Question: Works or faith in James' Epistle

I have been reading the epistle of James and am struggling to see how it fits with the salvation by faith alone that I was told about when I was saved. Is James saying that we need good works as well as faith to be saved?

Faith alone or good works?

Some people struggle with the book of James and especially with some of the statements made in it which seem to be contrary to the rest of scripture. However, James is completely one with the rest of the Bible. James is fundamentally addressing a problem that Paul mentions in Romans 6:1-2: “What then shall we say? Should we continue in sin that grace may abound? Far be the thought. We who have died to sin, how shall we still live in it?”. Some people seemed to be suggesting that, having been saved, we could continue in sin because Jesus has borne the judgement for them already. Paul challenges such a suggestion by saying that if we have died with the Lord and have appreciated Him so much for what He has done and His present intercession for us then we wouldn’t have any desire to go back to our sins that caused such pain and sorrow to Him.

James addresses the same issue. He wrote his epistle with the aim of showing to all that faith has no purpose if it has not had a visible effect upon our lives. Someone might say that they have faith but if there is no change in their life then we might be excused for saying that they had no faith at all. Let’s look at the whole passage:

“What is the profit, my brethren, if any one say he have faith, but have not works? can faith save him? Now if a brother or a sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one from amongst you say to them, Go in peace, be warmed and filled; but give not to them the needful things for the body, what is the profit? So also faith, if it have not works, is dead by itself. What is the profit, my brethren, if any one say he have faith, but have not works? can faith save him? But some one will say, Thou hast faith and I have works. Shew me thy faith without works, and I from my works will shew thee my faith. Thou believest that God is one. Thou doest well. The demons even believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Thou seest that faith wrought with his works, and that by works faith was perfected. And the scripture was fulfilled which says, Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and he was called Friend of God. Ye see that a man is justified on the principle of works, and not on the principle of faith only.” (James 2:14-24).

"And Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptised, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for remission of sins, and ye will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For to you is the promise and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God may call. And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, Be saved from this perverse generation. Those then who had accepted his word were baptised; and there were added in that day about three thousand souls". (Acts 2v38-41)

“For as the body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).

The key is in the first verse “if anyone say he have faith”. It is no good just saying that we have faith, we need to actually have it. Faith is not a hidden thing; it will have a visible result. Our works (or deeds) will reflect the faith we have. The Lord Jesus said the same thing when He says “By their fruits ye shall know them. Do men gather a bunch of grapes from thorns, or from thistles figs?” (Matthew 7:16, see also verse 20). We can see the effect of faith in the way a person acts or speaks. James goes on to say that there is no point saying in faith “be warmed and filled” to a brother or sister without actually giving them what they need. Our faith would respond to their need and not just expect someone else to provide for them.

He continues to say that our faith will be obvious to others by the way we act towards others. We can believe in God but that isn’t faith. Faith means that I am trusting in God completely and (as we have seen already) that my old person has died with Christ and I am now living in Christ and like Him. His love should now be evident to everyone through me. Truly faith without any works is not living faith but dead.

In Romans we are clearly told that Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him as righteousness and Paul makes quite clear that salvation is by faith alone. James shows that Abraham’s faith was evident in what he did. “By faith Abraham, when tried, offered up Isaac, and he who had received to himself the promises offered up his only begotten son, as to whom it had been said, In Isaac shall thy seed be called: counting that God was able to raise him even from among the dead, whence also he received him in a figure.” (Hebrews 11:17-19). If he did not trust God he would not have offered up Isaac and therefore it would have been evident that he had no faith. However, by going to offer up Isaac as God said he demonstrated his faith in God and so in that way we can say that his ‘works’ which were the evidence of his faith we key in his being saved. Abraham believed God, He did as God said and he received the blessing as a result of his faith.

Faith cannot be separated from works as they are the result of faith. James is clearly showing that we cannot simply say that we have faith but faith will always result in a changed life that is more like Christ.

James is not saying that outward good works is a substitute for faith. We are not saved by works but by faith. Faith though will always have a result in producing good works. Paul shows that “we are his [God’s] workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has before prepared that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10) meaning that the result of our faith will be good works for this is the type of life that God has made us to live.

James places great value on faith

One final point on faith in the Epistle of James. He finishes his letter by saying “and the prayer of faith shall heal the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he be one who has committed sins, it shall be forgiven him” (James 5:15). He clearly shows that faith can accomplish great things and he says nothing about works resulting in healing but rather a prayer of faith.

“Hear, my beloved brethren: Has not God chosen the poor as to the world, rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to them that love him?” (James 2:5). He also says that it is the “rich in faith” that are the heir of the kingdom whom God has chosen. James believes in the greatness of faith in God through Jesus Christ for the exalting of a Christian just as much as the rest of scripture.

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