The Dangers of Faith without Works
By Julia Grant
Understanding the relationship between faith, works, and salvation is very difficult. Historically Jewish religion was composed of many laws and regulations. Yet, embedded within their religious culture was an understanding that salvation depended on the existence of God’s grace and personal faith.
Jesus earthly ministry encountered man-centered religion. The Jewish world was saturated with religious leaders well versed in Scripture. Nevertheless, with little interest in serving the poor, many Pharisees showed scant regard for the destitute.
Conversely Jesus ministry was altogether different, declaring, “blessed are the poor in spirit” and “blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:3,5), claiming that “the greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:11). His message was not intended for those who simply wanted to settle for a religious life. A life often comforted by rules, particularly when such rules kept the less desirable at a distance. What distressed Jesus was the Pharisees self-interest, and a general unwillingness to develop love towards God – and others (Mark 12:30-31).
The early Church whilst seeking to follow Christ – was far from perfect. Understanding that Jesus’ salvation was granted freely “by grace…through faith” (Ephesians 2:8), some appeared content to profess a belief a Christ without the need to evidence that by good works. Just as the Pharisees were happy to know the Scriptures and take advantage of the poor, the Church could so easily fall into the same trap.
Not surprisingly, this is still the case today. Many times, Christians fall in one of two camps:
Cognitive Faith – Little to no emphasis on works
The temptation would be to merely study the Word as a set doctrines and propositions. Yet fail to consider how this relates to your personal life or the world that you live in. Just as one may have a broad knowledge of astronomy, cooking, or any other interest, many Christians have an impressive understanding of Scripture, theology, and the history of the Church. However, this cerebral understanding of religion is rarely trans-formative. Often Intense in conversation and particularly low on practice.
Social Activism – Little to no emphasis on the Gospel
Conversely, such a position may be open to the temptation to focus all of our energy on doing good. Such goodness may not even be referenced to Christ. With no concern for sharing the Gospel, they remain silent as to the presence of Jesus in their works “let Jesus shine through their actions” they maintain. It is disturbing when such benevolent efforts make no mention of the Cross.
Both of these positions do an injustice to the God who created us, pursues us, saves us, and gives us the role of ambassadors in His world (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).
In order to counteract these imbalances, James, had some intense words to say to the Church. They too, seemed to be struggling with these issues and with refreshing clarity he writes: “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26).
What he is NOT saying here is that works are the means of salvation, OR that works are the doorway to our relationship with Christ – rather, he argues that a verbal faith with no sign of external evidence is no better than the belief of demons (James 2:19). Works, rather, are the result of active faith…without them, our faith is incomplete (v. 22).
Many find these words unsettling. As if a contradiction is found in Ephesians, when Paul writes,“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 one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). However, Paul continues to write that the gift of salvation through faith leads us to good works which God has prepared for us in advance so that we might walk in them (v. 10). James stands in agreement with Paul and maintains that works complete faith. They cannot be separated. They must go hand in hand.
James leaves us in no doubt as to what faith and works should look like. Put simply: “religion that is pure and undefined before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). In other words, if our faith does not drive us to compassion for the world and personal sanctification, one might question if that faith is real.
These words stand in accord with Jesus’ command to love God and love others. The entire bible permeates with God’s desire to see His people demonstrate sanctification and compassion. Such good works should naturally flow from the heart of every true believer.
2 Timothy 2:21
1 Timothy 5:22
1 Peter 2:24
let us combine doctrinal purity with radical discipleship. We must do more than simply stand in doctrinal agreement with James, we must evaluate our lives in the light of what he teaches. Does our faith reveal itself through our works? Can we see evidence of God’s grace in our lives in the way we serve others? If the answer to those questions is “no,” it may be time to reevaluate if we actually believe the Gospel. And if not…there is always good news. We can receive the Gospel that Jesus so wonderfully and courageously proclaimed. As both fully God and man He lived a sinless life. His ultimate loving sacrifice was to die to remove the penalty of your sin. Such forgiveness is received when you repent of your sin and embrace the gift of His Salvation. This gift is free, and when we truly allow ourselves to receive this Gospel and center our lives around it, we will see the beautiful reflection of His love and holiness in our own lives too.