Seminary Viewpoints

It’s Not ‘Faith Versus Works’: It’s ‘Living Versus Dead Faith’

Sam Horn | May 26, 2022
Theology Thursday

Faith versus works. It’s a point of soteriological tension and contention older than the Scriptures themselves.

On its face, it’s seemingly the Apostle Paul …

  • For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:28, ESV).
  • For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8-9).

… versus the epistle-writer James, the brother of Jesus.

  • What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? (James 2:14).
  • So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:17).
  • You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24).

But those who find any daylight between these familiar sets of passages are laboring under a colossal theological misapprehension, to wit:

First: The Scriptures represent a unified message from God. One passage, properly interpreted, will never contradict another. James’ question can’t (and doesn’t) contradict Paul’s teaching that salvation is by faith and not by works.

Second: Context makes all the difference in interpreting a passage. The contextual key to resolving the ostensible tension: Paul and James are asking and answering two very different questions.

In Romans and Ephesians, Paul explains how God declares believers righteous: by faith (alone) when a person puts his or her wholehearted trust in Christ.

How do we know James fully agrees with Paul on “salvation by faith (alone)”? Historically, they resolved the question together in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), which James chaired and Paul helped persuade. Apologetically, they point to the selfsame Old Testament figure and passage: Abraham, of whom Genesis 15:6 asserts that he “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

A Pastor’s Piercing Question

But though Paul directs readers to the same figure and passage, James is positing a different query (2:14): Though salvation comes by faith alone (and it does), what good is one’s claim to faith with no accompanying evidence? Can that faith save him (or her)?

As an illustration, he first points to a situation where the lives and actions toward others of those claiming to follow Jesus were totally devoid of His mercy. Earlier, James had lambasted congregants for selfishly serving a rich man while snubbing a poor brother who had also entered their assembly.

Now (James 2:15-16), James tightens the screws to show the true depth of their depravity: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed” — in essence, naked — “and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”

James is pointing out the difference between their “word-only faith” that is workless and therefore worthless — in essence, dead (James 2:26) — and the living, true saving faith of one who not only mouths the right doctrine but offers evidence of the Spirit’s life-giving presence. Living faith produces works obedient to the Word and will of God.

A Patriarch’s (and Prostitute’s) Powerful Proof

This brings James to his and Paul’s shared example of a living faith, Abraham. Where Paul in Romans 4 emphasizes Abraham’s belief as producing salvation, James stresses his actions, in particular his willingness to offer up his only son, as verifying that salvation.

In asserting that Abraham’s faith was “justified” — corroborated — “by works,” James uses the term in the same way Jesus did in teaching that “wisdom is justified by her children” (Luke 7:35). James makes the point more clearly in later writing: “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct, let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom” (3:13).

It’s not only that Paul’s and James’ points are different, their purposes are as well. Paul is pointing the way to salvation. James is pointing out the real danger among his flock of believing that having the right creed is the same thing as having a genuine, living faith in Jesus.

Consequently, James also points out how, in addition to verifying works, we know Abraham’s — and later, Rahab’s (2:25) — faith was a living, saving one: that faith was tested, just as the epistle-writer had written our faith would be tested (1:3). The point of the test was not to grant the patriarch nor the prostitute righteousness, but to reveal that they truly possessed the kind of faith that God credits as righteousness.

Our Penetrating Probe

So, what must the believer, pastor or church leader do with a message like Pastor James’? Instead of resting comfortably on Paul’s assurances, we must seriously challenge each member to apply this probing question to our lives:

“Does the evidence show my faith to be lifeless in this life and useless on the day I will face God’s judgment? Or does it show that I really possess the living, saving faith I claim?”

As discussed by Sam Horn on The Steve Noble Show on May 26