Originally published January 4, 2017
The Bible is clear that we are justified by faith. Jesus died on the cross. Jesus’ life was enough, his death was enough, the blood that he spilled was enough, his body that was broken was enough, the life he was resurrected to was enough. We could not earn God, we could not be Godly, and from his mercy and goodness, Jesus came for us, to live for us, to die for us, to save us from our sins. And all you have to do is to trust in that, to have faith in that.
And when you do, God gives you his Spirit. Like the Apostle Paul said in Galatians 2:20, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
The Bible says that anyone who is in Christ is a New Creation.
We do need works to back up our faith, not to earn the faith but out of gratitude for what our heavenly father has done for us. Gratitude to God is at the heart of transformation and living a Christ-like life. In truly recognizing and appreciation the grace that God has offered to us for our sins.
In James 2:18, James makes a rhetorical statement and says: “But someone will say ‘you have faith and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
Jesus didn’t die to keep us the same.
He lived the life we could not live. But it was the life he desires for us to live. And in his goodness there’s grace when we fail but we have an example. Not arbitrary life but a life lived out in the truth of the goodness of God. The gospel is about salvation, but it’s not only that. It’s being invited to life.
We don’t have all of the answers in the beginning. It’s a lifelong learning process, because we are imperfect people.
And this is one of many reasons why it’s so important to be spending time in the Bible, daily. To know God’s will. To see the things that God values, because that’s the clearest place where those truths are communicated. There are so many differing opinions and voices in our society. There are so many changing values.
James winds down chapter 2 of his letter by providing two examples from the Old Testament: Abraham and Rahab.
In 2:21, he says “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the alter?”
Abraham is mentioned in numerous places in the New Testament, often times in connection with Genesis 15:6, that Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteousness. But here James says Abraham our father was justified by works.
Are we running into an inconsistency?
Abraham believed and he was counted as righteous but here he was justified by works. Both statements are true. Because faith is the entry point to the gospel of God, coming to God, trusting in God and in his good news and redemption.
The work that James is referring to is when Abraham trusted God and lived it out. When Abraham and Sarah had waited years for a son, and God finely answered that prayer. Abraham was then told he had to sacrifice his son in Genesis 22. And Abraham, in that unimaginable situation, trusted God to the point of being willing to do it, before an angel of the Lord intervened.
But that was showing true faith and supreme confidence in God.
Yet, before this event happened, Abraham had believed and it was counted to him as righteousness. And when he lived it out, James is saying that he fulfilled the scripture.
And since he believed, the maturation of his faith was a life lived out in accordance with that faith, a life lived out trusting in God, and it was because of that trust that Abraham offered up his son.
Faith without works works to show faith that doesn’t work.
Faith is the entry point. We cannot earn God. All we can do is reach out to him in faith. So we are justified by faith. It’s just that once we come to that faith, God begins to do a work in us. We are entirely saved by faith. But faith where there’s no transformation is evidence of a non-existent faith.
James says that that type of faith is “dead.” He doesn’t mean dead in the since that it was alive and is now dead. He means that it’s lifeless.
James gives a second example beginning in 2:25: “And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?”
Rahab was a prostitute in the book of Joshua. She was not an Israelite, but when the Israelites were in the land where she lived, in Jericho, she tok actions that helped the Israelites in capturing the city. She acted out in faith in the belief of what God was doing in Israel. In the case of Rahab, to think of her faith, it is entirely associated with the actions she took.
In connection with Abraham and Rahab, and with all people who have faith, the passage closes by saying as the body apart from the Spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. A refrain that James has been hitting throughout the entire passage. One last reminder that you must have faith and works. The body would be nothing without the Spirit. Faith is nothing without works.
Faith without works is dead. But works without faith are meaningless. It’s a matter of having both. Of trusting God.
And this call here in the book of James is showing the immense grace of God. It’s a warning against someone who doesn’t really believe in the gospel. Some people aren’t walking with God, never have been, but maybe they were baptized as a baby and they act like that is their salvation. Faith without works is dead. We are known by our fruit.
It’s a reminder that confronts us to question where we are in our relationship with God. What kind of fruit are you producing? What kinds of ways have you seen God growing in you? In what ways has your love for God grown?
I do think we can have a tough season where things aren’t as vibrant. Sanctification ebs and flows.
But where are you with God today? Do you have assurance of the free grace he offers? Do you know that he is your only hope? And if you do, does your life reflect that?
How long does it take to be a follower of Jesus Christ? We accept the gospel in a moment, but following Jesus is a process that lasts for the rest of your life. Faith without works works to show faith that doesn’t work. And workable faith is faith that works.
Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear what you think, and don’t forget to subscribe!
Josh Benner is the associate pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in Minnesota.