by Bill Hull

A Faith That Saves

This quite familiar text asks the relevant question. “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? [1]

The obvious answer is no, it is not a faith that saves because it is not faith at all. The remainder of the paragraph illustrates James’ belief. He employs the example of helping those who are cold, hungry and in need. A proposed faith that does not help the needy is dead and useless. [2]  Another of James’ arguments is the same as Bonhoeffer, “I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” [3] Faith is only real in obedience.  He even ridicules such a belief saying it not superior to what demons themselves believe.

You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?” [4]

“Christians are saved by faith alone but not by faith that is alone.” Martin Luther meant by this that true faith would produce works. He even stated that while people were arguing whether faith produced works that true faith was already in the streets doing good works. Even Luther along with the majority of the church fathers believed that saving faith produced fruit or good works. [5] Augustine believed the same as the early fathers, he linked faith to works in John 15:5, “Without me you can do nothing.” [6]It assumes not passivity but activism-real faith moves people, action is faith’s primary property.

James caps off his presentation by explaining how faith works. He uses Abraham as his example. He teaches that Abraham confirmed he had faith when he was willing to sacrifice Isaac on the altar. He concludes, “You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete.” [7]

What we are saved for?

The gift of salvation is not just God doing a good deed. He doesn’t need a merit badge. There is a purpose for us and it begins immediately upon reception. The forgotten words of Paul that belong with this classic salvation passage are descriptive and prescriptive,

“For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” [1]

Often we ask, what is God’s plan for my life? One could go deeper, based on this text and ask, what is God’s purpose in creating me, for my very existence? We generally want to know specifics that include kind of work, geography, etc. But details come after what Paul describes above. We are saved to participate in God’s plan for the world. It is through this plan for the world that he intends to bless and to the degree we join in, we get blessed. It is impossible for God not to know the details, but what he does reveal is that these are good activities in which he will guide us, and they are not thought up overnight, he planned them before the creation of the world. Once you make a decision to believe on and follow Christ, you are walking, you are doing, you are learning, you are becoming something new. Which leads to a common but under explored word for salvation, conversion. It describes a journey or process more than an event. And I recommend it for a better understanding that can be useful in daily life.

[1] James 2:14 NLT

[2] James 2:15-17

[3] James 2:18b NLT

[4] James 2: 19,20 NLT

[5] The Patristic Fathers consensus is that salvation was not by works, yet that no one can be saved without them. Alan Stanley’s fine work, Did Jesus Teach Salvation by Works? Documents the early fathers and church leaders from Augustine to Calvin on pages 20-60.

[6] Ibid, Stanley, page 25.

[7] James 2:22 NLT

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