James 2 Faith That Works
The theological implications of faith and works: Do Paul and James contradict each other?
First, we need to look at what the word “justified” means to each author?
This is really the key to understanding why James and Paul don’t contradict each other. Before we started this study, the teachers for both the Tuesday morning and Tuesday evening study were able to sit down with Pastor Michael for a teaching time of our own. He laid out the background of the book of James, and then he spent a while explaining James’ use of certain language. James uses a number of terms differently than Paul and other New Testament authors. We have to look at context as we seek to understand what James means, rather than be too quick to compare the terms to Paul’s writing in particular.
When Paul says “justified”, he is using the term in a legal sense – the idea of one’s standing before God. Paul’s use of the word justification is what we normally think of when we hear the word. It is the idea of being made righteous by the work that Jesus did on the cross. It is vital to Christian faith to correctly understand justification.
“Even today, a true view of justification is the dividing line between the biblical gospel of salvation by faith alone and all false gospels of salvation based on good works.”
Justification is an instantaneous legal act of God in which he #1 thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us and #2 declares us to be righteous in his sight.
When James says “justified”, he is using the term in a sense of vindication or validation.
So let’s look again at those passages that seem to contradict one another.
Pastor Michael said, “James is carrying on a conversation in terms we aren’t used to. We tend toward Paul’s usage of language.”
James describes this type of justification by using the example of Abraham. He talks about Abraham being justified by works when he offered up Isaac. This happened long after Abraham had a saving faith experience with God in Genesis 15:6. Abraham was “shown to be righteous” by his works.
Within this section, and in the book as a whole, James is concerned to show that mere intellectual agreement with the gospel is a “faith” that is really no faith at all. He is concerned to argue against those who say they have faith, but show no change in their lives. James 2:18, 26
Faith that has no results – no “works” is not real faith. He is not saying that we have to do certain works in order to obtain our salvation.
When Paul says that we are not saved by works, I think James would wholeheartedly agree. We are saved because we place our faith in Jesus Christ and the ultimate grace and mercy he has shown us. To experience this salvation, we turn from our former ways and turn to Jesus. And when we do this, according to James, it should make a difference. We should spend our lives working for Jesus, in partnership with him. If we don’t have a desire to do this, we should question the sincerity of our faith.
Sometimes I think we gain in knowledge and understanding, and want to call this faith. Knowledge and understanding only become growing in faith when we APPLY them to our lives. We apply them to our lives by living out what we come to understand. Example: James’ teaching about watching the tongue: I study this passage, do my Bible study, see a truth that I have never seen before. Right away I can relate it to my life. Perhaps I realize that I haven’t been speaking kindly to my husband. How easy it is to fill out the Bible study questions and have a great discussion about it at Bible study. Maybe I even feel truly repentant about it at the time. I have grown in knowledge and understanding about what God wants from my life. Now I have two choices for what I will do with this information. I can go home, get lost in the distractions of the day, and when my husband comes home I can continue to be short with him. Or I begin to let the truth of God’s word come into my life. I catch myself as I start to talk, and I remember to change my tone. I am not perfect. It takes work. It takes reforming old habits. But I persevere, and I change. THIS is taking the knowledge and making it faith. I have to ACT on what I learn for it to become real faith.
This is not to be done on my own strength or by my own will. This is to be done prayerfully, obediently, and in partnership with the Holy Spirit, and in response to the truth he has shown me.
Next, we need to look briefly at the difference between what Paul is referring to when he talks about works or deeds, and what James is referring to. When Paul writes about being saved by faith rather than works, he is referring to the works of the old law. He is saying that we can’t be righteous on our own. We can never fulfill the requirements of the law. We all fall short.
On the other hand, James is writing about what he calls the “law of liberty”, the works that we do in response to what we learn about God and the faith that we place in Him.
what are the deeds that James is referring to? Persevering under trial (1: 2-4), asking for wisdom (1: 5-6), being slow to speak, quick to listen and slow to become angry (1:19-20), “doing” the word instead of just hearing it (1:22-25), taking care of those in need (1:27), not showing personal favoritism (2:1-7), loving your neighbor (2:8), being merciful (2:13), watching what you say (3:1-12), being peaceable/gentle/reasonable/full of mercy and good fruits (3:17), praying (5:13), confessing your sins to one another (5:15), confronting those who are turning away from the ways of God (5:19-20)
So let’s look at another passage that was written by Paul, to find out if he and James agree on the idea of works and faith:
Let’s look at a really practical analogy:
Imagine for a moment that you are in a new romantic relationship, or remember back to the early days of the relationship you are in now. Imagine that you realize you are falling in love and beginning to think this is the real deal. You spend hours analyzing the relationship – how do you feel, how do you think he feels, what clues do you have about how he feels, are you just reading into something, does he really love you too?
#1: From everything he does, it seems like he loves you. He does all of the things that one does for someone they love. But he doesn’t tell you outright that he loves you. He holds back from saying the words. Just his actions alone don’t provide enough reassurance that this is the real thing.
#2: He tells you that he loves you, and it really sounds like he means it. But he doesn’t make you a priority. He’s not reliable. He does little things that hurt you all of the time, even though he knows they hurt you. He tells you that he’s sorry all of the time, and reassures you that he loves you. Yet you don’t feel this love. You don’t believe its for real. His words don’t mean anything because they are not backed up by actions.
#3: This is where we feel loved. The words are there. They are spoken sincerely. The actions are there. You are taken care of and respected. It is a loving, healthy relationship. It is in balance.
This is how it is with God, too. God doesn’t want our works, if they are done without faith in him and love for him. He doesn’t want our words, if they are just empty.
4-7 “O Israel and Judah, What should I do with you?” asks the Lord. “For your love vanishes like the morning mist and disappears like dew in the sunlight. I sent my prophets to cut you to pieces- to slaughter you with my words, with judgments as inescapable as light. I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings.”
To say you have faith, but to not act on that faith – your words are just that – words. They are empty. If I say that I am learning something in Bible study but at the end of the year nothing has changed in my heart and in my actions – my knowledge and understanding is not bringing glory to God or deepening my relationship with him. I am simply filling up on wisdom, satisfying my own pride and my own intellect.
To go through the motions of living the “Christian life” but without growing in faith and love for the Savior – these are simply empty actions. They look good on paper. Those around me, in my church or in my Bible study group are impressed by how godly I seem. I feel good about myself and pat myself on the back with how good I am. I cross off the list of things I should do, and feel really great about it when I go to bed at night. But I am deceiving myself. Again, this is satisfying my pride.
God wants more from us than this! James knows this. Paul knows this. They are men who are experiencing real relationship with Jesus. They KNOW him. They love him. They are forever changed by their experience with him. And they want more for us as Christians than the mediocre. James is not talking about whether our deeds save us. He is exhorting us to LIVE WHAT WE BELIEVE. To embrace the ways of God completely. To give ourselves over to him and be fully immersed in growing in knowledge and understanding in him, figuring out how that knowledge should work itself out in my individual life, then believing in him, trusting enough in him that we live out what he is asking of us. This is challenging faith. It takes us out of our comfort zone to follow Him. And this is right where we find peace and comfort and strength and TRUE faith. By doing the deeds. Carrying out the commands. Responding to the love that God has lavished on us.
We need to examine ourselves to see if my faith is real and active or dead.
Now, as we do this, we need to be careful not to compare ourselves with others. Just looking at the examples that James uses, we see that God calls each of us to a very different path as we follow him. God’s not expecting me to prove my faith the same way Abraham and Rahab did, nor is he expecting me to prove my faith the same way many of you are. And some of you are relieved to know that God’s not asking for you to come up here and speak next Tuesday! We need to be faithfully paying attention to the works of faith that God is asking from each of us, individually.
If you are following the Lord, your life is no longer the same. The question we must ask ourselves: Is my faith growing, and that growth confirmed by how I live? Am I obeying the commands of God more than when I first became a Christian? More than last year? Am I loving those around me better each day?
Don’t be overwhelmed or discouraged. But do be challenged.
Quote from Margaret Feinberg in her book “the organic god”:
“The truth is – God glows. His glory illuminates the heavens. Jesus, by his very nature, is brilliance. The One described as the light of the world does not contain a shadow of darkness. And the Holy Spirit ushers the spiritual dawn into our lives. Like the fireflies of the sea that beckon our imaginations to another world, the truth of God invites us to embrace the fullness of the life we were meant to live. As we look to him, we can’t help but become more radiant.”