Saved by works?...explaining James chapter 2.
I want to look at James 2, what does James 2 mean and does it contradict what Paul wrote in Romans and Ephesians about the place of works?
First off, a question… What makes you exist? If I were to dissect a body, and take out the parts of that body, would it be the heart, the brain, the liver, the spine, would any of those things define existence? The answer would be “no”. Like, if the only organ we had was a heart we would not be alive or if the only organ we had was a brain we would, again, not be able to live. So of course, not one of those things defines our existence, yet without one of those things we could not live. If I took out your heart you would no longer live, the same with the brain, the spine, the liver, etc. So the body is a package deal, in order for us to live all of those parts have to be present and operating.
When we look at faith, we often look at it as if it is merely an academic exercise that faith is just simply believing that Jesus did what he did and God said what he said. Faith, however, is so much more and faith does not exist simply as a spoken profession. Too often we think that faith is defined simply by someone saying “I have faith in Jesus”, but like the analogy I gave before faith is similar; it is not just a thought.
So how does this faith thing work? Well, first off, faith comes with a supernatural benefit. True faith leads a person to be born again of the Spirit. So 1 Corinthians 2:5 says that faith rests on God’s power not on man’s wisdom. So, we often think of faith in terms of someone sitting at a big Christian event and they hear a message and they decide they like what they are hearing and they raise their hand or say a repeated prayer in order to profess faith in Jesus Christ. Throughout all of that, the owness is only on the man. Whereas true faith is rests in God’s power. This means that faith is more than just an intellectual act, whereby someone chooses to say “I believe in Jesus”. The act of coming to faith is a supernatural one. The process involves more than just mental will, but also spiritual rebirth.
Something happens when we come to faith. According to Jesus in John 16 the Holy Spirit will come with conviction. So anyone who receives the Holy Spirit in Faith will receive Conviction. Paul expands on this in 2 Corinthians 7:10 in saying that conviction exists from repentance which leads to Godly sorrow, which leads to conviction, which leads to salvation. This conviction makes us realize that we are sinful. When we come to faith, when we truly come to faith, there is a supernatural process that happens whereby God convicts us of sin and calls us to repent.
We go further in 1st Corinthians 12:3, which says that no one can profess “Jesus is Lord” without the Holy Spirit. So in order to truly accept Jesus as Lord the Holy Spirit and the work of the Holy Spirit must be present. So once again, we see that coming to faith is more than just a thought, more than just a chance to pray the sinners prayer, or raise your hand at an alter call, it comes with an inward change, a spiritual rebirth, and an indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
So, let’s jump to James 2:4. James is arguing that a certain kind of faith exists which cannot save. In James 2:4 he is talking about people, who do not have good works, but he doesn’t say that these people have true faith; he says that these are people who merely “claim to have faith”. When someone professes faith in Christ, but that faith is not made evident by the Fruit of the Spirit nor the fruit of repentance, their claim to faith is only that…a claim. It is a faith that is not verifiable. It is a faith that is dead because it comes with no supernatural change. It’s important to notice here, that the people here that James is talking about, that he says they only “claim to have faith”, James does not say it is possible to have true faith and yet lack works.
James 2:10-12 states that if we claim to be saved by works, that if we break one part of the law then we are guilty of breaking the whole law. That means that unless we keep the whole law, which we know we do not, we are guilty of breaking the entire law. So James is not saying that we are able to live the law perfectly, nor is he saying we can be “saved” by works of the law. The question in James 2 is not about works but about the kind of faith that saves. In James 2:14 again there is the discussion about those who claim to have faith (notice James does not say they “do” have faith, but that they “claim” to have faith) and he says that the kind of faith that exists without works, he says “can this faith save?” and the answer is “no”, because true faith will always bear the fruit of repentance and of the supernatural rebirth that accompanies the work of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
James 2:21-23 seems to contradict Paul in Romans when it says that Abraham was justified by what he did by being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, but you have to read a bit further to understand exactly what James is saying. James 2:23 agrees with the fact that it was his belief in God that was credited to him as righteousness, but this belief/faith was made evident by his actions. So James isn’t contradicting Paul. Instead, he is saying that yes, according to verse 23 he agrees that it was faith in god what was credited to him as righteousness, but this faith was proven by his works.
So, going to a more relatable analogy. Remember the heart, the organ that pumps blood to your veins and vital organs does not make up the entirety of who you are, of your existence. However, when a person wants to find out if you are alive, it is the heart beat that they look for. The heart is not the reason for your existence it is the evidence of your existence. Just the same that works are not the reason for your salvation, but are the evidence of your salvation. Works are the heartbeat of salvation. They are the evidence that your claim to faith is more than just a passing thought. They are the fruit of your salvation, but not the root. Jesus teaches that a treat that does not bear good fruit is not a good tree (Matthew 7:17). Likewise faith that produces no works is not true faith, it is a dead faith.
So then we jump to the most controversial passage, James 2:24 which says “and now you see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” Note here, that James does not say a man is “saved” by works, but that he is justified. The word “justify” is “dikaioo” in Greek and means “to render or show” justification. Which means that someone is not proven or “shown” to be made righteous without works, but James does not go so far as to say that works are the reason that he a person is righteous, only that he is proven or shown to be righteous by works. Nor does James claim that salvation is by works, only that the evidence of righteousness is works.
So, to make sense of this, without a heart beat you will die, without the neurons firing in your brain you will die, without your lungs inhaling and exhaling you will die, but none of those things were the reason for which you were created, they are evidence of your creation, without them you would be dead, but they are not the cause of your life.
In the same way, works are not the cause of your eternal life; works are the spiritual outworking of your having been granted eternal life by Grace through faith in Jesus Christ. However, without them, your faith is dead.
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