In the New Testament book of James, after the author highlights the unholy behavior of mistreating the disenfranchised and ignoring the poor, he offers a teaching that is as timeless as it is revelatory: “What good is it,” he writes, “if you say that you have faith, but do not have works?” (James 2:14)
What does Scripture mean by “works?” I have always believed it to be a reference to those tangible works of ministry that bear witness to the kingdom that God inaugurated in Christ. Works of compassion and justice. Works emerging from a heart that has been transformed and reoriented by the love of Jesus Christ. “What good is it,” the biblical author writes, “if you say that you have faith but do not have works? If a brother or a sister is in trouble and lacks daily food, and you say to them, ‘God bless,’ but do not do anything to supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
Then the biblical author encapsulates the urgency of his teaching in a powerfully unsettling way: “So,” he writes, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:17)
I invite you to allow yourself to be unsettled and perhaps even undone by that biblical teaching for a moment. Allow the teaching to make its way into every chamber of your soul. “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is not a saving faith. It is a dead faith.”
Over the centuries of Christian theology, Christian thinkers have perpetuated what I consider to be a misguided and unfortunate debate. The debate is normally referred to as the “faith versus works debate,” and it hinges on this theological question: Are we saved by faith or are we saved by our good works? People on both sides of the debate cite particular scriptures to support their arguments. The people who believe that we are saved by faith alone (in Latin, “sola fide”) are quick to cite scriptures like Ephesians 2:8-9, which reads this way: “By grace we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing, but the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” That’s a pretty clear teaching, right?
But hold on. Because, on the other side of the debate are the people who maintain that salvation is received—not EARNED, mind you—but RECEIVED through the doing of good and compassionate works. They cite scriptures like Matthew 25:31-46, in which Jesus makes clear that, in the final judgment, our eternal reward or our eternal punishment has much to do with whether or not we have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoner. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that our good works are indeed an integral portion of the salvation that God has made possible.
For centuries, the theological debate has raged on, spawning hugely unfortunate extremes and unnecessary distortions of biblical truth. But in the book of James, it is made crystal clear to us that debating over faith and works is something like debating over bloodflow and breathing. Which would you rather do without, the flow of blood through your veins or the intake of oxygen? That would be a ridiculous conversation, since life depends upon both of these processes.
In much the same way, salvation depends, according to Scripture, upon both faith and good works. They are both manifestations of God’s saving grace, and they are both inseparably joined in the life of discipleship. Faith, without works, is dead. Good works, without faith, are random and unsubstantiated.
But allow me to be very clear about this: I am not suggesting that we have the wherewithal to EARN our salvation through either our faith or our works. We have neither the rectitude nor the righteousness to accomplish that. Salvation is God’s accomplishment and God’s gift, offered to us in grace. We cannot earn it, nor can we ever achieve it by our own merit. We can, however, RECEIVE God’s gift of salvation. (I don’t think that I have to say much to remind you that there is a vast difference between earning a prize and receiving a gift.)
The God-given, Spirit-empowered mechanism by which we RECEIVE God’s gift of salvation is the two-tiered mechanism of faith and works: faith in Jesus Christ accompanied by the good works that the love of Christ inspires within us.
The Greek word for faith that is utilized in the second chapter of James is a word that implies significantly more than an intellectual agreement or a cognitive speculation. In fact, the Greek word for faith is one that implies trust, reliance, dependable relationship. The kind of saving faith that Scripture describes, in other words, is a life-changing relationship with the living and ever-dynamic Christ—a relationship that changes us inwardly to such an extent that it becomes the joy of our life to bless others with works of mercy, not for the purpose of inflating our ego, but for the purpose of giving expression to the glorious and relentless love of Jesus Christ. That is why Scripture is able to say with conviction that faith without works is dead. If our faith is not accompanied by consistent works of mercy and ministry, then our faith cannot be a LIVING relationship with the LIVING Christ, whose very nature is to identify with the least and the lost.
The book of James would have us to believe that a disciple is a person of faith, but not just any faith. More specifically, a disciple is a person whose faith is nothing less than a daily walk with Jesus Christ and whose life bears witness to that daily walk through the frequent rendering of good and merciful works.