Debating Two Faiths
The book of James has been one of the most controversial/debated books throughout church history. This is not because it is not inspired by the Holy Spirit (forgive me for the double negative). It is not because James is a false teacher. And it is not because some of the statements he makes contradict other teachings in the Scriptures.
The reason that this book has been highly debated is a direct result of some of the statements James makes that seem contradictory, but really are not. These are statements like:
- “faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17)
- “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24)
- “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” (James 2:26)
The reason that these seem contradictory is because of some other passages in Scripture that seem to communicate that we are saved by faith alone. Specifically with the Apostle Paul’s writings, here are some examples:
- “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28)
- “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works so that no man may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Do you see the potential for contradiction? Or even a fun debate between James and Paul…
Paul: We are justified by faith, and not by works of the law!
James (tongue in cheek): Yeah, but if faith is by itself without works, it’s dead.
Paul: Your salvation is not your own doing though, not a result of your works! It is by grace, through faith.
James: What good is it though, if you say you have faith, but have no works. Can that faith save you?
I digress...and retire from my short career of writing plays.
Do you see this tension here, though? James emphasizes works. Paul emphasizes faith.
So what is the answer to this tension? Here is my answer:
James and Paul are not in contradiction with one another, and so, in my opinion, wouldn’t have this debate. We actually create the tension as we read it.
James is not elevating works over faith. I think that at times this is how Christians have tended to read it, and thus creates the tension. You see, James and Paul were both writing to different audiences who needed correction on different things. If I have learned one thing about interpreting Scripture it is this principle:
The passage cannot mean for us what it did not mean for them.
“Them” meaning the intended original audience.
So, we can say with confidence that Paul is not saying that works are useless. He is rather emphasizing that faith is ultimately what saves us. We can’t say that because of his emphasis there that he doesn’t care about our conduct/works. After all, he is the one who wrote about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Works/external result of true faith matter to Paul, but he is trying to communicate that they don’t secure salvation, and that faith does that.
On the other hand, James is not communicating to his audience that faith doesn’t matter, but rather that true saving faith in Jesus will manifest itself in works. If faith does not have works, it might not be true saving faith in Jesus.
The point is this: James is comparing two different faiths. He is comparing a faith that has works with a faith that does not have works. He is not drawing a line between faith and works and their power to save in and of themselves.
So now that I’m done being a nerd, here is the thing, friends. If we truly have saving faith in Jesus, we will be propelled towards good works. Or to be corny and make a play on words, “a faith that does not have works, doesn’t work.” Genuineness of faith will inevitably result in good works because we cannot encounter God’s love and remain the same. We either move farther away from Him, or closer to Him.
James, the Proverbs of the New Testament
We’ve been studying the book of James for almost 7 months now (woah). We’ve been moving at a really slow pace working our way through each verse, trying to gain an understanding of the book both in its original context, and what it means for us as Christians in 2021 (I accidentally wrote 2020 at first, lol).
As we continue to work our way through this book, I wanted to remind us of a few of the broader points of the book itself. Sometimes in our deeper study it is easy to forget that this book was a letter, meant to be read and heard by its original audience. Reminding ourselves of its overall themes can be a helpful tool, and encouraging along the way of deeper study.
Firstly, as with the title at the top, the book of James is often referred to as “the Proverbs of the New Testament”. The reason for this is that the content found in the book of James is content that practically and faithfully reminds Christians how to live. The book of Proverbs contains much on how to live wisely in this world before God. This, too, is the broad, overarching, and unifying theme of James. He is instructing this Jewish audience in how to live out their faith in Christ, and we can glean some insight for that for our lives.
Secondly, there is an underlying theme of a hatred for hypocrisy. Hypocrisy can be understood as you claiming to have moral beliefs/values to your life does not line up with. James goes right at this many times throughout this book, most recently (in our studying) in James 2:14-17. He began the conversation of faith/works. James here compares faith that has works with faith that does not have works. He doesn’t outright call this hypocrisy, but it is pretty clear that those who have faith but not works are indeed hypocrites. And James’ hatred for such hypocrisy can be found in his tone that he communicates with.
Lastly, there is also an underlying theme of the warning against being double minded. This is especially prevalent in James 1:2-8 where he directly calls it out. It is also prevalent throughout the book. Most recently, again, in James 2:14-17. Having faith without works, for James, is being double minded - it doesn’t make sense! It is an unstable path, and ultimately one that leads to destruction.
So, in closing, let’s continue to press forward in our study of James with these themes in mind. Ultimately, with the intention in mind of how to live faithfully as Christians in this world, in 2021. The Bible may be thousands of years old, but is still the inspired Word of God that speaks to all times, all peoples, in all contexts. That being said, let’s continue to seek to be both hearers and doers of His Word, allowing it to enter and form every aspect of our lives, by the power of the Holy Spirit.