Whenever you preach the 100% pure gospel of God’s grace, someone will inevitably ask, “What about James?” The gospel of grace that Paul preached declares that we are saved by faith alone. But James said that faith is not enough, that we need works as well. Consider the following sound bites from these two great apostles:
Paul: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph 2:8-9)
James: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (Jas 2:14)
Paul says “faith, not works,” but James says “I will show you my faith by my works” (Jas 2:18). That’s a little confusing. Paul declares that righteousness “comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rms 3:22). But James says that merely believing is not enough:
And just so we wouldn’t be in any doubt about where he stands on this issue of works, James ends with this:
“You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” (Jas 2:24, NKJV)
Paul or James? Who’s right?
How are we to reconcile Paul with James? They seem to disagree with one another. One says “faith alone” while the other says “faith plus works.” This inconsistency has caused many believers to scratch their heads and none moreso than Martin Luther. Luther was famously disgusted with the book of James. His solution to the faith versus works problem was to cut James out of the New Testament! In his own translation of the Bible, Luther put James in an Appendix. No James, no problem!
It’s never a good idea to ignore or remove a scripture that we do not understand – let alone an entire book! But what are we to make of James in light of the finished work of the cross? Clearly both Paul and James are preaching good stuff, otherwise they would not be in the Bible together. So any apparent conflict between their messages must arise from a poor understanding on our part.
As we will see in this short study, both James and Paul were preaching pure, undiluted grace. James does not “go further” than Paul. Neither does he detract from the message of grace. Yet there is no doubt that he is calling for our faith to be seen in what we do.
What are the works James is referring to?
James 2 is possibly the most abused chapter in the entire Bible. Those who preach works will use this chapter to tell you that “you must balance grace with works.” Of course they won’t come out and say it in so few words. Instead, they will say things like, “Christ has done his part, now we must do our part.” Or they might say, “you were saved to do good works” before quoting Ephesians 2:10:
“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
At this point everybody in the meeting will be nodding their heads because the preacher just quoted something Paul wrote that supports what James wrote, so it must be works after all. I knew this unmerited favor thing was too good to be true. I knew there had to be a catch. Well that’s okay, because I’m more than happy to work for Christ.
And before you know it the whole church will be running back to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, feasting on the forbidden fruit and trying to impress Jesus with their good works! Instead of resting in Him, they will be working hard for Him.
But before you start trying to out-work Martha, just pause for a second and think this through. Yes, good works are a normal part of the Christian life. But if you believe you must perform for God to be justified or made righteous or acceptable, then you have set aside grace and come back under law. And you know that’s bad right?
Under grace or under law?
There is a lot of confusion today about what it means to live under grace and what it means to live under law. But 50 years ago, in his classic book The Normal Christian Life, Watchman Nee gave this brilliantly simple explanation:
“Grace means that God does something for me; law means that I do something for God.”
The essence of the law is that God requires something from me. The essence of grace is that God provides that which is required. Before the cross people lived under the strict demands of the law. Only one person ever succeeded in fulfilling all these requirements, and He did it all on our behalf. On the cross, Jesus paid the full and complete penalty for our sin setting us free from the curse of the law. Now we live under a new covenant of grace underwritten by God’s own precious blood.
The great tragedy of our time is that while most people know they are cursed if they try to live under the law, many are trying to do exactly that! With sincere hearts they have bought into a lie that says we must perform for Jesus or die trying. They pray, “God help me do the things you want me to do” as if relationship could be reduced to a list of tasks God wants done. People who live like this have put their faith in a perverted gospel and are in danger of setting aside grace. Their identity is not in Christ, but in the things they do for Christ.
Grace and works don’t mix
The truth is that you can’t balance God’s grace with anything we do. Grace is unbalanceable. Jesus went through unimaginable suffering on the cross in order that we might be redeemed from the condemnation of the law. To act as if we could somehow make ourselves righteous in our own strength is to reject as insufficient His perfect sacrifice and insult the Spirit of grace. As Jesus warned the Laodiceans, when you try to earn what He freely offers, it doesn’t please Him, it makes Him sick. Let’s be clear – the works of the flesh nullify grace. They do not mix:
“And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” (Rms 11:6)
So the wrong way to read James is to think that we must work for God and generally do stuff to make ourselves righteous. Yes, we were created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. But when we abide in Christ, He is the one who does them.
“It is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Php 2:13)
Under law, good works become a struggle and a burden. We do them because we love Jesus but in the end we’ll crash and burn because failure is the inevitable result of living under law. Under grace, good works are easy and the burden is light because He is the One doing the heavy lifting. What is our part in this? Resting in Him, trusting Him, abiding in Him.
Justified by works?
Now that we begin to have a good sense of what “work” looks like in the new covenant, we are ready to unpackage James 2:24:
“You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” (NIV)
This is not a vague call for miscellaneous works of faith. I believe James had something very specific in mind – something that we do that determines whether or not we are saved, justified, and accepted. And we will find out what that is in Part 2 of our study when we look at what Jesus referred to as “the works of Abraham.”