When you’re a vegan, you don’t eat meat or use animal products. Being vegan is a lifestyle.
Now if I said that I was vegan and invited you over to my place for dinner, and you said what are we having “surt and turt….we’re having some fish and steak” and then I was washing it down with a glass of milk, and my kitchen table was on a bearskin rug, and I was eating the meal with ivory handled silverware while wearing a fur coat, and we were facing my trophy wall that had deer heads….” You might start to think “you’re not vegan.”
Because just saying you’re a vegan doesn’t make you vegan.
Actually being vegan takes more than just saying it. If someone eats meat and then becomes vegan, there will be changes in his or her life.
Faith and works. It’s one of the biggest things that the secular world misunderstands about Christianity. You can’t have one without the other.
Is it possible to be a Christian and not have a life that reflects your faith? Can you just claim it?
And if you do say that you have faith, and that you’re a follower of Jesus Christ, but there’s nothing in your life that suggests that you actually believe, do you really have faith at all?
James asks “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” (James 2:14)
He then asks Can that faith save him?
What good is it to have faith without works?
What good is it to SAY you have faith if you don’t have works? It’s like the meat eating vegan.
James gives a situation in verses 15 and 16, where he talks of what real faith looks like. “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed 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, writing to Christians, he talks of a scenario where someone from the Christian community encounters a person who’s wearing rags and going hungry. Does the person do anything to help?
They simply wish them well “Go in peace, be warmed and filled.”
The issue when interacting with the poor person clearly isn’t in wishing them well. We should pray for people. But the issue is in not doing anything to help a person in need, in not loving your neighbor as yourself. To treat others like that, James is arguing, is an indication of insincere faith.
I think the Christian rapper LeCrae puts it well “Christianity is the truth about everything. If you say you have a Christian worldview, that means you see the world through that lens.”
In understanding the gospel, in understanding the weight of sin, that changes our perspective.
In the context of faith and works here, James point is that in serving people and helping people.
There are people in our lives and opportunities we have to serve and love people.
Faith without works works to show faith that doesn’t work.
Faith and works.
In verses 17, James begins to throw down the gauntlet, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
But this is an idea that he expresses elsewhere in the passage.
James 2:18, James says “I’ll show you my faith by my works.”
James 2:20 “faith apart from works is useless.”
James 2:24 “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
And the issue is that this, at first glance, can seem to go against so much of the rest of the New Testament, and especially the writings of Paul.
Because in Paul’s writings, the emphasis is on justification by faith.
Romans 3:28 “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
Romans 5:1, Paul says “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Since we have been justified by faith.
Galatians 3:24 “the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.”
Ephesians 2:8-9 “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.”
Here he says we are saved through faith, and goes on to say “not a result of works.”
Faith. Coming to God in faith.
Over and over in the Bible, we see it taught that you can’t. earn. God.
The grace is freely given by those who accept it and who trust in the work of Christ.
In James, faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead? How does that work?
How are we justified by faith, apart from works of the Law but at the same time a person is justified by works and not by faith alone?
Is the Bible contradictory? Is James teaching a different gospel?
Part of the significance of distinguishing between James and Paul is that they use some terms differently. For instance, when Paul talks about “works,” he’s talking about works of the Mosaic Law. Paul’s point is that following the Old Testament Law cannot save you.
For James, he talks about works, and his works refer more to following the Law of Liberty, gospel law, loving God, and people, and living in faith.
In the context of the New Testament, when you place your faith in Christ, God gives you his Holy Spirit. You are sealed with the Spirit, and the Holy Spirit transforms us from the inside. We don’t make ourselves holy. It is God making us holy, sanctifying us through his Holy Spirit.
All people who come to faith have the Holy Spirit.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to his apostles, in John 14 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:15-17).
Jesus says in John 16:8 “And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.”
So we are given the Holy Spirit and the Spirit convicts us. Later in that same passage, Jesus says: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13).
So we have the Holy Spirit. We are guided by the Holy Spirit.
So any type of argument about faith without works. It’s not a matter of simply saying you believe in the gospel. Because to truly believe, to truly have faith, is to have God’s Spirit.
That’s not something we go out and find.
That’s not an extra box that you might have forgotten to fill out, and maybe you don’t have it.
If you have faith, then you have the Holy Spirit.
And since don’t transform ourselves, it’s God who does that through the Holy Spirit.
Which is why: to suggest that you can have faith without works is theologically impossible because to have faith is to have the Holy Spirit and to have the Holy Spirit is to be sanctified, that is to be made holy, and to be sanctified and made holy, is to result in a transformed life.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33).
He’s using a metaphor for Spiritual growth in believers.
There is evidence of a life that has been transformed by the gospel. We are known by the fruit we produce. Fruit of righteousness.
We see it in people who are growing with God? Don’t we? We see people’s temperaments change.
People who are walking with God, healthy trees bear good fruit and diseased trees bear bad fruit.
So again, the idea of a non-sanctified Christian, the idea of a Christian who isn’t growing, and having a life that’s changed, there’s no such thing.
It might eb and flow at times.
When you come to faith in Christ, in that infancy stage of faith, God can seem so real and vibrant in everything that you do. And there might be things that you’re doing that you quickly realize aren’t honoring to God.
And we continue to learn, and as time goes on, there might be things that we’d never even thought about. The work of the Holy Spirit in our lives is a process.
Now does that mean that the moment you place faith in Christ, that you’re perfectly loving? No.
Because, even though we’re forgiven of our sins, and even though we have the Holy Spirit transforming us, we still do commit sins.
There is grace when we do.
So when we talk about faith and works, it’s not preaching another gospel. It’s not saying that we earn our salvation. Our salvation is entirely the work of Christ.
The gospel is so transformative that when it takes root in your life, you can never be the same. And since every Christian has the Holy Spirit, and since the Holy Spirit transforms, everyone who truly has faith will have evidence of that faith in their life.
And that the same God who forgives us, he tells us in his word that the best way to live is to love him. That we are to serve people.
Faith without works works to show faith that doesn’t work.
We see that in the life we’re called to live. In living a life for God. But we also see it in the life we’re called to leave.
Originally published December 20, 2016
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Josh Benner has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has served churches in Minnesota and Illinois. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in St. Louis.