For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Paul, in Ephesians 2:8-9)
Faith without works is dead. (James, in James 2:19)
Some have wondered if there is some discrepancy here between Paul and James. Paul says we are saved by grace through faith, not of works. James says that faith without works is dead. Martin Luther, the great Reformer, was all about Paul but could hardly stomach James. Luther infamously called the book of James “a right strawy epistle.”
Faith, not works, is what saves, says Paul. And yet, there are works, and Paul is never very far away from them. In Ephesians 2:9, he declares, “not of works, lest anyone should boast.” But then in verse 10, which invariably follows verse 9, he adds, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
Works are not left out of the question. What is left out is boasting — there is never any place for it. No, we are not saved by works. But yes, we are saved for good works. Good works enter the equation not as a means of salvation but as a result of salvation. More importantly, these good works are not our own works but God’s works being produced in us. For we are His workmanship, His new creation in Christ, and the good works He now produces in us reveal Christ in us.
So, for Paul, faith does not leave out works. We can see this again in his letter to the believers of Galatia, in which he is very clear that we are not justified (counted as right with God) by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:16). He is very adamant on this point, as we can see again in Galatians 5:4-5.
You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.If we attempt to be justified by the law and its works, we have fallen away from God’s grace and are alienated from Christ. The only righteousness we can have before God is purely by faith.
And now look at what Paul has to say about this faith in the very next verse: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6 NIV). The NKJV has this as “faith working through love.” The only thing that counts, that has any value or is of any use, is faith expressing itself through love. That is the nature of faith in Christ, the kind of faith that justifies us before God — it expresses itself through love. Faith that does not work through love is dead, which is very like what James says.
Now let’s take a look at what James said. In James 2, he is talking about love, particularly as it relates to showing partiality between rich and poor. His readers have played up to the rich but have dishonored the poor. He admonishes them:
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.Loving your neighbor as yourself fulfills the law of God. This is the same thing Paul said in Galatians 5:14. “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” James’ point is that, if you do not love your neighbor as yourself, you have broken the law just as much as if you committed adultery or murdered someone. His exhortation, then, is to live as those who will be judged by the “law of liberty,” which turns out to be the “law of love,” because it is fulfilled by love. No mercy will be shown to those who have not shown mercy — love — to others.
James continues. In this next section, his concern is still about showing love and mercy, but now he begins talking about it as a matter of faith:
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. (James 2:14-18)The example he brings is about faith expressing itself through love. It demonstrates no love to say to one who is naked and destitute, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” but give them no help to do so. There is nothing of faith in that because there is nothing of love in it. It is dead. Useless. Counts for nothing. You might as well just bury that thing because it does not do anybody any good, not even you.
The nature of faith is that it works — it expresses itself through love. And now James assesses the kind of faith that cannot be shown without works:
You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe — and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? (James 2:20)Whatever belief in God the devils may have cannot rightfully be called faith. It has no saving value, or else even the demons would end up well. It is dead. And so it is with faith that does not express itself through works of love.
James then offers Abraham and Rahab as examples of faith expressing itself through works:
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:21-26)See how the faith of Abraham and Rahab expressed itself through their actions. Their actions demonstrated the reality of their faith and in that way completed their faith. But a faith that does not result in works of love is not just incomplete — it is dead. Son, then:
- “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” — Paul
- “Faith without works is dead.” — James
(See also, Faith That Expresses Itself Through Love and Faith Without Love is Dead)