Balancing Faith and Works

Harmonizing the teachings of James and Paul
The relationship between faith and works in Christian life has seen a renewed interest in the churches of Christ over the last decade or so. The topic seems to regularly be a matter of discussion and sometimes debate, especially on social media. Among us, discussion over these matters is nothing new. A century ago men like K. C. Moser created quite a stir in many quarters with his writing and advocacy for a more grace-centered approach in our preaching/teaching. The 1960’s and 70’s also saw more vigorous discussion and debate. Now it has resurfaced for a new generation.

Understanding the Perspectives

On one side, those who advocate for a more grace-centered approach emphasize that while obedience to God's commands is important, it should not overshadow the centrality of grace in salvation. Their perspective seeks to address concerns that an overemphasis on doctrinal correctness and works can lead to legalism, where Christians might rely more on their adherence to certain practices rather than on the grace of God. They argue that good works are the result of salvation, not a prerequisite for it, and that the Christian life should be characterized by an assurance of God's unconditional love and forgiveness.

For them, the overarching theme of God's redemptive work through Jesus Christ is of primary importance. They argue that the New Testament's focus on grace should lead to a more compassionate and less judgmental church culture, one that is more inviting to outsiders and more forgiving to those within the fold. They focus on preaching assurance of salvation and the dangers of a works-based approach, which they see as potentially leading to guilt, spiritual burnout, or a sense of moral superiority. Their concern is that an overemphasis on works can obscure the Gospel message that Christ has fully paid the price for sin.

On the other side of the debate, proponents of works maintain that faith without deeds is incomplete. They often reference James 2:26, which states, "faith without works is dead," suggesting that true faith manifests in action. Their concern is that an overemphasis on grace can lead to passivity or "cheap grace," where individuals claim faith but show no change in behavior or concern for the well-being of others. For those who share this perspective, doctrinal correctness is of primary concern, with the mission of protecting the purity of the church and doing things in the correct way closely connected. They often view their grace-centered brethren as doctrinally loose, willing to compromise, and wanting change for the sake of change.

What perspective a person (or congregation’s leadership) takes in this matter has significant implications for doctrine, worship, and the practice of Christianity in everyday life. It affects their views on salvation, assurance, and sanctification, as well as how they see their responsibility to God and others. Properly managing the tension between grace and faith, belief and obedience, things that define the Christian experience, must be handled with great care and wisdom.

So what about that passage mentioned earlier in James?

How do you reconcile these unmistakable words with Paul, who is fond of writing in Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Titus, that salvation is by grace through faith and not by our works? Are the two apostles at odds? How can we find balance?

Who James is Writing To
It is important to remember that James is not speaking to people in need of salvation. They are already saved. They are members in a local church. As such, he is correcting a problem among them, which is the sin of favoritism, 2.1-9. Many of them must have saw no wrong in their practice and James 2:10-13 contains a stinging rebuke. How could a person profess Christianity and neglect the practice of mercy? How could a Christian claim to have a life of faith and fall short in one of the key components of discipleship?
For judgment is without mercy to the one who has not shown mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment, – James 2:13
The theme of mercy, presented above, must be included in any discussion of the second half of the chapter. Faith that is alive shows mercy to others (by not showing favoritism) and is accompanied by merciful actions (works) that demonstrate the believer's faith.

Works are the Evidence of Faith

So, like Paul, James is telling us that works are the natural outflow of what God has already accomplished within us. There is no contradiction between the two. Works stand as the tangible evidence of our faith. It is this relationship that James captures when recounting the faith of Abraham, saying, "You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was made complete" (James 2:22). In other words, Abraham’s works did not stand alone but were intertwined with, and indeed the fulfillment of, his faith in God. This dynamic is further clarified when James writes, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, and he was called God’s friend" (James 2:23).

It's critical to note that Abraham's righteousness was credited to him because of his belief—his faith—not his actions. However, his faith wasn't a passive sentiment; it was an active trust that resulted in obedience. James further emphasizes that a person is "justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). James is not suggesting that works are a means to earn salvation, but rather that genuine faith is never alone; it is always accompanied by actions that reflect that faith. To drive the point home, James offers a stark analogy: "For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead" (James 2:26). A faith that does not result in a changed life and good deeds is as lifeless as a body without breath. It's not that works bring faith to life; rather, a living faith inherently breathes works into existence.1

We must not get them out of the proper order. Works flow from faith. They are not the prerequisite for salvation but the product. They are not about working for salvation, but working from it, an important distinction that frees us from the fear of not doing enough to earn God's favor.

The Purpose of Works

One might ask, if works follow faith, what role do they play? The beauty of the Christian life is found in the freedom mentioned above. God, by His grace, invites us to enjoy a life of service that emerges from a heart that is grateful, thankful, and willingly offered to the Lord. Our works become the active response to the grace we have received, not a way to augment or enhance our salvation. They do not make us more saved; they demonstrate the salvation we already possess.

Embrace Your Freedom

The Christian life is characterized by balancing faith and works. Faith is the foundation, the starting point, the source of our salvation which is by grace through faith, Ephesians 2:8-10. Works are the expression, the evidence, of the beautiful, recreated life that plays itself out in a grateful response to what God has done by grace. Instead of living in a constant struggle to earn salvation, we have been blessed with the freedom of a joyful endeavor to show the world the faith that saves us, through the works that define us.
Speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of freedom.
– James 2:12
1This is what Paul teaches in Ephesians 2:10. The Christian has been recreated for the purpose of good works. God created them in advance to be a living testimony of His saving grace and power to transform.

Matthew Allen

1 Comment

Richards Ekeh - July 17th, 2024 at 11:19pm

It's so comforting and takes away the confusion that arises from Paul and James. They were both speaking to different sets of people at their different stages.Thanks for the harmonization. Be more abundantly blessed.