That’s a nasty word in the life of a Christian isn’t it? If you agree with that statement, I hope to change your mind. Now before anyone declares me a heretic, let me be clear that we as Christians are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There is nothing we can do to earn right standing with God. That is freely given to us through no merit of our own, but rather through the merit of Christ’s substitutionary life, death, and resurrection. So when it comes to our justification, yes, “work” is a nasty, four-letter word! The Bible is very clear about this.
- Galatians 1:16 – yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ…
- Ephesians 2:8-9 – for by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
- Isaiah 64:6 – …and all our righteousness are like filthy rags…
But I would like to argue here (for lack of a better term), that our sanctification is accomplished by more than faith alone – though it is certainly not less than that. Please understand that in the words that follow I am in no way, shape, or form, talking about salvation. Works-based righteousness is a dead-end. Don’t go down that road. I am strictly speaking of sanctification, or the personal or practical holiness of each believer, who is always in a position of perfect holiness before God.
The issue really is to marry the theology of Paul with the theology of James (which is really just two sides of the same coin). In other words, Paul and James do not disagree with one another, they are merely speaking of different aspects of the Christian life. For instance, Paul says in Galatians 1:16 that we are not justified by works but through faith; and James says in James 2:24 that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Remember what Mark always says here, “If there is an apparent contradiction in the Bible, the error is not in the text but in the interpretation” (or something like that). So what is the correct interpretation of these two texts in relation with one another? It goes something like this.
Paul is speaking strictly of salvation (or justification before God). Our works are not what justify us in the sight of God. Jesus’ works took care of that for us. God knows our hearts and whether our faith and trust is in Him alone. However, James was referring to the difference between a living, breathing faith and a dead faith. A dead faith is one that says, “Yes, I believe in Jesus,” but has no evidence to back it up. It is mere words. James 2:14 says, “What good is it…if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” The answer, of course, is no, but does this mean it is NOT faith alone which justifies? The answer, again, is no. You see, the faith proclaimed by the person without works is proven to be a dead faith, or in other words, no faith at all. The difference is in saying you believe a chair will hold you up versus proving your faith by sitting in the chair! Your faith is proven to be living by the works which accompany it. James goes onto say something to the effect of, “What good is it for you to see someone lacking food and clothing and say to them, ‘Go in peace, be warm and filled,’ without actually doing something to satisfy their needs?” His answer: It’s useless! So it is with faith. It would be useless to proclaim faith but have no works which back up that claim.
A couple of quotes have made this concept clearer to me in recent years. Dallas Willard, Professor of Philosophy at USC, has said, “Grace is opposed to earning, but not effort.” John Piper has said, “It is faith alone that justifies, but the faith which justifies is not alone.”
In the next post, I’ll talk about what this “work” looks like Biblically and the link that binds both faith and works. Please don’t jump to any conclusions until you read the next post.
James 2:18 – “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.”