We are considering Michael Shank’s book Muscle and a Shovel. And we’re continuing to consider the Bible’s teaching on baptism and faith, in particular, whether James teaches a works salvation that damns all who fail to be baptized in the exactly correct way.
Some wish to hang their doctrine of salvation on James’ teaching that faith without works is dead. It’s as though we can read these words 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 we can’t win an argument by saying our preferred verse last. The verse that’s right isn’t necessarily the last verse read. Rather, all the 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 sets of verses more seriously.
(Jam 2:14-20 ESV) 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 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? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
The discussion begins with verse 14, and this verse frames the entire discussion. Miss v. 14 and you miss it all. And v. 14 says “if someone says he has faith.” The “faith” under discussion is a faith claimed by someone who has no works — and therefore not true faith at all.
Or as the NIV translates —
(Jam 2:14 NIV) What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?
James is speaking of a “claimed” faith. James then refers to this “claimed faith” as “such faith,” meaning something that is claimed to be faith but really isn’t.
True faith, as we’ve now considered at some length, includes faithfulness. And that’s exactly the point James is making. If your so-called “faith” does not show itself in faithfulness, it’s not really faith.
18 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. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe– and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?
James’ point is that true faith will produce works of righteousness. He does not say that the works save.
The demons believe, but they do not have faith in Jesus because they’ve not become loyal or faithful to him. You see, when you define faith — real faith — properly, these things become obvious. We don’t have to treat “faith” as something totally other than faithfulness. It includes faithfulness!
James 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.
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. But the fruit didn’t give the tree life. It just shows the tree to be alive. 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.'”
Finally, James only teaches that faith will produce “works.” James doesn’t 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 baptism are damned because they disobeyed the command to be baptized. James just doesn’t say that. Rather, he’s looking at our works generally.
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 perfect baptism, perfectly organized church, 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 and not any particular obedience. Faith will then cover our imperfections.