The Tension Between Faith and Works



Throughout the Bible there are realities that cause a great amount of tension. When we think about tension, what comes to mind?

A struggle? An uncomfortable situation? A tug of war?

Oftentimes we see two realities in Scripture that tend to pull us in two different directions. They aren’t contradictions, but rather they are two truths that we must live in balance of. A tightrope has no slack in it. It is the tension between the two ends of the rope that allow for someone to walk across.  These truths, anchored on opposing ends like the tightrope, create the tension for the straight and narrow tightrope that is the Christian life.

Our first set of Tense Truths is a very well known one: Faith and Works. In this I seek to show you three things:

1.) Workless Faith is Not Faith

2.) Faith and Works Cannot Be Separated

3.) True Faith Produces Works.

Consider the words of James in our main text:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.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. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.– James 2:14-26

Let’s examine this text and see how we live in the tension of faith and works.

1.) Workless Faith is Not Faith (vv.14-17)

From the text we can see that we have to have works in order to have faith. James begins this section by asking what the point of faith without works is. He gives an example of helping the poor. Verse 15 begins his illustration by speaking of a brother or sister who suffers lack. If we look at them and say “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” but then turn around and do not give them what they need, there is no good in that. I would venture to say that it’s hypocrisy.

Think about the words of Jesus in Matthew 25. He speaks of a separation of sheep and goats on the last day, with the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.. When he turns to the sheep, this is the exchange:

34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’– Matt 25:34-40

On the Day of Judgment, Jesus is commending those who cared for the poor. We also know that the early church practiced giving needed provision to their own poor (Acts 2:45). It stands to reason, then, that a sign of Christian faith is caring for the poor, especially those who are brothers and sisters in the faith.  James is addressing the lack of help coming from those who only lean on faith. They do not speak of their works, but only their faith, and use it as an excuse to not engage in good works. He goes on to say in verse 17, So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

The end of Matthew 25 helps us understand what dead faith is. We now see what Jesus has to say to the goats standing to the left of His throne:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”- Matt 25:41-46

What sin damned the goats to an eternal punishment in hell? It was NOT caring for the poor, not engaging in good works. While they were certain that they would have served the Lord if they had seen him needy, they did not show their faith in God by caring for the least of these. Paring this parable with James’ words about faith being dead without works indicates one very important thing: these people were not Christians.

This does not mean (as you will see a bit later) that works are needed for salvation. Works are PROOF of salvation. Therefore, if there’s no works, there’s no faith. And if there’s no faith, there’s no salvation Need more proof? John has some. He says in 1 John 3:17, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” We can’t dance around this notion. If we claim to be Christians, yet don’t have good works (especially toward our own), then there is no way we are saved. You cannot have one without the other. This leads us to an illustration I am going to use for this post.

Most of us have a vehicle of some kind. We drive them just about every day. If I told you that I was driving, and yet I was sitting in the driver’s seat of my car with the car in park, the keys removed from the ignition, and my hands off the wheel, would you not say that at that very moment I was either crazy or a liar? I would claim to be driving, and yet the facts would speak against me. So too are those who say they have faith, and yet they have no works. Their faith is dead. It is one that does not save. The moving car is our faith, and the components necessary to make it go are our works. The car cannot drive if we do not drive it. You have to work the car in order to drive. You can’t go anywhere unless you do.

2.) Faith and Works Cannot Be Separated (vv.18-20)

James brings up an objection. In true intellectual fashion (much like Paul), he poses the very objection that he has run into concerning this issue. He says in verse 18, “But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” If we stay in step with our car analogy, then this would be like saying that you have a car and I have the keys. James then tells us, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” He’s saying, “ Show me your car apart from your keys, and I’ll show you my car driving down the road.” How much sense does that make? If two people you knew were talking, one saying “look at my keys” without the car, and the other saying “look at my car” without the keys, wouldn’t you think that ridiculous? So is the idea of having faith without works.

He follows that up by saying that even the demons believe and are afraid (verse 19). Why bring that up? What does that even mean? What do demons have to do with this? James is conveying here that mental assent is not the fullest extent of our walk with God, as even the very enemies of God believe that he exists. Rather, our belief must be paired in the works that we do. We cannot separate them. Do you see demons help the poor? Do you see evil spirits rushing to do good works? Of course not! But they believe, don’t they? Yes, they believe, but they aren’t saved. James is telling us that if your faith is separated from works, you’re no better off than the demons.

James now brings down a chastisement of sorts. He is setting himself up in verse 20 to bring out his own example from Scripture concerning how faith and works go together.  A good way to bridge this is by recalling the words of Paul in Ephesians:

8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”– Ephesians 2:8-10

Paul makes it clear that faith and works go together and, as we will see in the last few verses of our text, true faith will produce works that God has already set aside for us to do.

3.) True Faith Produces Works (vv.21-26)

James brings out as an example two noted figures in Israel’s history: Abraham and Rahab. Both are noted for their works unto God.

Now there is some troubling wording here from James, as he says that Abraham and Rahab were justified by works. But we know from Paul that we are justified by faith alone. So, is this a contradiction? Is James refuting Paul?  Absolutely not.

If you break apart the story of Abraham, you will see that he was called righteous before he ever did anything for God (Genesis 15:6). Yet James specifically mentions Abraham offering Isaac as sacrifice as his act of obedience to God (Gen. 22:9-10). Abraham was clearly declared righteous LONG before he was commanded to sacrifice his son. This coincided with Paul’s words on faith in Ephesians. The initial saving righteousness of an individual is called Initial Justification. Abraham was initially justified by his faith in God alone. Then, James speaks about what we will call Final Justification, which is when we are declared justified by God on Judgment Day. Works play into Final Justification as a confirmation of the Christian’s faith in life.

The key to the balance of faith and works, as well as initial and final justification, is found in verses 22-24: You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God.

So Abraham was counted as righteous the moment he believed, and we saw the proof of his belief by his obedience. Rahab had a similar situation. In both cases, evidence in works showed that they possessed the faith that was necessary to save them. It was not faith by itself, nor works by themselves. They work together, and cannot be separated, as true faith will produce works.  James reiterates this point one more time in verse 26:  For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

We must live knowing that we can’t stay on one side or the other. We must live in the tension between faith and works and resist the pull that would on one side say “You have faith, you don’t need to do anything else.” We must equally resist the other pull that tell us “It’s not enough to just have faith. You won’t be saved unless you do works.” Yet we must understand that we are saved by faith, and that saving faith will produce works in us that will confirm that our salvation is from the Lord, and that we are indeed his children.