For reasons I can’t really explain, I’m just fascinated by Church of Christ listservs. I’m endlessly fascinated by the discussions that take place. Some are really quite insightful, even brilliant. Others are just a little odd, even worrisome.
One of the recurring themes in these discussions is our insistence on hanging our doctrine of salvation on James’ teaching that faith without works is dead. It’s as though we can recite this incantation and magically all of Paul’s theology just evaporates. Suddenly, because we said the magic James-words, Paul no longer teaches salvation by faith, not works.
And yet, even after we say the James-words, the Paul-words are still there. And they aren’t going away.
(Rom. 4:5) However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.
(Eph. 2:8-10) For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Surely we are learned enough to realize that you don’t win an argument by saying your preferred verse last. The verse that’s right isn’t the last verse spoken. Rather, both verses are right, and a theology that contradicts either is wrong. If we find ourselves constantly citing James and only explaining away Romans, we’ve missed the boat.
Let’s try to take both arguments more seriously and find common ground.
(James 2:21-26) Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
Note carefully that James doesn’t contradict the teaching that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. This teaching that is so central to Paul’s theology is honored by James.
James assumes that his readers are familiar with the lives of Abraham and Rahab. Abraham twice allowed his wife to be taken into a king’s harem. Abraham’s faith in God’s promises was so weak that he took Hagar as a concubine and fathered Ishmael, rather than wait on the birth of Isaac. Abraham even laughed at God’s promise. Abraham was a good man, but far from sinless. No Genesis scholar would argue that Abraham lived such a good life that he earned his way into heaven. No, Abraham was saved only because his faith was credited as righteousness.
Just so, James reminds us that Rahab was a prostitute. Worse yet, in those days, prostitutes were in the service of idolatrous cults. She did the Israelite spies a favor, but she by no means merited God’s approval. One good deed hardly overcomes a lifetime of sin. No, her faith saved her, not her good life.
So what does James mean when he says faith without works is dead? We need to consider the rest of the chapter.
(James 2:14-20) What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.
James’ point is that true faith will produce works of righteousness. He does not say that the works save. Rather, he is making the same point Jesus made many times—
(Matt. 7:16-20) By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
A genuine faith, of necessity, produces fruit. The faith, not the fruit, saves, but the fruit evidences the reality of the faith.
Just so, Paul explains in Romans,
(Rom 8:13-14) For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, 14 because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
“Put to death the misdeeds of the body” simply means to repent, that is, to grow in righteousness. The Spirit we receive when we are saved helps us bring forth the fruit of repentance, that is, a more righteous life. Faith produces salvation. Salvation brings the Spirit. The Spirit leads to repentance. Repentance leads to good works.
Therefore, if we have no good works, then we have no faith. If a tree produces no fruit, it may be immature or sick. And if it never produces fruit, it’s dead. Just so, over the long run, if your faith never produces good works, well, you don’t really have faith.
There are obvious exceptions for those with some sort of disability, or who are immature, or who are temporarily in a faith crisis. We all go through times when we don’t produce the fruit we should, but this doesn’t mean we’re damned during these times—but such times do put us in jeopardy and should not be taken lightly.
(Luke 13:6-9) Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'”
Now, two false arguments are made based on James. First, it’s suggested that baptism is a work and James’ teaching demonstrates the necessity of baptism. But as I explain in another post, “Martin Luther, John Calvin, Faith Only, and Baptism,” this teaching completely misunderstands works and baptism.
Second, it’s argued that we must get certain doctrines right to be saved. And indeed we must. We must have faith. We must repent. Baptism is the occasion of our salvation. But we want to add whatever doctrinal dispute is in fashion in the church periodicals—the role of women, instrumental music, or what have you.
But James only teaches that faith will produce “works.” James doesn’t say which works! Nor does the argument James make require any particular works. Rahab proved her faith by lying about the location of the spies. Abraham proved his faith by offering to sacrifice his son. Nothing in James says we have to get any particular work right—just that our faith be evidenced by a changed life.
We cannot, based on James, declare any particular works essential. We can’t say that those who disagree with our views on instrumental music are damned because they don’t produce the work of a cappella singing. James just doesn’t say that.
Now, there are a few extreme Calvinists still out there who like to teach that a Christian can live an entirely reprobate life, sinning at will and still be saved—and James plainly disproves any such notion. But James doesn’t tell us that a Christian must have perfect doctrine to go to heaven. Nor does James say that a Christian must have a perfectly organized church or perfectly ordered worship or even the right church name to go to heaven.
Rather, James says that even sinners such as Abraham, Rahab, and me will be saved by our faith, so long as we have enough faith to motivate obedience—not perfect obedience. None of us is a paragon of virtue. Just enough obedience to show that we are penitent, that is, trying to obey God. Faith will then cover our imperfections.