We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
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? 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.
When we read these passages side by side they seem to offer conflicting views on how we are justified (i.e. forgiven and accepted by God; considered members of God’s people in good-standing). Paul in the books of Galatians and Romans seems to make it clear that we are accepted by God because of our faith alone, apart from anything we do. But James says with equal clarity that we are “justified by works and not by faith alone.” Knowing whether we are right with God or not, is a very important bit of information to have. So this is something we must wrestle with until we understand what James and Paul are trying to tell us.
But it is not only in these passages that we see this paradox. In one place Paul tells us that we are “saved by grace through faith,” and then tells us elsewhere that we will be judged by Christ and will receive what is due for what we “have done in the body, whether good or evil” (Ephesians 2:8, 2 Corinthians 5:10). Peter tells us that the outcome of our faith is the “salvation of our souls,” and then turns around and tells us in the same chapter that we will be judged by God according to our “deeds” (1 Peter 1:9 & 17). The Apostle John makes sure we don’t ignore this seeming contradiction by recording John the Baptist’s statement that puts both aspects of the paradox into one verse:
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
In the next couple of posts I hope to clear up this paradox and help us to see how faith in Christ and moral effort are not opposed to one another. If we don’t get this cleared up we will either try to earn God’s approval by moral effort or imagine that we can maintain his approval without out it. Ignorance of this issue will either make us into people who are trying to put God into their debt (outrageous blasphemy!), or people who imagine that sin and rebellion cannot affect our eternal destiny (damnable heresy!).
James’ Definition of Faith
James was writing to clarify what the Bible is talking about when it refers to saving faith. As in our day, James was dealing with nominal (i.e. in name only) Christianity. Some people were claiming to be believers in Jesus but they were still living judgmental, worldly and self-seeking lives. They boasted in their “faith,” and even imagined that their “faith,” all by itself, was enough to keep them in right-standing with God. They were “hearers of the word,” but they were not “doers of the word” (James 1:21-25). James wanted to make it clear to them, and to us, that such “faith” can save no one (James 2:14-17).
James wanted everyone to know that God doesn’t define faith the way nominal Christians define it. They equate faith with belief. For them believing certain concepts, or accepting particular historical facts, is faith. James points out that even the demons have that kind of faith and surely no one would argue that Satan and his forces are justified before God. So James is telling us that biblical and saving faith is not the same thing as belief.
Take a moment to read James 2:14-24; but every time you see the word “faith,” exchange it for the word “belief.” Doing this helps us to see James point. He is simply saying that biblical saving faith is not the same as belief in concepts and facts. Believing the truth that Jesus died for the sins of the world, or even that Jesus died specifically for our sins, is not biblical faith. Neither is believing in the historic reality of the resurrection of Christ, or of his exaltation to the right hand of God as Lord and Savior. Don’t get me (or James) wrong, it is part of biblical faith, but it is not the whole of it. Accepting as true the doctrines of the virgin birth, the trinity, the infallibility of the Bible, and many other things that genuine disciples of Christ accept as true, is not the whole of biblical faith.
In James 2:14 we read that there is a kind of “faith” that doesn’t justify us before God. That kind of faith is “belief without works.” And that kind of “faith” James says is “useless” and “dead” (2:20 & 26). But what kind of “faith” does justify us before God?
James gives us Abraham as an example. The Bible tells us that he was “counted righteous” (i.e. justified) because he “believed God.” But in 2:19 he told us that even the demons believe in God? But when we take time to think about it, there is a big difference between believing in God and believing God (vs. 23). The first implies acceptance of a certain fact; namely, God exists. The second implies a trust in, and a commitment to, God himself. Abraham wasn’t counted righteous because he believed certain things about God, though he certainly believed things about God. He was counted righteous because he trusted God and His word.
It is helpful if we ask this question, “What fact did Abraham believe that led to his being counted righteous?” If we go back to the passage that James quotes from, Genesis chapter 15, we will see that Abraham believed that his descendants would be as many as the stars of the night sky. Wait a second! He didn’t believe in the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ?! Nope, he didn’t have any idea about such things. He just knew that God told him that he would have many descendants, and he trusted God. It wasn’t believing in certain facts about salvation that led to his justification, but it was his commitment to believe whatever God told him. Had God chosen to tell him that one day Jesus would die on the cross for the sins of the world he would have believed it. How do we know that for sure? Because he had faith in God; he trusted God. “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (James 2:23, Genesis 15:6).
Abraham’s faith was biblical justifying faith. It was not belief in mere facts, but it was his commitment to, and trust towards, God himself. This trust in and commitment to God caused him to believe in, and to do, whatever God told him. This is why when God told him to offer up his son as a sacrifice he obeyed. He was committed to God and would trust him, and obey him, no matter what. His faith was saving faith, not dead faith. It was relational trust in the character of God coupled with a commitment to obey whatever he commanded. “You see that [his] faith [was not mere belief, but] was active along with his works, and [his biblical saving] faith was completed by his works” (James 2:22).
Nominal Christians hear the word “faith” and imagine it means “belief.” James says that this shows they are completely ignorant about the biblical meaning of the word “faith.” He tells us that biblical faith is a relational term that implies both trust as well as devotion to God, his Son and his Spirit. For James, and for all the biblical authors, faith means trusting devotion. The word that comes closest for me is “commitment.” This implies that we are determined to be faithful to God because we have become convinced of his trustworthiness. We are saved through our commitment to Jesus Christ. Or as the book of Hebrews puts it, Jesus “became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9). Those who are not committed to Jesus Christ will perish. Or as John the Baptist put it, “Whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”