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Faith And Works

In the Epistle of James

Michael Vogelsang

"What [is] the profit, my brethren, if any one say he have faith, but have not works? can faith save him? Now if a brother or a sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one from amongst you say to them, Go in peace, be warmed and filled; but give not to them the needful things for the body, what [is] the profit? So also faith, if it have not works, is dead by itself. But some one will say, Thou hast faith and I have works. Show me thy faith without works, and I from my works will show thee my faith. Thou believest that God is one. Thou doest well. The demons even believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Thou seest that faith wrought with his works, and that by works faith was perfected. And the scripture was fulfilled which says, Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and he was called Friend of God. Ye see that a man is justified on the principle of works, and not on the principle of faith only. But was not in like manner also Rahab the harlot justified on the principle of works, when she had received the messengers and put [them] forth by another way? For as the body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead."  

James 2:14-26

The central truth of the Galatian Epistle is that justification is not by the works of the law but by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; and Abraham is placed before us as an example of a man who exemplified this truth. When we turn to the Epistle of James some may think there is a contradiction, for James says that man is not justified by faith alone but by works; and he also gives Abraham as an example. Both are true, as I will explain.

The Galatian Epistle was particularly relevant to the Reformers such as Martin Luther, and we can well understand his problems with James' Epistle which he is reputed to have called 'The Epistle of straw'. FB Hole, by contrast, described James' Epistle as 'The Epistle of iron', the sledge-hammer of God which is very practical in its application[1].

To solve the apparent contradiction we must appreciate that the two authors are looking at the same thing but from a different point of view, for obviously there are no contradictions in Scripture. Paul, generally speaking, deals with principles whereas James deals with practice. For example, James says that "man's wrath does not work God's righteousness" (1:20), that is, not in a practical way in our lives, and you may wonder how man can work anything for the righteousness of God at all. Paul, however, speaks about the righteousness of God in a principle way which we can only get through faith. Further, James says that 'Lust begets sin' (1:15) while Paul says the opposite, 'sin begets lust' (Rom. 7:8). Again, both are right. Paul once more speaks principally, the sinful nature begets the lust to do something that is not right. James, speaking practically, speaks of sin as the act, so when I lust to do something and then do it I practice sin.

Now justification is another case in point. When Paul speaks about works in Galatians he speaks of works of the law and by the works of the law can no man be justified (Gal. 2:16); when James speaks about works he is not speaking about works of the law but works of faith. Similarly, when Paul speaks of justification he is speaking of justification before God, and this can only be by faith alone; but when James speaks of justification it is before men, which is quite different.

A man may say, 'I have faith.' 'Well,' says James, 'show me your faith' - not God, but me - 'Prove it. Show me your faith by your works; that is, your works of faith'.

He continues, "What [is] the profit, my brethren, if any one say he have faith, but have not works?" and then he gives an example of a man who needs something and another says, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled" but does not give him what he needs. His works are contrary to his confession and so James declares, "So also faith, if it have not works, is dead by itself" - it does no good to say 'I am a believer' unless it is seen by works.

There may be some who say, "Thou hast faith and I have works", making a contradiction which does not exist. This is not the way. "Show me thy faith without works." - which is impossible, how can I show my faith to somebody without works of faith?  ".and I from my works will show thee my faith" because that is the way to show faith before men.

Further, it is not enough just to have an orthodox confession of faith, for somebody may say 'I believe that God is one," but while that is good, "The demons even believe, and tremble," so only to have an orthodox confession of faith that there is one God is not saving faith, there must be works of faith to show before men the faith that is in the heart. So on the one hand we are justified by faith and not by the works of law as is the theme of the Galatian Epistle, for the only thing the law can bring upon the Galatians was the curse, blessing only comes through faith, but James now shows the other side, saying the same living faith in our hearts, which God sees, must be shown before men to justify us in the sight of men.

"But wilt thou know, O vain man." - James is always very strong in his language - ".that faith without works is dead?" Confession of faith is no use practically unless there are the works of faith, and then he gives the same example that Paul gave, Abraham, but there is a difference which I will point out.

Before I do this, however, I would like to make another distinction. People in Christianity often speak of good works, but this is not what James is speaking about. James speaks of good works as testifying to faith, works that make clear that the motive and the energy for the activity is faith. This is not necessarily the case with so-called 'good works' as are spoken of generally today. If I were rich I might fill out a cheque for a large amount of money and give it to some charity - does that prove my faith? Not in the least. I might have many motives for so doing. Among the first Christians were a couple who felt they would like the same honour as Barnabas and so they pretended to give all they had but they kept something back, the motive for their action was not faith (Acts 5:1-11). In their case the motive was to obtain a good name. Good works are not necessarily something that proves the faith of the worker and the example that James gives is not something that most people would consider a good work, he gives the example of Abraham who 'murdered' his son, so to say, in the eyes of people and he then gives the example of Rahab the harlot who worked with the enemy of her country, a traitor, so to speak. These are not 'good works' in the eyes of people in general, but Abraham proved his love for God, and Rahab proved her love for the people of God - two things you always find if you have faith.

Finally, let us look at these two examples of Abraham and Rahab. "Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Thou seest that faith wrought with his works, and that by works faith was perfected." He takes this first example because Abraham, when he did this, reckoned that God would give him back his son from the dead. He had the promise of God that he would be blessed in Isaac, and so he said, 'If God would like me to offer him up then He will bring him back again', something which had never happened before. Later, in the Old Testament, we find examples of dead men raised, but not before Abraham, he had never seen or heard of such a thing but he believed it. 'Isaac is the seed of promise and so if I offer him up God will give him back to me', and so Scripture says "Abraham . [accounted] that God was able to raise [Isaac] up, even from the dead, from which also he received him in a figure" (Heb. 11:19). That showed his faith, and so James says "And the scripture was fulfilled which says, Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness". He quotes, more or less, the same thing that Paul did. Now let us follow his argument. When did Abraham believe God and it was imputed to him for righteousness? It was in Genesis 15 that God saw his faith, he was justified in the eyes of God at that moment, but James says that in Genesis 22 this Scripture was fulfilled because now all men could see the faith of Abraham which God had seen in his heart at the beginning. It was at the latter time in Genesis 22, when Abraham went up Mount Moriah to offer his son Isaac, that the Scripture was fulfilled for now also men saw the faith that worked in Abraham, and so he was justified by works in the eyes of men.

In the case of Rahab we have the same truth. Rahab spoke of the children of her country that they were in fear of Israel but she alone was the one who said "I know that God has given to you the land." There was faith in her in that she believed that God had given the land to Israel and she put her faith in the God of Israel. Through this act that she did, when she received the messengers, her faith could be seen and she was protected from judgment.

Scripture shows us both sides, one is to be justified in the eyes of God (Galatians) by faith alone, impossible to achieve through works of law, and the other to be justified in the eyes of men through works of faith (James). Men must see, through our behaviour, in the way we act, that there is real faith in us. Abraham is the man who exemplifies both aspects.

[1] New Testament commentary, Epistles, volume 3, p.81