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Faith Without Works is Dead

What does James mean by that statement?

by David A. DePra

Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.  Yea, a man
may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith
without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works.  Thou
believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also
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?  Seest
thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made
perfect?  And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham
believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and
he was called the Friend of God.  Ye see then how that by works a
man is justified, and not by faith only.  Likewise also was not Rahab
the harlot justified by works, when she had received the
messengers, and had sent them out another way?  For as the body
without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
(James 2:17-26)
Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? No.
But by the law of faith.  Therefore we conclude that a man is justified
by faith without the deeds of the law.  (Rom. 3:27-28)
     Read the epistle of James and you can get the impression that
he stands in contradiction to the apostle Paul regarding the basis
of our standing in Christ.  Paul talks about grace APART or
WITHOUT works.  James seems to be saying that we cannot be
saved by faith alone.  "Faith without works is dead," is one of the
most commonly quoted verses from the Bible.
     It gets even more complicated.  James actually says,  "You see
then how that by works man is justified, and not by faith only."  If
this statement means what it says -- out of context -- we have a
problem.  It means we are not justified solely  "by grace through
faith."  We are justified only if we add works.  But worse, it means
that the Bible contradicts itself at the very core of the gospel.
     What exactly is James saying here?  Well, one of the keys to
understanding the book of James is to realize to whom he is
writing.  James is addressing his teaching on faith to those who
would use the grace of God as a license.
     Today we have many such people.  Because they know that
we cannot be saved by works, justified by works, or kept in grace
by works, they have adopted the error that there is no need for
any sort of law or guideline for Christian living.  To those of this
camp, any suggestion that a Christian should live according to
rules or laws is legalism.
     Some have even gone so far as to say that a Christian, rather
then live according to God's law, is "to be led by the Spirit."  And
then they are able to justify almost anything as a "leading" of God.
Some Christians have justified extra-marital affairs, irresponsibility,
lying, fanaticism, and many other actions as the God-ordained
outcome of "being led by the Spirit."  For some reason, they have
ignored the fact that God will NEVER lead us in a way which is
contrary to Biblical principles, or His moral law.
     The error of license has always abounded in the church, as has
the error of legalism.  Defining each of these will help us in our
understanding of where James is coming from in his epistle.


     Some people define legalism as, "Replacing God's law with
man-made traditions, rules, and laws."  They point to the Jesus'
rebuke of the Pharisees, where He told them they had no business
making void the law of God with their tradition.  But even though we
are certainly guilty of legalism if we replace the law of God with
man-made traditions, such a practice barely skims the surface on
what legalism really is.  Legalism is a much deeper error than that.
     Legalism is the use of ANY law -- including God's law -- for the
purpose of establishing my own righteousness.  It is an attempt,
through works, to do for myself, what only Christ can do for me.  In
effect, legalism can be quite religious and "holy."  It can be filled
with good works.  But if the inner motivation of the person doing
these works is to make himself right with God, then that person is
walking in legalism.  He has stopped short of grace.
     Now, right here is where people get off the track.  If you tell them
that they must not keep man-made traditions in order to make
themselves righteous, they will probably agree.  But if you tell them
they must not keep God's law in order to justify themselves, well,
then they misunderstand.  To many people, a statement like that
means you must STOP keeping God's law.   Or that, as a Christian,
any kind of conduct is acceptable.
     The fact is, if that is my reaction, I don't grasp the Truth of grace.
Read the epistles.  Paul occasionally mentions man-made
traditions as the thing people use to justify themselves.  But far
more often, he mentions God's holy and just law.  THAT is what
Christians most often use to justify themselves before God.
     We must get this straight.  It is NOT the keeping of God's law,
or the keeping of any other religious practice, that is legalism.  No.
It is the faith I place IN my law-keeping that is error.
     What this means is that I am free to keep laws -- and SHOULD
keep many laws and principles from God's Word -- but I should
never place my faith in the fact I am keeping these.  My faith should
always be in Christ.  The works I do should be the result of  it.
     Legalism is placing my faith in my works, rather than in Christ.
Just as license is "faith without works," so is legalism, "works
without faith."  Just as "faith without works is dead," so are "works
without faith" dead.
     It is morally impossible for anyone who has REAL faith in Jesus
Christ to practice license.  Impossible.  Real faith in Christ is
evidence that I have received something from above -- a new
disposition which does not want to sin, but wants to obey God.
     Those who walk in grace are going to keep God's law.  But they
don't keep it to keep themselves in God's grace, or to justify
themselves for salvation.  Neither do they keep God's law to avoid
condemnation, guilt, or fear.  They CAN'T keep it for those reasons,
because if you have truly received the grace of God you know all
those issues are resolved APART from your works -- through the
death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  A Christian who has
received the grace of God is going to obey God because He loves
God, and because obedience is the natural outcome of faith in
Jesus Christ.


     License is "faith without works," as James says.  But we must
qualify this.  License is NOT "real faith without works."  That is
because there is no such thing as "real faith without works."   REAL
faith always HAS works.  The "faith" James is talking about is not
real faith.  It is an intellectual faith.  It is what has been called "a
said faith."
     Realizing that James is not talking about REAL faith clears up all
the misunderstanding about this passage.  James is not saying
that if I have real faith in Jesus Christ that I cannot be justified unless
I add works to my real faith.  No.  He is not contradicting Paul's
foundational teaching that I am justified solely "by grace through
faith."   Rather, James is writing to those who would SAY they have
faith -- and thus claim justification -- only to continue practicing sin
and license.
     We know James isn't talking about REAL faith because he
attributes the kind of faith he is talking about to even the demons.
He says, "Do you believe that there is one God?  You do well.
The demons also believe, and tremble."
     Herein we see the vast difference between REAL faith -- the
kind of faith necessary for salvation -- and "said faith" -- the kind of
faith which even the demons possess.  "Said faith" is assent to
the Truth.  "Real faith" is surrender to the Truth.
     The Devil and his demons know the Truth.  They know Jesus is
Saviour.  But knowing this, assenting to this Truth, has done nothing
but bring them further condemnation.  It is only if we wholly surrender
ourselves to the Truth we believe that we have real faith.
     James is saying that if you have real faith you will surrender
yourselves fully to the One in whom you trust.  And he is saying that
such a surrender will always produce the fruit of good works.  Real
faith ALWAYS results in good works.  No other outcome is possible.


     Now, this is NOT to say that good works always prove that I
have real faith.  No.  It is just to say that real faith will always produce
good works.  Do you see that?  It is entirely possible for me to be
doing my good works because I don't have real faith.
     Think about this.  There are many of us who do good works, not
because we believe, but because we don't.  We do good works to
appease the guilt Christ has already removed, or to avoid the
condemnation Christ has already removed.  We do good works to
make us feel right with God.  But this is NOT faith.  It is the very
definition of unbelief; of legalism.
     This is precisely why it is proper to say, as does James, that
faith always produces good works -- but that good works, in and
of themselves, do not necessarily mean I have real faith.  No.  I
may be living "under the law."  God knows my heart.


     Of course, many of us are apt to look at our works and conclude
that we must not have real faith.  Afterall, our works aren't too good
sometimes, are they?  Does the fact that we continue to sin and
fail in this Christian life prove we don't have real faith?
     This is no small problem.  Most of us tend to conclude we are
bad Christians, lacking in faith, if we sin.  And this can lead to fear,
condemnation, and an impossible weight of guilt.  Reading the
book of James might make matters worse.  If good works are the
evidence of real faith, then doesn't sin and failure prove we lack
real faith?
     Not necessarily.  This is not to say that if I am living in sin I  can
claim to be doing it in faith.   No.  But sin and failure are nevetheless
continuing possibilities for one possessing real faith.
     James doesn't say that we are look at our works in order to
determine whether we have real faith.  That is nonsense.  Take that
to it's extreme, and we would end up trying to "generate faith" by
doing good works!  Good works never generate faith.  Rather, faith
generates good works.
     James is simply giving the general principle that if I have real
faith in Christ, it is going to result in my life showing it.  This leaves
all the room in the world for sin and failure because such sin and
failure will not be deliberate or done in license.  Indeed, it will be
precisely because I have real faith that I am able to rest in the
Truth that in Christ, all my sin has been covered.

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