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Relationship Between Faith and Works

Understanding salvation in the context of Christianity can be confusing. Am I saved by works? Am I saved by grace alone? These questions can arise when we compare scriptures such as:

James 2:24 ESV

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.


Romans 3:28 ESV

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

These two verses each respectively summarize the rest of the book they are written in. Moreover, James 2:24 summarizes the book of James, and Romans 3:28 summarizes the book of Romans. Upon first glance, you may think these verses contradict each other; however, as we walk through the context of these verses, we'll see that they are both referring to the same gospel message that is present throughout all Scripture - that Jesus lived a righteous life in our place, and then died the death that we deserve. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, "[God] made [Christ] who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in [Christ].". His work is the basis of our salvation.

James and Paul (the writer of Romans) are both approaching this gospel message from different angles, tackling different issues they see in the church at the time. Paul was fighting against the false idea that we are capable of earning salvation through our works (similar to what Luther was fighting against within the Catholic Church). James, on the other hand, was fighting against the false reduction of salvation to purely intellectual belief. So, the question lies at hand: which of these problems are we fighting today? Likely, the answer is both.

As we dive deeper into understanding the relationship between faith and works, I want to point out some key, differing aspects of: faith, righteousness, works, and justification that we can see in the passage.

Faith: Dead or Alive

James 2:20 ESV

Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?

Here, we see that faith without works is "useless". Looking back to verses 14-19, we can see this same point being made. James is talking about those who claim to have faith, but then neglect to care for the poor and needy - clearly, the faith that this imaginary person is claiming to have is a dead faith, as it doesn't lead to bearing fruit.

James is contrasting genuine, living, saving faith that transforms and penetrates every aspect of our lives, with professed, dead, non-saving faith that is simply an intellectual assent to belief in God. The second type faith is no greater than what demons have -- "even the demons believe" (v. 19).

Is your faith dead or alive?

Righteousness: Positional or Practical

James 2:21 ESV

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?

We can see two different types of righteousness throughout the teachings of Paul. These are positional (how we stand before God) and practical (how we live before God).

Positional righteousness is what happens at the initial point of our salvation. When we trust in Christ for salvation, we are made right before God through His grace, that "we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Practical righteousness refers to the fact that we can demonstrate and grow in righteousness through our living on earth.

Understanding the difference between these forms of righteousness allows us to see how works can coincide with our faith to glorify God throughout our lives and go beyond a simple assent to belief in Him.

Works: Fueled by Flesh or Fruit of Faith

James 2:22-24 ESV

You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness'—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

What does it mean that Abraham's "faith was completed"? It means "to bring it to maturity". Our works, like Abraham's, can bring our faith to maturity when we obey God. Knowing that works cooperate with our faith and grow us, we can take a look at the two different types of works present in Scripture.

The first type of work is that which is fueled by the flesh, not honoring to God, and seeking to earn God's favor. This is how Paul typically addresses works (e.g. Romans 3:28). This type of work typically results in legalism.

James, on the other hand, talks about works in a more positive light. He portrays them as fruit of faith, bringing glory to God. Though, Paul also addresses works in this way elsewhere too (also see Romans 1:5, 1 Thessalonians 1:3, 2 Thessalonians 1:11, and Galatians 5:6).

We can summarize the relationship between faith and works in one sentence: Faith creates works, and works complete faith.

Let's consider how works coming from a place of faith might play out in our Christian lives.

  • Coming to corporate worship: When our faith drives us to corporate worship, leading us to sing spiritual songs, listen to Scripture, and fellowship with other believers, our faith will be brought to maturity
  • Spending concentrated time in prayer and Bible study: Only when we see Him as our supreme delight, wanting to know Him, hear from Him, and express the longings of our heart to Him, will these spiritual disciplines be a good work

Moving to verse 24, we are met with a very controversial verse: "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone". The purpose behind this verse is to explain that the "faith" that this person has is really not faith at all. He is saying that we are not justified by a faith that claims to believe in Jesus but does nothing. It is a dead, demonic (see v. 19), intellectual faith.

Justification: Initial or Final

A simple definition of justification is "to be declared right".

The gospel hinges on the question: how are we justified - by faith or by works? Going back to the example of Abraham in verse 23, we also see in Romans that Abraham was justified by faith before he did anything. Before his circumcision, before he had Isaac, before his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham had a faith that was credited as righteousness (Romans 4:3). But, James is pointing also to his lifetime of obedience to God, not simply the justification granted him before his works.

Using Abraham as our example, we can point out two pictures of justification.

Initial justification refers to the inception of the Christian's life. When we turn from our sinful selves and trust in Jesus as our only Savior, we are clothed by God in righteousness and declared righteous before Him through His grace (Romans 4:3-5, Galatians 2:16).

Final justification refers to what will happen on the day of judgement when God declares us right in His sight.

Paul wants us to avoid thinking that works are a necessary basis or means of our salvation. James wants us to avoid thinking that works are not necessary as evidence of our salvation.

At this point, we may be asking ourselves, "How will I know if my faith is real?" The answer to that question is, "Is there any fruit?" Because, if faith exists, then fruit will be there too.

We can see that Abraham's faith was real in that he was obedient and willing to sacrifice His own son, which could only be the fruit of faith.

2 Truths to Remember

Acts 16:31 ESV

And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

1. Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ
  • We are not and cannot be saved through our works
  • Jesus has done the work and conquered sin, so there is no work for us to do
  • This gives us radical confidence - we don't have to fear anything in this life, not even death, because we are right before God's eyes
2. Faith works
  • Through continual obedience and faith in Christ, we walk with God as a friend and can bear fruit (John 15:14-16)
  • When we trust God, we will follow Him sacrificially
  • This results in radical obedience - when our faith is in God, we can trust Him wholeheartedly and obey Him without any fear