Other Approaches to Works
Long before we get to James, we really have to see what else Paul says about being judged by our works. This will get confusing before it gets (I hope) clear.
Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism, affirms that God’s final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led – in accordance, in other words, with works. He says this clearly and unambiguously in Romans 14.10–12 and 2 Corinthians 5.10. He affirms it in that terrifying passage about church-builders in 1 Corinthians 3. But the main passage in question is of course Romans 2.1–16. …
Paul means what he says. Granted, he redefines what ‘doing the law’ really means; he does this in chapter 8, and again in chapter 10, with a codicil in chapter 13. But he makes the point most compactly in Philippians 1.6: he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion on the day of Christ Jesus. The ‘works’ in accordance with which the Christian will be vindicated on the last day are not the unaided works of the self-help moralist. Nor are they the performance of the ethnically distinctive Jewish boundary-markers (sabbath, food-laws and circumcision). They are the things which show, rather, that one is in Christ; the things which are produced in one’s life as a result of the Spirit’s indwelling and operation. In this way, Romans 8.1–17 provides the real answer to Romans 2.1–16. …
I am fascinated by the way in which some of those most conscious of their reformation heritage shy away from Paul’s clear statements about future judgment according to works. It is not often enough remarked upon, for instance, that in the Thessalonian letters, and in Philippians, he looks ahead to the coming day of judgment and sees God’s favourable verdict not on the basis of the merits and death of Christ, not because like Lord Hailsham he simply casts himself on the mercy of the judge, but on the basis of his apostolic work. ‘What is our hope and joy and crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus Christ at his royal appearing? Is it not you? For you are our glory and our joy.’ (1 Thess. .19f.; cp. Phil. 2.16f.) I suspect that if you or I were to say such a thing, we could expect a swift rebuke of ‘nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling’. The fact that Paul does not feel obliged at every point to say this shows, I think, that he is not as concerned as we are about the danger of speaking of the things he himself has done – though sometimes, to be sure, he adds a rider, which proves my point, that it is not his own energy but that which God gives and inspires within him (1 Cor. 15.10; Col. 1.29). But he is still clear that the things he does in the present, by moral and physical effort, will count to his credit on the last day, precisely because they are the effective signs that the Spirit of the living Christ has been at work in him.
This is confusing because Wright — like Paul — does not speak in strict Reformation categories. He is neither Luther, nor Calvin, nor Tetzel. Rather, Wright acknowledges the obvious — that God is very pleased when his children bear fruit of the Spirit and that fruit will redound to their credit at the Judgment.
Indeed, the absence of fruit of the Spirit could well evidence the absence of the Spirit — which is, to say, damnation. But the logic is backward from the usual Reformation logic.
Let me say this symbolically.
Faith -> Works (Faith implies Works or If we have faith, then we’ll have works.)
That’s true. Why? Because —
Faith -> Salvation -> Indwelling Spirit -> Law written on our hearts -> Transformed Lives -> Works of the Torah of the Spirit of Life (NOT works of the Law of Moses, of course).
Now, the series of implications above is not always true, but in the normal case, it is. For example, someone may be hindered by severe physical or mental disabilities. Or someone may have been so poorly educated about the gospel that he does the wrong kind of works, but entirely out of a genuine faith.
Now, logicians affirm (and have proved) that if Faith -> Works, then the contra-positive is also true: ~Works -> ~Faith, that is, the absence of works necessarily means the absence of true faith.
As noted, there are exception, but as a general rule, since faith necessarily produces good works, the absence of good works means the absence of faith.
That does not mean, however, that —
Works -> Salvation
We can do good works because we have saving faith or for entirely different reasons (to win a girl’s heart comes to mind). Therefore, not all works will be rewarded by God. Indeed, some will be entirely rejected (Matt 7:23).
But works produced by the Spirit will always be rewarded by God, because these are the works that show that his cosmic purposes in saving you are being fulfilled.
(Eph 2:10 ESV) 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Therefore, there is no contradiction between Paul and, say —
(Mat 25:34-40 ESV) 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
Jesus very plainly connects the good works of the “righteous” (v. 37) with their salvation. Are they saved because of their works? Well, as Jesus tells the story, they do good works because they’re righteous. They didn’t even know they were serving Jesus! They did the works, not out of duty but out of love. But, of course, this is a mark of the effectively working Spirit!
It’s not that we earn our way into heaven by feeding the poor, but that a mark of the saved is that they feed the poor. It’s how they are because of how they’ve been changed by being with Jesus.
Thus, faith produces salvation and salvation produces works. Therefore, in the normal case, there is no such thing as faith without works. But the test of salvation is faith. Paul says so. It’s therefore true.
Faith — in the ordinary case — does not exist apart from works.