But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.”
Show me your faith apart from your works,
and I will show you my faith by my works.
You believe that God is one; you do well.
Even the demons believe – and shudder!
Do you want to be shown, you foolish person,
that faith apart from works is useless?
James in his much-disputed epistle is not questioning the possessing of faith, he is rather calling for the showing forth of it. He does not declare faith without works to be non-faith; he simply declares it to be useless (or “dead”). The foolish do not work according to their faith as the wise do; yet still they are said to possess faith, however unprofitable. It is simply of no more use in their outward walk than the empty and hopeless confession of the demons. They are not eternally lost as the demons, but their confession becomes as valueless before men as the confession of demons is before God. Tragically, men have used this scripture to justify their arbitrary and religiously defined litmus tests of “true faith”. Repent has come to mean only something which leaves men such as the thief on the cross damned. Jesus cried, “Repent, and believe” – in other words, “Turn from your unbelief, and believe!” What we discover in the scriptures is a call to child-like faith: which is effective not by its apparent strength but rather by its simplicity. But the self-righteous are blind to man’s most primal and central sin: the self-made religion of the inner heart. Deriving our assurance of faith from anything but faith itself only perpetuates our lack of faith. Of this we must also repent, and believe! The fruit of the Spirit is the result of growing faith; a lack of said fruit is the result of stagnant faith. Yet both are still faith, only one is shameful.
“By their fruits you shall know them” does not refer to discerning whether this one or that one may not be born-again; it is rather a call to discern false prophets by their fruit (teaching). For their words are the shoals upon which the faith of many becomes shipwrecked, teaching men to establish themselves in their own righteousness rather than being grounded in Christ’s. In the end they will say, “Lord, Lord, did we not do many mighty works in Your Name?” And He will declare to them, “I never knew you. Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” For Christ is the fulfillment of the law, and they transgress His law of faith. These are they whom Jesus rebuked saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces, For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” For without faith it is impossible to please God; and indeed, whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. It is only those who do the will of the Father in heaven that enter therein, “And this is the will of Him that sent Me: that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on Him, may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up on the last day.” The purer the faith, the purer the fruit – all else is tainted by the man of sin, who ever seeks to justify himself. If a man seeks to maintain his righteousness through works, he upholds not the righteousness given to him in Christ Jesus. If however he is justified by faith apart from works, he escapes the tyranny of self-imposed religion, and the Lord is able to work through that man. The yoke of the Lord becomes easy and His burden light to those who enter His rest.
Now, the highly contended chapter in the epistle of James appears within the context of a rebuke over a lack of charity and the failure of God’s people to show their faith by their works, rather than only through a confession – however legitimate and sincere that confession is before God. But the contention among many is only heightened by his next remarks…
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 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.
Many have failed to properly reconcile these words with those of Paul regarding the same Abraham, where he said,
For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. Romans 4:13-14
Much of the confusion on this point reveals a lack of understanding in what sort of justification is being spoken of by James versus Paul. We see the words in our English bibles, “justified,” or “saved” without a thought as to their immediate context and intended implication. Justified before whom, and in light of what? Saved from what, and saved to what? This varies depending on the context at many points in scripture. The same Greek word is most commonly translated “saved” or “delivered;” but even beyond that simple distinction, the original meaning can speak of any number of other matters: from being spared of earthly torments, to avoiding divine discipline, to having eternal life. It is no mistake that both Paul and James were prompted to write of the same Abraham regarding these things so that we might have clarity – if we choose to listen.
James uses the word often translated “saved” [Gk. σῴζω – sōzō] in the following examples, each time addressing those who already have eternal life:
“Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save [σῴζω] your souls.” (James 1:21)
– Here the word of God is already implanted, signifying the regenerate state of their spirit. His word is to be further received for the deliverance or preservation of the soul [Gk. ψυχὰς – the soul, the living state of the person as brought about by the breath of life from God]. The fruitfulness of God’s word within us determines abundance of God’s life in us both here on earth as well as in heaven.
“And the prayer of faith shall save [σῴζω] the sick…” (James 5:5)
– Same word, [σῴζω]. And the context makes obvious here that σῴζω implies a release from illness.
“Brethren, if any of YOU do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he who converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save [σῴζω] a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19-20)
– Here a brother falls into error, and is “converted” back to the truth. This is not speaking of the conversion of a lost man from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God; it is speaking of the conversion of an existing brother from walking in error back to walking in the truth. Notice that he is still a brother, yet here also a “sinner”. The sin (singular) in this case is simply the error in which he presently walks; but the multitude of sins (plural) which are graciously hidden by his turning back from error are the temporal fruits of that sin of error. This brother’s soul [Gk. ψυχὰς – explained previously] is here delivered (or “saved” [σῴζω]) from death (death’s bodily sting or reign) by the righting of his steps in Christ.
James in his epistle is exhorting believers to display the fear of God in their life here on earth in light of His discipline, in light of the needs of the brethren, and in light of their witness.
And to make the matter very clear, Paul wrote regarding Abraham’s works:
For if Abraham was justified by works,
he has something to boast about,
but not before God.
Abraham indeed had something to boast about in his works (which proceeded from faith) – but not before God. His faith was counted to him as righteousness, but his works fulfilled the scripture which spoke thus. Not all who are righteous by faith fulfill the scriptures – and no man but Christ Jesus has fulfilled them all. Abraham’s faith boasts before God in Christ; whereas his works boast righteously before men, that men might see a likeness of the One in whom he believed. So by his good works in offering up Isaac he preached not himself, but Christ crucified, who raises the dead. James is concerned in his letter with the witness of the church and their justification before men by good works: Paul is largely concerned with establishing the church in the surety of their justification before God by faith, from which faith a good witness will indeed blossom if allowed to remain in its pure form. The faith of James’ brethren was not producing good works because it was being held in a man-made cage of religious attitude (in this case, greivious partiality). Abraham’s faith did not itself consist of his works; rather his works consisted of his faith. Abraham simply believed God – that is why he could obey God truly. James is not preaching law to his brethren for them to prove something to God (for by works of the law no man is justified before God); he is rather exposing the impurity of their faith by its fruitlessness. For could such faith save them from before the face of men, or from the Lord’s earthly chastisement of those whom He loves? No.
For his fuller context, here is the first portion of his discussion of works:
My brothers, show no partiality AS you hold THE faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
The apostle is clearly speaking to a people whom he fears to be sitting on their laurels even as they hold the faith: to the earthly detriment of their neighbor, and the destruction of their own witness therewith. There is a judgement of the works of every man who will enter the kingdom. The works of the flesh (including those religious) will be burned up, though the man himself be saved; but the works of God by faith will endure to adorn that man in eternity. “Blessed is the man who endures temptation, for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” [James 1:12] James goes on to plead that we should save or deliver ourselves from the consequences (both temporal and eternal) of a faith which profits nothing.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Just as we know through Paul that Abraham’s faith was his boast before God; we know through James that his works were the boast of that faith before men unto a sure reward. Faith alone is unto salvation; the works of that same faith are unto immeasurable blessing therewith. That which was gained without good works cannot be lost by a lack of good works; but being left alone, faith does remain unprofitable beyond this. A man reaps what he sows – especially if God is his Father. Of the athletes who compete in the race and cross the line, few are crowned. For the sake of His own great Name, God remains faithful even toward straying and unfaithful children; but such are denied the greater privileges of His reign, though mercifully they are chastened that perhaps they might come to maturity.
And also if anyone competes, he is not crowned unless he competes lawfully. It is right for the laboring farmer to partake first of the fruits. Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in all things. Remember Jesus Christ, having been raised from the dead, of the seed of David, according to my gospel, in which I suffer ill as an evildoer, unto bonds; but the Word of God has not been bound.
Because of this, I endure all things on account of the elect, that they also may obtain salvation in Christ Jesus, with everlasting glory. Faithful is the Word: for if we died with Him, we also shall live with Him; if we endure, we shall also reign with Him; if we deny Him, that One will deny us; if we are unfaithful, that One remains faithful; He is not able to deny Himself.
2 Timothy 2:5-13
Contrary to the notions of some men, there are such things as carnal Christians – such are Paul’s own words. In the same great house there are both vessels of honor and vessels of dishonor. Of course dishonor is not a thing to glory in; yet it is sadly a matter of reality. Paul was accused of preaching that men should go on sinning because of the truth that where sin abounded grace much more abounded. He simply condemned his accusers and never adjusted his message. If that is all they hear in the gospel, then they simply cannot hear. The blindness of the blind should not cause those with sight to be ashamed of what they can see. Adding a law of commandments to the gospel of Christ does not keep men from sinning, it further enslaves them in the sinful nature; for “the power of sin is the law.” The fruit we are to bear is of the Spirit, not of the letter; for by the letter the flesh arises and the new man is paralyzed, and the Holy Spirit is quenched.
Many rise up and say that they have repented of all their sins: these deceive themselves and the word is not in them. A sinner who repents is saved because of his faith, not by the worthiness of his own repentance. For a man cannot perform adequate penance to please God, that is why it depends on faith. A man can have faith, and the Lord will help the unbelief of the one who asks! It is the man who knows his debt is paid that can freely offer himself without shame to the mighty hand of his new found Lord. In knowing the truth, we are made free. Our primary repentance is to be a repentance from dead works to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; it is to be a turn of the heart’s central trusting loyalty from the worship of what is false to serve the living God. This repentance preached by Jesus and the apostles was a turning from unbelief to faith in the Name of Christ. And when they did speak of turning from walking in impure and worldly ways, they spoke to those already within the realm of said faith as it being their reasonable service as obedient children. Only those who have first freely partaken of the heavenly bread become its true dispensers.
“Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of man will give to you; for God the Father sealed this One.” Then they said to Him, What may we do that we may work the works (plural) of God? Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work (singular) of God, that you believe into Him whom that One sent.”
So in keeping with this law of faith, we continue by it; and in light of our darkness thereby remain grateful and free to repent of inner wickedness unto fruitfulness in God. Our ability to repent of sins will be in proportion to our faith in His existing sufficiency apart from us. For in the flesh we find ourselves unable to offer ourselves one in whom we scarcely trust. To walk by the Spirit we must believe Him when He declared of His firm foundation, “It is finished;” so that upon this foundation, we now find liberty to further exercise this faith. For being in Christ Jesus without condemnation, we may now be lead of His Spirit, being built up as a worthy temple. And so we are saved unto good works, being His workmanship in joy. No man is able to pluck God’s children from His hand, no man. Not themselves, not another. Let us therefore live with assurance from our heavenly seat in Christ Jesus! By this we are able to conquer the doubts and timidity of spiritual youth as we are reminded that “when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” And we also are able to be delivered here from the present power sin in the flesh, in proportion to the measure of this FAITH…
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
We are called to be holy as Christ Jesus is holy because without holiness no man will see the Lord. Few walk worthily of the calling wherewith they were called: they sow very little and will therefore reap very little. Many believe unto salvation; but few walk consistently in the faith in life. The Lord desires those whom He knows to know Him also, that they might have the full assurance of faith themselves. So let us reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God, that finding strength before this throne of grace we may depart from iniquity! Those who know the wonder and joy of salvation and groan with God’s heart for others: these have an understanding of the eternal tragedy of a tainted or nonexistent witness. They do not need to be threatened with damnation in order to do good works – as is the way of self-righteous men and their teachers; but they need only to look upon the mercies of their savior, high and holy, meek and lowly, and they are evermore compelled to walk wisely in the fear of the Lord, showing forth HIS works before men. Our faith is tested not to determine its existence, but rather so that its proof may result in praise and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Remind them of these things, solemnly testifying before the Lord not to dispute about words for nothing useful, to the throwing down of those hearing. Earnestly study to present yourself approved to God, a workman unashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth. But shun profane, empty babblings, for they will go on to more ungodliness, and their word will have growth like gangrene, of whom are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who missed the mark concerning the truth, saying the resurrection already has come, and overturn the faith of some. However, the foundation of God stands firm, having this seal, “The Lord knew those being His;” also, “Let everyone naming the name of Christ depart from unrighteousness.” But in a great house not only are there vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and of earth, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Then if anyone purifies himself from these, he will be a vessel to honor, having been sanctified and made useful to the Master, having been prepared to every good work.
2 Timothy 2:14-21
The virtues we are exhorted to add to our faith by the apostle Peter in his second letter are unto the end that “they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.” [2Pet 1:8-9]
Notice that the qualities which characterized maturity and holiness are the visible attributes of man who has not diminished the ever-present truth of his cleansing by Christ; since the lack of these virtues is in fact the evidence of one who has become unmindful of it. But it is those who have rested from their own labors that will discover Christ most potently at work in them. The greatest task for man, and the one which his religious heart most resourcefully objects to, is to simply have pure faith in Another who promises that which cannot be fully seen through carnal eyes.
And Peter goes on to describe the final thing anticipated…
Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
2 Peter 1:10-11
It is one thing to simply enter the eternal kingdom, it is another for that entrance to be richly provided. The confirming of faith before men by obedience to the word and Spirit of Christ renews the people of God unto greater realms of His glory being revealed both to and through them – indeed on this earth. But we are presently in such a low estate that even sins unto death are winked at in the midst of God’s house. It is a great unspoken tragedy. The place is filled with defilements and breaches of faith which only the Lord Himself can remedy before the last day; on which many are scarcely saved as through fire. And because we abide not in the word of Christ, we often lack the discernment and fortitude to rightly deal with such matters…
Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 5:2-5
The branches which abide not in the love of Christ become fruitless, and men gather them to be burned [John 15:6]. But where are these men? Blessed are those who, as God judges His house, He finds abiding faithful. If we abide in the word of Christ, we shall live as the new creature by His Spirit through faith. For the new man born of God “does not sin, because God’s seed abides in him, and he is not able to sin, because he has been born of God.” But the old man commits sin and is therefore “of the Devil, because the Devil sins from the beginning. For this reason the Son of God was revealed, that He undo the works of the Devil.” [1John 3:8-9] The children of God all have access to His means by which sin shall no longer have dominion over them. Or have we forgotten that the soul also, and not only the spirit of every man in Christ, is saved? For the evil which they do is no longer them doing it; but sin dwelling in the flesh [Rom 7]. The divide has been made, there is a new creation, the chain has been broken! Shall we then remain sitting in a prison cell whose bars have been sundered and its keeper overcome? “All things are possible to the one believing.”
Therefore, let every one in God’s house consider of what spirit he is. The Lord knows each of His own and He calls them by name; but many of His very own do not yet themselves know HIM. Many loved of God love not their brother and so lie in saying that they themselves love God. Many in God’s house still hate their brother, and so needlessly abide in death as murderers. The judgement of each man’s work to determine his reward is no light matter. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” It is far better to walk in holiness so that our joy be full and our hearts have no occasion to accuse us; that we may have confidence before God in fellowship with Him and with the brethren.
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
Eternal life is the free gift of God received by faith alone; but the discovery of its endless depths are not reaped except by the sowing of ever-increasing faith. Life eternal is to know the Father and the Son by His Spirit; and the greatest riches of this relationship are reaped only by those who strive to find rest in the labors of He whose abundant life will continually cost them their own. The one losing their own life for His sake is continually finding it.
But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light; which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.
1 Peter 2:9-10
God, who willed and provided for all men to be saved, has also predestined for whoever trusts in Christ that they should redound to the praise of His glory. Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved; and let them who are so saved abide in His love, and not tire of pursuing their own upward calling in Him, lest they come short of His many great and precious promises! It is one thing to be a child of God, it is another to be an fellow-heir with Christ of His kingdom. The children are all heirs of God; but the co-heirs with Christ are those who have gratefully given themselves to His service, even unto death.
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God, and fellow heirs with Christ provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Though surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who by faith went before us, the sin which still so easily besets us is our tendency to subvert the gospel by our own vanity, to the undoing of faith. We are afraid to forsake our inner religious tendencies in order to gain Christ by faith, and so despise the chastening of the Lord who is ever calling us to such. If we go on sinning by rejecting the call of this chastening, and become enemies of the gospel within His house; then we shall become undisciplined children who are called bastards, unable to become mature sons and partakers in HIS holiness. The bastard son of the slave woman will always persecute the son of the free. Cain will always trust in the fruit of his own labours; and he will always rise up jealously to slay his brother whose boast is the Lord. But the works of God’s people are judged according to whether they proceeded from faith or from self [Rom 14:23].
Such is the estate of His house:
Many have believed in Him, but few abide in His word.
Many are His own, but few are the free.
Many have received His grace, but few have continued by it.
Many have begun by the Spirit, but few have not quenched Him.
Many possess faith, but few are possessed by it.
Many have heard the gospel, but few have remembered it.
With the good news forgotten, the fruit becomes rotten.
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in Him,
“If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples;
and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
John 8: 31-32
“There are many children, but few disciples.”
– Brian Troxel