No works? No faith

James 2.1–17


(Re Hebrews 11.1:) …by means of pistis [faith], the true people of God are willing to act decisively in the visible world not for reasons that are immediately apparent but because an unseen yet even more genuine underlying substance (hypostasis), God’s reality, compels the action. This willingness to act on the deeper, truer, but nonetheless hidden reality is ‘faith’ for the author of Hebrews. — Matthew W Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King, Kindle Ed’n, p.19.


Faith without works is dead.

A while ago, I was listening to a friend of mine. She was talking about someone she knows, someone who had given up on her Christian faith.

My friend found some consolation by reminding herself that years ago, her friend had once accepted Jesus as her Saviour. That never goes away, right? Once you do that, you’re going to heaven whatever happens, yes? 

That’s a very common idea. It’s what I was taught when I started my Christian walk, at the age of fourteen. You pray a prayer in which you confess you’re a sinner and you accept Jesus into your heart. And when you die, you go to heaven.

And if you ever fall away, that doesn’t matter because Jesus is in your heart. 

Millions of people believe it, but it’s hardly in the bible at all. What is there is some awkward bloke called James who has the hide to say

Faith without works is dead.

The great Reformer Martin Luther didn’t like the Letter of James. He called it ‘an epistle of straw’. When he translated the bible into German, he put James right at the very end. After Revelation. James annoyed him so much that if he could, he would have deleted it from the New Testament.

Luther didn’t like James because he found the centre of his theology in the Apostle Paul. Paul wrote

…we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. (Galatians 2.16)

When Martin Luther read Paul, he saw that faith in Jesus Christ saves us, and not works. James seemed to be saying the opposite:

Faith without works is dead.

Who was right? Paul or James?

Did James think Paul was wrong? I would say this: James did think Paul was wrong, but the version of Paul that James knew was a distorted one.

One way to see this is to look at what ‘faith’ and ‘works’ are.

I think Paul and James meant the same thing when they wrote about ‘faith’.

I’d like to suggest that when they used the word ‘faith’, they meant ‘the life of faith’.

We are called to the life of faith, which is a life of trust in the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

Faith is a whole life. We live it; it is part of our being.

Faith is not limited to believing certain things to be true (though it involves beliefs).

James says

Do you believe that there is only one God? Good! The demons also believe—and tremble with fear. (James 2.19 GNT)

Believing that God exists is not faith.

Trusting in the one God is faith. 

When we trust in God, we believe that God exists. But we can believe that God exists without trusting in God.

So Paul and James meant the same thing when they wrote of ‘faith’. However, they meant different things altogether when they spoke about ‘works’.

We can see what James meant very clearly. He comes out and says it:

If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?

We might say Practise what you preach. We might think only hypocrites fail to put their faith into action.

Now, the Apostle Paul would agree 100% with James on that. No problem. These works aren’t the ‘works’ that Paul was talking about.

The ‘works’ that Paul thought were unnecessary for salvation were something else. They were ‘works of the Law’, the Jewish Law. These works were about becoming Jewish in order to be Christian. In the early years of the church, many people thought only Jews can be included in the people of God. The Law said a believer should be circumcised; Paul said No. The Law said you couldn’t eat bacon sandwiches. Paul said Yum. 

But some of Paul’s followers got him wrong. They thought he meant that no works were necessary at all. If you have faith, that’s all that matters. You don’t need to do anything good. James was horrified at that; Paul would be horrified too. 

And sometimes you meet people like that, people who are convinced they’re ok with God. Their life is centred around themselves, but they’re ok because decades ago they prayed the ‘sinner’s prayer’. Yet

Faith without works is dead.

That’s because faith is a way of life. Life requires activity. And the life of faith requires works of compassion and justice. Or it’s just not faith in Jesus Christ.

Let’s be clear: we are called to a life of faith. A life of discipleship—it’s the same thing. Faith isn’t cheap, a thing where you believe a list of beliefs and then live as though you’re the one in charge. Faith is following Jesus; faith is living in the Spirit; faith works. If it doesn’t, it’s not alive because 

Faith without works is dead.


Preached at West End Uniting Church, 9 September 2018

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Filed under RCL, sermon, Year B

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