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Does the Bible Contradict Itself About Faith Versus Works?

Does the Bible Contradict Itself About Faith Versus Works?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/15/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: James 2:14-26 & Romans 4:1-12. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs significantly from the written text.)

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I feel really lucky to be preaching today. We’re in the middle of our sermon series on James, and I get the passage that is maybe the most memorable out of the entire letter: “Faith without works is dead.”

In this passage, James says it’s not enough just to believe in God. We need to follow him, become like him. Real faith looks like action: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with our God.

But what’s really interesting is that a lot of Christians, now and throughout history, have not agreed with James’ view of faith. A common belief throughout Christian history – perhaps even the predominant one in many times and places – has been the idea that pure faith is the only way that human beings can find relationship with God. Because of our human sinfulness, they argue that we are totally incapable of doing anything righteous. We are so lost, so mired in sin, that the only hope we have is to have faith in a God we can never understand, and a kingdom that we can never truly enter this side of death.

Christians who have this view of sin, faith, and righteousness, tend to be really big fans of Paul’s letter to the Romans. That’s not surprising. Paul takes a deep dive into some really deep and mysterious theological questions in this letter. He spends a lot of time reflecting on the law, sin, and what it means to be a righteous person. Romans is a fascinating letter, and well worth our attention.

Given how important and influential Paul’s letter to the Romans is, I thought it was worth reading together with today’s passage from James. Paul and James seem to have such divergent views on what it means to have faith, and the role that works play in this whole process of salvation.

Before we get to Paul, though, let’s just walk through James for a minute – make sure we understand what he has to say. Our passage today starts with this:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

This passage really convicts me. I work near the White House, and after I drop George off at daycare, I walk through Chinatown and most of downtown before arriving at my office. On my walk to work, I pass a lot of homeless people. Some of them are just hanging out, doing their own thing. But some are usually panhandling, asking for money. Most days, I get asked for money at least once.

I usually don’t give them anything.

I don’t have any legit excuse for this behavior. Jesus says pretty clearly in the gospel accounts that we should give freely to everyone who asks of us. It doesn’t speak well of my faith in Jesus that I don’t even manage to follow his clear and basic teachings.

I know I should do better, but the truth is, much of the time, my faith in Jesus is outweighed by my desire for comfort. I don’t want to have that awkward interaction with a person I don’t know, asking me for money. I don’t want to stop in the middle of my commute and get pulled into someone else’s life. I don’t want to give some stranger my money. But most importantly of all, I don’t want to be drawn into an interaction that makes me feel nervous, guilty, or diverted from my goals for the day.

And that’s OK. That’s pretty human. But it doesn’t exactly scream, “follower of Jesus,” does it? How much faith can I really have in Jesus if I don’t even stop to give change to a beggar?

Faith without works is dead.

James goes on:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?

I can believe in Jesus all the live-long day. I can believe that he healed the sick, raised the dead, preached good news to the poor, and triumphed over death. I can believe these things as historical facts. And James says, “that’s all well and good – but the evil spirits believe all those things, too. You’re still in the realm of facts. That’s not the stuff of faith.”

Real faith, for James, involves doing something about it. Faith in the Lord Jesus is powerful. He raises us from the dead. Any life that is being touched by his is going to be radiant. Faith in Jesus changes a person. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.”

As James goes on, and he uses the historical examples of Abraham and Rahab to show us what he means when he talks about the kind of faith that brings life:

Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

I think this just about sums up James’ view on what it means to live a faith-filled life. Faith is brought to completion by works. Faith is the seed, but works are the necessary flower. Without the growth of the flower, the seed has no meaning.

Now what’s really interesting for me here is that James and Paul use the exact same example to make what appear at first glance to be contradictory arguments about faith. James points to Abraham as an exemplar of faithful works. He notes the phrase from Genesis, which says that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” From this, James concludes that Abraham was such a faithful person in his works, that he was called a friend of God.

Paul takes a different view on the relationship between faith and works. And what’s fascinating to me is that he uses the exact same example from scripture to make his point. Like James, Paul zeros in on Abraham as being an exemplar of faithfulness. But listen to where he goes with this, starting with the same phrase that is the crux of James’ argument:

For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

So Paul is saying here that is that Abraham’s righteousness is itself a gift from God. Abraham didn’t earn it through his actions. He was without works, but God “reckoned his faith as righteousness.” Abraham was righteous because God said he was righteous. According to Paul, it wasn’t works that saved Abraham – it was trust in God.

For those of us who grew up in traditions that told us that every word of scripture is dictated by God and divinely guaranteed for its accuracy, this presents a conundrum. It seems like James and Paul are in disagreement here. Which is it? Is faith only real when expressed through works, or are we saved through faith alone, without works?

In order to answer this question, it’s important to look at what James and Paul meant by “works.” Because while I do think these two men were in general agreement about what the word “faith” means, I would argue that they have very different definitions of works.

For James, his entire discourse is immersed in this idea of works being based in mercy, social justice, and acts of risk-taking to express the love of God. In the case of Abraham, the example of works that James holds out is his willingness to sacrifice his only, beloved son. Abraham was willing to take real, tangible risks for God. His trust made him able to sacrifice the things – and even the people – that meant the most to him.

I don’t think anyone thinks that human sacrifice would be an example of good works, but the fact that Abraham was willing to give up everything for God demonstrates how much more powerful his faith was than mine. I know I don’t have the strength to sacrifice one of my children for God. Most of the time I can’t even muster the strength to stop and open my life up to panhandlers on my commute through downtown. This road of uncomfortable faithfulness is what James calls me to when he says that “faith without works is dead.”

Paul’s vision of works is different. In his letter to the Romans, Paul is singularly fixated on the Jewish law. He’s doing theological reflection on what the law means to him, to Christians, and to the Jewish people. He’s taking a look at religious ritual and trying to make sense of what role it should play for the followers of Jesus.

Above all other aspects of the Jewish law, one that was most concerning for the early church was the rite of circumcision. For Jews, it was required of all men. For most pagans – and for Christians who had once been pagans – it was a painful form of genital mutilation. Honestly, how many gentile converts to Christianity would there have been if the price of admission had been cutting off part of your penis?

The early church was wrestling with this. Paul, above all, as an apostle to the gentiles, was digging deep to understand what really mattered in the life of faith. Was circumcision an essential matter that the church had to stand firm on, or was it an optional rite that some could take part in and others didn’t need to?

In this context – in the midst of all these thoughts about the law, the gentiles, and the Jewish people – Paul writes about the relationship of faith and works. And what a difference that context makes! Unlike James, Paul views works as a secondary matter. The crucial thing is to believe God, trust God, have faith in God. Everything else flows from that. Works – religious rituals – are at best a reflection of faith. Not strictly necessary.

When Paul talks about works, he’s not talking about the same thing James is. There’s no mention of social justice – care for the poor, the weak, the elderly. For Paul, who is thinking very deeply about Jewish/Christian tradition and liturgy, the “works” being referred to is the keeping of religious traditions and observances.

When Paul talks about “righteousness apart from works,” it’s proper to understand works as referring to things like circumcision, wedding ceremonies, the Lord’s Supper, Sunday-morning worship, water baptism, hymn singing. These kinds of religious observances and rituals may serve a positive purpose. They may build us up and bind us together. They can help provide a sense of meaning and continuity in our community and our religious traditions. But these works are incapable of saving us. Without faith, they are empty and dead.

When you start to consider the context out of which both James and Paul are writing, their different views on faith versus works start to make sense. It’s true that faith is dead without the works of justice and mercy. It’s also true that the works of religious rites, ceremonies, and seasons are dead and useless without the power of faith to animate and redeem them.

Faith without works of righteousness is dead. The works of human religion are empty and without meaning in the absence of faith. True faith is demonstrated by acts of justice and repentance, not ritual and adherence to tradition.

So what does this mean for us? What does faith mean in our community? Do we believe God? Are we open to the ways he reveals himself to us every day? Do we believe Jesus? Do we believe him when he teaches us, through the written words of scripture and the living word of his resurrected presence? Do we believe the Holy Spirit when she speaks in our hearts?

If we do believe – if we believe God and our faith is reckoned to us as righteousness – what do those works of righteousness look like? Are we more focused on the religious works that Paul talks about – our worships and conferences and baptisms and songs? Modern day circumcision. Ways to remind ourselves that we want to follow Jesus, maybe. But not enough to save us.

Where are the works of righteousness that James talks about, the works without which our faith is dead? Maybe it’s time for me to start stopping and interacting with people who ask me for money. Maybe it’s time for me to start questioning the way I interact with the money economy altogether. Certainly, it’s time for all of us to follow the clear commands of Jesus and the witness of the early church. To care for the poor and marginalized, turn away from greed and selfish pleasure, and turn our lives towards those in need all around us. These are the works that our faith can’t live without.

Related Posts:

Works Versus Faith? You’re Asking the Wrong Question

With So Much Fake Religion Out There, How Can I Find What’s Real?