Faith and works

How do the two seemingly contradictory functions of faith and works relate, interact and compliment each other?

By faith alone, in Christ alone, we are saved. Faith is the instrument, Christ is the Saviour.

By works we prove the genuineness of our faith. We are saved by faith alone, but not by the faith that is alone.

Christians are justified before God as they place their trust in Jesus Christ, the Sin-bearer, the Substitute who bore God's wrath in our stead (Romans 3:26; 4:1-5; Galatians 2:16). The Christian starts and lives his life by faith (2 Corinthians 5:7). He does not look inside him but outside, to Christ. By faith his hope is sustained (Hebrews 10:35-12:3).

Faith is not simply a feeling, a mere sentiment that results only in positive speech. It is not an optimistic decision. Neither is it passive orthodoxy. Faith is a response, directed towards Christ as it satisfying object. That is why faith must have content. Truths about Christ must be understood and believed. Christian faith is trust in the eternal God as revealed in Scripture and His promises secured by Jesus Christ. It is called forth by the gospel as the gospel is made understandable through the supernatural and free work of the Holy Spirit. Christian faith is not inherited or passed mechanically on; it is a personal act, involving the mind, the heart and will. It is not faith in an idea or philosophy, but in the Triune God.

Faith involves three steps or aspects: knowledge, agreement and trust. Redemptive facts must be made known so that they may be accepted (Romans 10:14).

Calvin defined faith as "a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favour towards us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds and sealed on our hearts by the Holy Spirit" (Institutes, III.2.7).

Through faith we run to Christ and hold fast to Him, who satisfied the law on our behalf (Romans 10:4; Galatians 3:10-13). In this way we are accounted righteous in the sight of God through faith alone, without doing the works of the law. We are simul iustus et peccator.

But since faith unites to Christ it cannot be lifeless. It works through love (Galatians 5:6). It seeks to doo all the "good works, which God prepared beforehand" for us (Ephesians 2:10).

James rightly says, faith without works is dead, being by itself. He is here describing a faith that knows the gospel and even agrees with it, but has fallen short of trust in God. Failure to grow, develop, and bear the fruits of righteousness shows that the free gift of God in Christ has never been received.

James is concerned about those who merely say they believe but do not actually and genuinely believe. If they did, their behaviour would be holy, manifesting their heart-faith. In this sense faith and works are inseparable, but as regards the obtainment of salvation, it is not what is done in us, but what is done for us (on Calvary) that matters. But if we really look upon the crucified and risen Saviour, our lives would necessarily be transformed. It cannot be otherwise.

Romanism blends faith and works, claiming that both are alike necessary for salvation; Protestantism urges that it is by faith in Christ that we are reconciled to God. But if it is asked, what kind of faith? Then the answer will be, a live faith, a faith the bears good fruit.

Even when we have believed, the good works we do are never perfect. They are acceptable to God only because of the mercy of Christ (Romans 7:13-20; Galatians 5:17). We express our love for God through doing what pleases Him, and He in His kindness promises to reward us for what we do (Philippians 3:12-14; 2 Timothy 4:7,8).

In this we are not making God our debtor, any more than when we first believed in Him. God in rewarding us is graciously crowning His own gracious gifts.

Paul and James on Justification

Paul and James harmonize on the doctrine of justification, even though at first glance they may seem to be at loggerheads.

For instance Paul taught as follows: “We conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28). James, on his part, wrote: “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24).

Roman Catholicism clings desperately to James’ exposition while disregarding and even contradicting Paul’s theology on justification.

This she does to her own hurt. The balanced Christian view on justification has to listen to both apostles. Together they present the whole picture. That they are good friends can be proved as follows:

1. James does not contradict or deny Paul's doctrine (Romans 3:28; 4:5; Galatians 2:15-16, etc.), for both were guided by the same Spirit of truth (John 16:13-14).

2. James does not speak about how a man is reckoned as righteous before God, but rather about the justification or validity of his faith in the eyes of men (James 2:18: "Show me your faith....").

3. We are justified by faith alone, but works justify our faith, and declare that we are justified. Men cannot see our faith, except by our works (cf. Luke 7:47,50). If you have faith, demonstrate it. The only evidence visible to human eyes is the deeds of obedience. Though God can read the heart, our only view of the heart is by the sight of outward fruit.

4. James treats the question, "What kind of faith is saving faith?" The obvious answer is that faith without works cannot save, something Paul wholeheartedly believed too. Faith that yields no deeds is not saving faith. The New Testament does not teach justification by the profession or the claim to faith; it teaches justification by the possession of true faith. Calvin said: "We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone." Both Paul and James would have agreed to this statement.

5. Both Paul and James conveniently take Abraham as their example, the former appealing to Genesis 15 while the latter draws his point from Genesis 22. His offering up of Isaac demonstrated the reality of his faith (chapter 15). Yet Abraham's obedience was not the meritorious cause of his salvation; it added no merit to the perfect and sufficient merit of Christ.

6. Thus James is attacking all forms of antinomianism that seek to have Jesus as Saviour without embracing him as Lord. Just as Paul demonstrated that trusting in one's own works is deadly, so James teaches that resting on empty or dead faith is fatal. They complement each other: James deals with antinomianism, Paul with legalism.