Faith and Works

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

James 2:18 (NRSV)

Every year on this past Monday, our church small group gathers at one of our homes to watch the College Football National Championship game, primarily because I am an Alabama Crimson Tide fan (some just eat and talk). More times than not Alabama is in the game, and more times than not they win. Not this year of course. Georgia actually did it; they actually won; congratulations to the Bulldogs. Wait till next year!

We have made it a practice, though, to at least have a short Bible study during half-time in lieu of the “entertainment” typically presented. That night we simply had a discussion of some group questions. One of them was, “how do faith and works go together?” For those of the Christian faith, this has been a pressing theological and practical issue through the two millennia of our faith tradition. Are works needed for salvation or faith alone? How do faith and works go together? Can you have works without faith? So here are some of my musings on these questions.

From the biblical standpoint the last question is easy: works without faith is idolatrous and merit nothing with God. Without faith we cannot please God, without faith (in Jesus Christ) there is no salvation. The reason that works alone become idolatrous is because our own merits would be enough for salvation. This becomes a karmic brand of religion, one now popularized in our culture, but which has nothing to do with biblical faith.

The first two questions are more debatable and different Christian traditions (or individuals in the same tradition) have different answers or at least different nuances. Martin Luther, of course, is famous for his take on this very issue and he set the Apostle Paul against James on this issue, relegating the letter of James to secondary status. For Luther, Paul was a faith aloner, and James was works and faith, and for him the two could not be reconciled. He went with Paul.

Yet many biblical interpreters have since concluded that James and Paul do not contradict at all. James definitely sees a role for faith and Paul definitely sees a role for works. For Paul, though, the issue was the role of any activity by a person that would cause that person to deserve the designation “righteous” before God. Paul’s answer was no, because all have sinned. All humans have acted in idolatrous ways for their own interests, instead of reliance on God. Only through faith in Jesus Christ who died an atoning death for our sins, is a person considered right before God (read Romans 3 and 4 for a good summary of this idea). Works as deserving of this declaration of “right” fail every time. But Paul is also adamant that everyone will be judged according to their works. This is where James comes in with his famous adage, “faith without works is dead.” James is contrasting a mere claim to faith with faith that is acted out. For James the idea of “faith” is assumed. What faith looks like is James’s concern and Paul would not disagree. In Galatians 5 Paul makes this statement: “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision have any effectiveness, but faith working through love.” This is virtually the same idea as James, but adds an important term, love. True faith in God through Christ results in loving actions. Those actions are not human powered, but God powered; they flow out of the transformation that Jesus works in the faithful person.

This idea actually leads me to the Gospel of John. John actually never uses the noun faith, but the verb pisteuō “to believe in” or “to trust.” In John 6, the day after the miracle of feeding 5000 people, some Jews asked Jesus, “what should we do to work the works of God?” Jesus answered, “this is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.” Jesus subsequently makes clear that he is the one God has sent. Entrusting ourselves to Jesus is “the work.” Good works, the works of love, flow out of this believing. John 3:21 expresses this idea in a slightly different form: “The person doing the truth comes toward the light so that his works might be shown to be worked by God.” Those who place their trust in Jesus do works not of themselves but because God is working through them.

Does believing simply mean intellectual assent to the doctrine that Jesus died for our sins? Neither John, nor Paul, nor James would say that this is true faith. Faith or the verbal action of believing is not (just) mental assent, but the total giving of oneself into the care of God no matter the consequences. For many Christians across the ages this has meant persecution or even death. 

I believe that the New Testament relationship of faith and works canned be summed up this way: Authentic faith that is characterized by trust in God for salvation/eternal life/spiritual birth results in a transformed life that is shown in works done in and by the power of God, with the primary characteristic of self-giving love (agapē). Claimed faith in a doctrine that shows no evidence of transformation is questionable at best. To be sure, only God knows, and God is the only judge. Nonetheless, James was right to develop this idea, likely against misinterpretations of Paul.

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