teach us about faith and works.
Abraham Lincoln once asked a boy if a dog has four legs. The boy responded that it did. Abraham Lincoln then asked, “If you call his tail a leg, how many legs would the dog have?” Well, it doesn’t really matter what you call his tail. It is still a tail. And no matter what a person says about his faith, if he doesn’t have real faith, it is not real faith. Notice that in James’ rhetorical question, James does not say that this person actually has faith, but that he claims to have it. He is describing a person who continually lacks any external evidence of the faith he claims to have.
What would Jesus and Paul say?
- Matthew 7:21. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven.”
- Mark 7:6. He answered them, “Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written: These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.”
- Luke 6:46. “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do the things I say?”
- Titus 1:16. “They profess to know God, but they deny Him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, and disqualified for any good work.”
Grammatical context of James Rhetorical questions
The grammatical form of these rhetorical questions demand a negative answer. Such faith, “profession without possession” as Dr. Rogers calls it, is indeed no good. James will soon illustrate in fact how no good it truly is! Not only is it no good, of no profit, it CANNOT save!
Many translations render the phrase, “Can faith save him?” However, based on the Greek it is best rendered as the ESV does “Can THAT faith save him?” with the word, “that” referring back to the bogus faith James just outlined that this man has – “profession without possession.” Neither Paul nor James would regard this person’s faith as genuine Christian faith – it is bogus.
What does James mean by “Save”?
We must understand the sense in which James is using this word “save.” Sanctification as a process that begins in this life on earth when we ask Jesus to forgive us and save us from our sins. But it is not yet perfected, nor will it be until the 2nd Coming of Jesus. Thus some passages discuss it as a present possession granted immediately by God to those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Paul) and in others as a good yet future possession (here in James). That time in which we will experience final deliverance from sin, death and judgment. This makes good contextual sense as well as, in verse 13, James just spoke of the final judgment. Such a bogus faith, one without works, will be of no profit at the time of God’s righteous judgment.
James’ Illustration of Faith without works
In verses 15-16, James gives an illustration to help us understand what he’s trying to teach us. He says, “ If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it?”
In his illustration we find a brother or sister — a fellow Christian — who is poorly clothes — lack of outer garment– and lacking in daily food. But the person who claims to have faith does not respond in a Christ-like manner. Essentially, this person dismisses the poor brother or sister saying “Go in peace” — or we might say to day, “Good luck to you!” He says, “keep warm and eat well” without giving the person the things needed.
This so-called “believer” does absolutely noting. In fact, it reflects a shallow, flippant response, much like our “I’ll pray for you.” Certainly the person needs prayer, but prayer alone doesn’t keep a person from starving to death. He needs bread and we can assume that if God placed such a person in our path, he intends to provide for that person through us as we provide the action (works) of being the hands and feet of Jesus.
Joseph Stowell’s story
Joseph Stowell tells this story – “StreetWise,” a Chicago-based newspaper, is sold by homeless people who collect a portion of the proceeds. One day as I walked to work, I passed a vendor. It was a bitterly cold January morning, and I’d already stopped by Starbucks and paid more than a buck for a measly cup of coffee. Feeling noble, I struggled to find my wallet, reached in, and took out a dollar.
The homeless woman asked, “Do you really want the paper, or can I keep it to sell to someone else?” “Keep the paper,” I replied. Then I added, “How are you today?” “I’m so cold,” she said. “I hope the sun comes out, it warms up, and you have a good day,” I told her as I turned to go.
I continued on, with the cup of coffee warming my hand. About a half block later, the conversation finally registered. I wrestled for a moment worth what I should do, but I was late, so I kept walking. Ever since, I’ve regretted not giving her a cup of hot coffee in Christ’s name.
James’ Third Rhetorical question
James ends this illustration with his third rhetorical question, again asking what good is that? The obvious answer can be found on the lips of the poor, destitute, starving man this “believer” has conveniently told “Good luck to you I hope you’ll keep warm and find enough to eat.” NONE! Words, however well meant, have not profited these needy people anything!
So James then draws a conclusion from his illustration in verse 17: faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Notice first – by itself – again, profession without possession. Second, the Greek word here for dead is “nekros” meaning “corpse.” Thus, this faith not only doesn’t work, it is dead. Not sick, or even dying, but dead! As one commentator noted, this image would be met with great contempt and disapproval as well as being repugnant to a Jew who coming into contact with a dead body would be made ceremonially unclean.
Walk the Talk
Finally, again the contrast is not between faith and works but between a faith that doesn’t separate itself from works. James’s stance is the same as Paul’s and he stands today to tell us to “Walk the talk!” Actions speak louder than words. The natural outcome of true faith is works. If there are no works that exemplify faith, than one must examine if he/she is truly in the faith. In Isaiah 58:7-9, Isaiah called the people of his day to put real meaning to their religious rituals by “sharing bread with the hungry,” “bringing the homeless into their houses,” and “covering the naked.” Jesus promised the kingdom to those who feed, give drink to, and welcome into their homes, clothe and visit when sick and in prison even the least of these.” (Matthew 25). And John denies that anyone who fails to provide for a brother in need can have real love (1 John 3:17-18.).
How often are we guilty of offering mere words to someone when God may have been calling us to action? How is your walk of faith? Does it match your talk?
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