Real Faith Really Works
© 6.25.05 By D. Eric Williams
“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” James 2:14
The perceptive student of the Scriptures knows that the Bible teaches us that salvation and works are related. That does not mean that we are saved by works; the Bible also makes it very clear that our salvation is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8-9). Our new birth is not dependent upon any works that we may do. Nevertheless, this verse from James (and the verses that follow), tell us that works and salvation are in some way bound together.
One thing I want to point out early on is that I believe that the last clause of this verse is best understood to say; “Can that kind of faith save him.” In other words, can faith that does not produce works truly save a man from Hell. If we read through the rest of what James has to say in his letter, we find that he is contrasting one sort of faith with another sort. For example he says in verse 18: “…show me your faith without works and I will show you my faith by works.”1
Now, to begin with, James tells us that there is no profit in possessing a faith that doesn’t have energy2 behind it. If one’s faith does not produce good works, then there is no benefit in it and as we shall see, it is not saving faith at all.
There is nothing unusual in what James says. The fact is, James is merely echoing the message of Paul (and the rest of the New Testament for that matter). For instance, in Ephesians 2:8-9 we read:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
Now, take note of verse ten; we are the workmanship of God, created in Christ for good works. In other words, we are not our own workmanship – we do not have anything to do with procuring our own salvation – but we are the work of God in Christ. And He created us in Christ for a purpose; to do good works. Indeed, God prepared beforehand (predestined before our creation in Christ), the good works that we should do. The point is this; when God creates someone anew in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), the result is a follower of Jesus who produces good works. One might say that good works are one part of the whole of predestination. This doesn’t mean that we will live a perfect life after our new birth. God doesn’t choreograph our lives so that every waking moment is some sort of a good work. It does mean that good works – be they many or few – are indeed part of the package. No one member of the kingdom is a cookie cutter copy of another. God draws one man through a life of trial and tribulation while another may live a life of comparative ease. One man may seem to be a veritable fountain of good works while the next might barely produce a trickle of charitable deeds in his life. Yet as Paul says in another place; “who are you to judge another man’s servant?” It is the presence of good works that concerns both James and Paul. The quantity (or quality), of good works is not a matter for us to judge.
Paul states in a mater of fact way that salvation is a gracious gift embraced by faith and includes foreordained good works. James picks up on this idea and comes to the logical conclusion that saving faith is accompanied by good works – faith without works is dead. Neither would say that salvation is earned through works. Both would say that election and good works are predestined.3
The arena where God’s absolute sovereignty is easiest to understand and accept is in the process of salvation. Everything depends upon God because the natural human heart hates God and is at war with Him (Rom. 8:7 and etc.). No one can do anything to save himself. Smith’s heart is corrupt and unable to submit to God. He does not want to submit to God and will not submit to God in his natural sinful condition and in his own strength. Even if Smith does recognize the existence of sin he does not believe that he needs to repent of his sin before God. Smith is free to act in anyway that his will dictates, but it is impossible for him to act in a manner that contradicts his basic nature. Since Smith cannot act in a manner that contradicts his sinful nature he is powerless to do anything to effect his own salvation. However, once the Holy Spirit has given him a new heart, Smith is both willing and able to repent of his sin and submit to Christ. The Bible teaches these truths clearly and so no one should have difficulty understanding the total sovereignty of God in producing a new creation.
The problem is, we humans are unable to understand how a man can apparently exercise free will and still be under the sovereign control of God. Well, no one really understands how that can be so, no more than we really understand how God can be three and one. Nevertheless these things are true. So, any man, born again or lost, acts according to his nature and does so as his will dictates. At the same time, God is the one who controls the outcome. “A man’s heart plans his way but the Lord directs his steps” (Prv. 16:9. See also Prv. 16:33, 21:1, 31). In short, God uses Smith in a way that accords to Smith's nature (good or bad), in accomplishing His will even while Smith exercises his free will.
Thus even though God foreordains the good works of His people, those good works take place as the true follower of Christ determines in his own heart to do what his Lord requires of him. His good works are not coerced, but arise naturally out of the love and gratitude he feels for Jesus His Lord and Savior. However, he won’t always do what is right. As Paul tells us, the very thing that we want to do as new creations in Christ we often do not do. This is why Paul tells the Church Philippi to:
“…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”
In other words, put forth every effort to produce the fruit of a new creation even as you acknowledge that it is God who gives you the desire and the ability to do what He requires. He does this in the first place by making us a new creation that is able to do good. He does this in the second place by actively empowering us on a daily basis with the presence of His Holy Spirit. In any case, true, saving faith will result in good works. That is the point that James makes in chapter two verse fourteen of his letter.