A Faith that Works
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In verse 14 of James chapter 2, James asks a question that you'd likely answer one way without thought and another way after careful reflection, he asks: "What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?"
At first glance, it appears that James is teaching that faith alone doesn't save. Paul had the opposite view. In Romans 3:28, he wrote, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law."
In verse 21 of this chapter, James illustrates salvation by works by referring to Abraham, he writes, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?" And in Romans 4:2-4, Paul refers to Abraham too, but he says that Abraham was justified by faith, not works. He wrote, "If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about--but not before God.  What does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.'  Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation." (Romans 4:2-4 NIV)
Paul is consistent with his teaching. In Ephesians 2:8-9, he wrote: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;  not as a result of works, that no one should boast."
Are these two teachings in contradiction? Is James giving a formula of faith + works = salvation? Does he contradict Paul's clear teaching of faith alone & grace alone for Salvation? Some have concluded that is exactly what James is doing. Martin Luther, in the introduction to a New Testament translation he published in 1522 called the book "a right strawy Epistle." He despised the book, and wanted to use it to light his stove.
Let's see if we can unravel this controversy. First, I want you to notice that James doesn't say "if a man has faith," he says, "if a man SAYS he has faith . . ." There is a difference. It is one thing to have a vital, life-changing relationship with God and another thing to agree to a set of beliefs, or worse yet, simply to say you agree to a set of beliefs. It is one thing to talk about faith and another thing to put it into practice. Talk is cheap.
James is writing about a false claim to faith, he isn't talking about real faith here. And Paul isn't talking about a workless faith, he is talking about a real faith. Verse 10, very next verse after Ephesians 2:8-9 shows that. He wrote, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Ephes. 2:10 NASB)
Paul makes it very clear here, saving faith will be accompanied by godly works. In fact, that is the reason we were saved in the first place, to perform the good works God prepared for us to do.
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