“Faith vs. works” – the debate has been with us as long as the Church has existed. But is it really a debate? Show your faith by what you do!
Isaiah, chapters 32-35; James, chapter 2
What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well” – but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.
Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have any good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?
Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete. And so it happened just as the Scriptures say: “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” So you see, we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone.
Show Your Faith by What You Do
The debate about “faith vs. works” is as old as the Church itself. Paul wrote that we are saved by grace, not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). James, in this passage, says that faith without works is useless. And ever since, the church has lurched from one side to the other. How do we resolve this conflict?
We resolve it by understanding that it’s not a conflict. Both passages are in the Bible, so there is a way to understand them in harmony. Frankly, it shouldn’t be that hard for us, because James gives us the explanation we need. First, he does not say that we are not saved by faith. He says, “Can that kind of faith save anyone?” “That kind of faith:” is a “faith” which is not evident in the way that we live. Faith in Jesus (which is what we’re talking about) is a life-transforming belief. It changes us from the inside out. That kind of change must be reflected in the way that we live.
The kind of change we’re talking about is not just in regard to “big things”; it changes the way that we live every day. “I will show you my faith by my good deeds” means that you can see from the way that I live that I have faith in God. But the second thing we need to understand is that the “good deeds” that James refers to are not just things that other people consider to be “nice” or “kind” or “helpful.” “Good deeds” means “living in obedience to God’s commands.”
The Example of Abraham
Remember that James writes to Jewish believers (see James 1:1). That doesn’t mean that what he says doesn’t apply to non-Jewish believers. I mention his original audience to explain why he uses the example of Abraham to make his point. Abraham, of course, was the father of the Jewish people. So James refers back to the story of Abraham to illustrate the kind of faith he’s talking about.
In verse 23, James says, “And so it happened just as the Scriptures say: ‘Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.’” (see Genesis 15:6). This is the ground for Paul’s statement that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:4-8). We are not saved “by” our faith; we are saved by God’s grace. Our faith leads us to accept God’s gracious offer of salvation.
Back to Abraham: James tells us that Abraham demonstrated his faith by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar. In the human sense, offering one’s child as a sacrifice is not a “good deed.” The only thing that made Abraham’s act “good” was that it was in obedience to God’s command.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the first extended teaching that Jesus gives to his disciples is the Sermon on the Mount. I fear we often view the Sermon on the Mount as some idealistic view of what God’s Kingdom could be like, or will be like “someday.” I don’t believe that at all! If this was Jesus’ first lesson on the Kingdom of God to his disciples, he certainly intended them to build their lives on it. (In The Message, Jesus says: “These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on” [Matthew 7:24-25, MSG]).
Okay, so why is that important? Because just before that, Jesus said this: “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws” (Matthew 7:21-23, NLT).
Do the will of the Father. That’s what it means to follow Jesus, what it means to “have faith.” And that’s why James says that we show our faith by what we do.
Show Your Faith by What You Do
It’s sad that so many people have convinced themselves that they can “believe in Jesus” without doing what he taught. I suppose it’s just another example of what happens when we build our theology on a single verse or passage of Scripture, rather than its whole message. In Romans 10, Paul says, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9, NASB). Absolutely true!
But what does it mean to “confess Jesus as Lord”? “Lord” means “Master,” or “Sovereign.” It means that we surrender our lives to him. And that means that we obey. What do we obey? Scripture! What else would we obey? If we believe that Scripture is true, then it is true for everyone, at all times.
But we have to remember also that it is the overall message of Scripture that is authoritative. Hopefully, no one takes Paul’s reported comment in Romans 3:8 on its own: “Let’s do evil that good may come of it.” No, our faith in Jesus as Lord means that we follow his example, and we allow him to direct us every step of the way. I don’t think that anyone who is trying to do that can just toss aside God’s commands in Scripture and act as though they don’t matter. We show our faith by how we live.
Father, thank you for reminding us that salvation is by grace alone – it is your gift to us. Our faith acknowledges our need for salvation, and accepts that you have provided it through your Son Jesus. We live in obedience out of gratitude for what you have done for us. Help us to know your Word, that we might live by it. Encourage us each day as we seek to bring glory and honor to you. Lead us by your Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, that we might build our lives on the foundation that Jesus set down for us. Amen.