Does James Contradict Paul's Teaching On “Faith Alone”? (2 OF 3)
In order to read James and Paul as contradicting one another, one must assume they use the word “faith” in the same way. But while Paul uses the word “faith” to mean “effectual, genuine belief in the Gospel”, James uses the word to distinguish between kinds of faith.
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14)
First, notice that James does not describe a person who has faith…but a person who “says he has faith.” That is an important distinction. Many people have sincere faith in something. Some might even claim to have biblical, “saving faith”. But just because a person says he has faith, that does not mean he has a real—efficacious—trust in God!
Jesus warns us of this reality in the Gospels. He says,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
And what is the Father’s will?
“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:40)
This kind of people—who are assumed to have saving faith—are regularly mentioned in the New Testament (Hebrews 6:4-6, Galatians 2:4, 1 John 2:19). In fact, Paul teaches the same thing in his letter to Titus. In that letter he directs Titus to appoint qualified elders (Titus 1:5), and then warns of “insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers” (Titus 1:10) infiltrating the church. Of these dissenters, Paul writes,
“They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works.” (Titus 1:16)
Notice that Paul says, “They profess to know God” . And how can it be known whether or not that “profession” is true? By observing that person’s works. He agrees with James [and Jesus] that claiming to believe is not the same as actually believing. Jesus even warns us of false teachers, and provides a test to determine whether or not a suspected wolf is trustworthy. He says,
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-16)
The reason that this “fruit inspection” is an effective evaluation method, is that good works are evidence of saving faith! This is precisely what James is arguing.
“KINDS” OF FAITH?
Consider how James asks the question in the second half of verse 14: “Can that faith save him?” Notice that James does NOT say, “Can faith save him?” Instead he says, “Can THAT FAITH save him?” Here we can see James introduce a distinction between kinds of faith: Namely, “saving faith” and “useless faith” (James 2:20).
But his intention to distinguish between kinds of faith is made even clearer in verse 18:
“Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18)
The distinction here is “your faith” (i.e. the kind that does not produce good works), and “my faith” (i.e. the kind that DOES produce good works).
So, back to the question being asked in verse 14: “Can THAT FAITH save him?” The answer to the question, of course, is “No”. Why? As James goes on to argue,
“So also, faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17)
The kind of faith that has no works is DEAD FAITH! He even calls that kind of faith “useless” (James 2:20). James even gives us an example of those who hold this “useless faith”.
“You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”(James 2:19)
Simply put…the kind of faith that does not produce any sort of works, is not a SAVING faith at all, because it is false. Even DEMONS have that kind of “faith”!
Hebrews 11 has been referred to as the “role call of faith”. Throughout that chapter the author provides a list of some of the most notable Hebrew “Heroes of the Old Testament”, who are remembered for their good deeds. But the author is careful to introduce each character with the words “by faith”. His aim is to make it clear that every commendable activity of these great men and women must be attributed to the faith that produces good works (Hebrews 11:1-2).
SO, TO SUMMARIZE:
James and Paul [and Jesus] agree that the kind of faith that has no works is DEAD FAITH.
In the next post, I will address how Paul and James use the word “justified”.