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The book of James: Active in good works

Paul is described as “the apostle of faith,” John as “the apostle of love,” Peter as “the apostle of hope,” and James as “the apostle of works.”

For James, as for the others, there is only one way to heaven: through faith in the Savior’s sure salvation. When James writes about works, he stresses that a workless faith is a worthless faith, that living faith is powered by and performs for the Savior. In his blueprint for Christian living, James reminds us that true faith is active in good works.

Faith produces works

Before we speak of faith and works, we must speak of grace. God’s grace planned our salvation in eternity, prepared it on Calvary, and presents it to us through Word and sacraments. We obtain the benefits of this salvation through faith, but even our faith is a gift of God’s grace. Such faith binds our hearts to Christ and also binds our lives to his service.

With this emphasis, James does not contradict Paul, who wrote, “A person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28). Paul describes the way of justification; James, the life of the justified. Paul warns against “law works” that the self-righteous sinner does to earn his salvation. James encourages “gospel works” that flow from the believer’s heart thankful for salvation in Jesus. Paul and James are complementary, not contradictory. Like colors at opposite ends of the spectrum, both are needed to show the full rainbow of Christianity.

“What good is it . . . if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” James asks (2:14). James does not ask whether faith can save, only whether faith that does not show itself in works can save. Such fruitless faith is dead (2:17). Even worse, such counterfeit faith is like the faith of the demons in hell. They know all about theological truth and yet only tremble in fear (2:19). Their correct knowledge dries up in the mind, never reaching their heart.

Works prove faith

James continues with an example. If a Christian, lacking food and clothing, receives only the words “Good-bye, and good luck” from his neighbor, they are empty words and show the absence of faith (2:15-17). James repeats this thought with an imagined dialogue. One person says, “You can have faith without works. Why this stress on works?” The other answers correctly, “It is impossible to show faith without works. The only way you can tell that something has happened in my heart is by looking at my life” (2:18).

“Christians do not belong to a do-nothing party,” someone once said. James says the same thing. Works are never a cause of salvation, but ever a result. No more than a rose can refuse to release its fragrance or a fire to radiate its heat can faith fail to produce works. We are saved by faith alone, but true faith will never remain alone.

Digging deeper

  1. Read John 15:5 and Matthew 25: 34-40. What does Jesus himself say about good works being the visible evidence of invisible faith? John 15:5 is the familiar picture of branches drawing strength from the vine to produce fruit. Those who by faith are attached to Jesus the Vine show it by the fruits they produce. The tree makes the apples, not the other way around. There are three important phrases in Matthew 25, all showing that works are the result, not the cause of salvation. “Blessed by my Father” points the finger at God’s grace. An “inheritance” is not something earned. “The kingdom prepared for you” reminds us that we don’t do the preparing with our works.
  2. Read Hebrews chapter 11—the “Hall of Faith” chapter with portraits of some 16 Old Testament believers. What does 11:33 point out about their deeds? These heroes of faith did what they did not to earn heaven but because of their faith in God’s gracious promises. Works are a result, not a cause of salvation.

This is the fourth article in a series on the book of James.

Author: Richard Lauersdorf
Volume 107, Number 10
Issue: October 2020

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This entry is part 57 of 63 in the series bible-study

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