There is a passage in James that is a classic stumbling block to serious belief in the radical grace of God that Paul teaches. Even Martin Luther wanted to excise this book from the canon of Scripture, because he viewed it as being so antithetical to the message of salvation by faith alone apart from works of the law. I think that upon examination there is no problem.
Let’s delve into this passage now:
“For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND 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. And in the same way was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works, when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” James 2:13-26, NASB.
The first thing to notice in this passage is that James is talking about faith, authentic faith. It isn’t really about works, it is about authentic faith. If we claim to have faith, and produce no fruit, then the authenticity of our faith comes into question. Read it again and decide if I am right, or if I am twisting something; I don’t want us to be found twisting scripture to suit our thesis.
As an experiment, consider someone who has works but no faith. This would be like Richard Dawkins (the famous atheist, author of “The God Delusion”) visiting a homeless shelter. That would not be to James’ liking here either, would it? He does not require only works, he is looking for authentic faith. He is saying that true faith will show itself in action somehow. To use a classic example, if someone builds a chair, and asks, “what do you think of my great chair?” You might look at it and determine that it is a rickety mess; however, to avoid hurting their feelings, you say, “that’s fantastic, great work!” Then they will say, “have a seat.” If you won’t sit in it, you don’t really believe what you say, do you? Isn’t that the point? James is saying, if you actually believe, you will naturally sit in the chair. The point is still faith.
Can you imagine Paul taking issue with this? They are completely on the same page. Let’s take a peek at Romans 8:
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” Romans 8:1-9, NASB.
For being supposedly so opposed to each other, isn’t it amazing how closely these passages harmonize? Paul says, like James, that you can look at outward fruits and see whether or not there is a true indwelling of faith, of the Spirit, of a work of God in someone. The whole key is the authenticity of faith, the faith in the work of God that leads to the indwelling of the Spirit of God, the kind of work that really does produce fruit.
The thing that happens that is so wrong is that people come and put these passages at odds. They interpret James to say, run around and do stuff whether you have faith or not! Forget all those strange things in Paul’s teachings that are so hard to understand. What the heck is “the mind set on the Spirit?” James is simple, it gives me something to DO. Then you prove you have faith, you get faith by doing stuff. Give me that practical religion, I can’t understand all this ethereal stuff.
James is not advocating faithless deeds, he is advocating authentic faith. Can you imagine that James is saying that we should ignore the work of the Holy Spirit and instead just do a bunch of works? James’ question is, is your faith real? Faith proves itself in actions, but truly effectual actions are rooted in a full-bodied faith born of the work of the Holy Spirit. In the same way, Paul raises the question of whether there is an authentic work of the Spirit. If you take James here in a way that doesn’t harmonize with Paul’s writings, you end up making the exact error that Paul is talking about in Romans 8 – you try to perform acts of the law by the flesh, by personal resolve, by limited human power.
Neither of them are saying that deeds are the ultimate point. They are both talking about faith, and they are both talking about the fact that true faith will manifest itself in its fruit, the exact same as John and Jesus were saying about repentance. What I’m saying is, if you want real fruit, James style fruit, Holy Spirit born fruit, enduring real righteousness, YOU HAVE TO LOOK TO GETTING REAL FAITH! If you start off running around feeding orphans, as wonderful as that is, you will end up nothing more than a resentful mess in real life and do more damage than good if it is not done from the perspective of a true living work of God in you.
Let’s put this another way. If you were to have a conversion experience, and come to faith in Christ, and seek and receive a real transforming work of the Spirit, would you hope that it would have absolutely no effect on your day to day actual life? Or would you hope that it really did transform you, heart and soul, deed and truth? What kind of “gift” would a faith like that be? Nobody wants a fake veneer walk with God! We all want what James AND Paul are saying. Why is this a controversy? Does any of this nullify grace, nullify mercy, nullify God’s patience with us as imperfect sinners? Of course not.
The kingdom of God, and its works, will always look like the guy who found his treasure, who from joy over it sacrifices things and does works. FROM JOY OVER IT. JOY. If James’ teachings don’t look like joy to you, I guarantee you aren’t understanding it right. Go get the true faith, go find your treasure, find your joy in it, and your beautiful works, your fruit, will flow. Follow Jesus’ example:
“…fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:2