Faith and Good Works – Part 1

By works a man is justified and not only by faith.

The interminable debate, between a ‘justification by faith alone’ and those insistent upon adding deeds to faith in order to acquit ourselves before God, continues apace. Of recent, its embers reignited in the 1980s between Evangelicals themselves; John MacArthur leading the charge against the travesty of supposedly born again, walk-up-the-aisle Christians whose continued scandalous conduct differed little from the non-Christian. Dubbed ‘Lord Salvation’ by their ‘Free Grace’ adversaries, the theological adversaries felt it incumbent to protect the sufficiency of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice to justify sinners, from all encroachments. It was perceived that if following Christ as Lord (obeying His injunctions) was necessary, justification ultimately reduces to a salvation by works.

‘Faith alone’ or ‘faith plus works’; this defining controversy from the Reformation era, breaching Protestants from Catholics, has never been resolved. The Pauline theology of Romans and Galatians and that of James has never been satisfactorily reconciled. Some speculate that those two apostolic age giants represented rival Christianities; with the ideological camp of James succumbing to external events; the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 A.D; the reduction of the Jewish homeland to a Roman province; thereafter, a scattering and dissipating of the James camp, which had been centered around Jerusalem.

It is claimed, that Martin Luther desired a delisting of the book of James from the Biblical Canon for its apparent confusing contradiction to sola fide theology. “It is well known that Luther deemed it impossible to harmonize the two apostles in this article, and characterized the Epistle of James as an “epistle of straw,” because it had no evangelical character (‘keine evangelische Art’).1

Catholic and Orthodox traditions, based on passages like James, conceive of justification and salvation as one of Christ acting as the initial gate onto a path leading to God, where good works and a process of sanctification (process toward moral perfection) act as necessary prerequisites to advancement on that route to final salvation. Paul’s disparaging of a justification that combines the gracious forgiveness of God through faith in Christ with obedience to the Mosaic Law, they dispose of by replacing Mosaic Law as the object of necessary obedience with a revised and somewhat inscrutable and mutable criteria of their own.

Such beliefs have tendency to instill an uneasy insecurity in one’s salvation and a performance driven Christian walk, with a natural logic which degenerates into extreme feats of spiritual athleticism (i.e. ascetic desert hermits, self-flagellation) in order to prove oneself worthy of the gracious mercy of God.

The Reformers begin with the premise that perfect righteousness is the default and necessary expectation of humanity by God; this same James that puts Reformers’ knickers in a twist, substantiating. This is an impossible task, before and after conversion. Therefore, a legally satisfying punishment is demanded for crimes against God and all creation for the harms done. To accept anything less; to acquit the guilty without due recompense; would indict God as evildoer Himself and hypocrite, since He condemns such adjudication. As One who declares that His Kingdom shall be governed by Righteousness and Justice, his moral authority to reign would be lost. God might remain God. But without Righteous judgment and consistency with His own declarations, His reign rests on pure power alone. Christ, as substitutionary punishment and imputer of perfect righteousness to men, serves as legitimate alternative, allowing God to remain just, yet the justifier of such criminals. This is the heart of the Gospel.

Manifold rational and ethical/legal problems ensue in melding good deeds with faith in Christ’s substitutionary death. It denigrates the infinite personal worth of Christ. If Christ’s sacrifice must be supplemented by some divine or humanly devised criteria of works and/or sanctification, it suggests that His worth is insufficient to bear all the sins of humanity and provide the Righteousness of God in men.

Logic demands that if justification requires both faith and good works, then both conditions must be perfectly met in order for the justification equation to be satisfied. If even the slightest streak of shortcoming and evil exist in any and all acts that we do, whether in the particulars of the act or in the motivations behind it, that deed does not meet the divine standard of righteous conduct. In our ignorance, we do not even know how short of the glory of God we are; whether in ethical specifics or ethos. And those with deep insight into the motions of their own heart can attest to some untoward motivation infecting every deed that we do. “All we assign to man is that, by his impurity he pollutes and contaminates the very works which were good. The most perfect thing which proceeds from man is always polluted by some stain.  Should the Lords therefore bring to judgment the best of human works, he would indeed behold his own righteousness in them; but he would also behold man’s dishonour and disgrace.2

This is an impossible and futile task. Therefore, we cannot meet the second condition of a justification by faith and good works.

However, in positing a justification by grace of God through faith in Christ, Protestant theology is prone, in pendular and opposite reaction to Catholicism, to produce lawlessness (antinomianism) in its adherents. A faith, which many define as merely acceding to the truth of certain cosmological views, theological assertions and ethical principles, it often produces a cold, formalistic and passionless adherent. The exception might be those purists who become schismatically impassioned over picayune points of theology. Such lawlessness and frigidity gives strength and sustenance to the credibility of the Catholic/Orthodox position. It provokes even despairing theologians in the Protestant camp to decry about cheap grace, the get-out-of-jail-free-card-salvation that their congregations often devolve into. Such despair consequently moves such theologians dangerously close to a works salvation.

Having laid out the background for the dispute, herein lays the full expression of the James passage in question:

“What does it profit, my brothers, though a man say he has faith, and have not works? can faith save him?   If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,  And one of you say to them, Depart in peace, be you warmed and filled; notwithstanding you give them not those things which are needful to the body; what does it profit? Even so faith, if it has not works, is dead, being alone.  Yes, a man may say, You have faith, and I have works: show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.  You believe that there is one God; you do well: the devils also believe, and tremble.  But will you know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?   Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son on the altar?  See you how faith worked with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?  And the scripture was fulfilled which said, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.  You see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.  Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?  For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”3

How does the Reformed/Evangelical camp generally deal with this impossible to harmonize passage from James? The common refrain is to suggest that good works will inevitably and mysteriously show up in those who have been regenerated / converted. Good works will become the “inevitable manifestation of a true saving faith and justification” or “good works and love necessarily flow from real justifying faith4. Faith in Christ is the root; good works are the fruit. Fruits do not appear before the root.

There is much dissatisfaction with this interpretation. As true is the assertion (Matthew 7:16-20), this eventual fruit dynamic is not being expressed here. Under this interpretation of the passage, a Reformer who encountered a brother or sister in want would declare, I will warm and fill you myself when the process of my sanctification permits me to do so. From the perspective of brother, the sister or James, this would hardly pose much improvement. The good work, associated with faith in this passage, is immediate, direct and deliberate.

The Protestant Evangelical explanation has always lacked credibility to my perfectionist soul. We dance and prance around its understanding; even while practicing in accordance to it. Yet, we cannot seem to capture and enunciate the definitive essence of its meaning. I have yet encountered an exposition that rationally squares the apparent contradiction between Paul’s ‘faith’ and James ‘works’ to my satisfaction. This does not deny that Scriptures repudiates a faith which lacks works.5 It is the inability to rationally reconcile the conundrum, which remains unsettling. (However, faith in God requires trust in His counsel, despite the inability to fully understand it.) Thus, like a father who is so peeved with how the existing Little League baseball coach is teaching his boys and decides to give it a go the next year; I’ll try my hand at this.

In my case, I am a little advantaged by an understanding acquired through a psychosis that has bedeviled me, to varying degrees, in excess of three decades. I faced an interminable onslaught of horrid blasphemies6 and had been mindlessly labeled with OCD7. Those, with personalities to which such afflictions are prone, try to place square pegs into round holes by every variant way possible, before eventually moving onto the next impossible method. Having tried at least a couple of dozen ways to overcome the affliction, I had settled for a futile routine of “praying away the thoughts” (i.e. that God would take them and snuff into their proper destination, whatever that means and wherever that is). The underlying heart motive is psychic relief against the guilt for the presence of such thoughts; to deny culpability.

In one of those epiphanies (March 31/April 1, 2005); like the day JFK was shot or the Twin Towers attacked, where one remembers all particulars of where one was and what one was doing, it struck me that if one believes that God in Christ will deal with such mental flak, praying for Him to do so again and again amounts to a prayer of unbelief. In order to truly believe that God in Christ deals with the flak, one needs to let go and ignore the flak; contrary to the lousy counsel I was receiving. I had kept asserting (to myself) that I believed that God would understand and would deal with it. But until I acted on the assertion, acted as one who believed that God will deal with it, I did not have genuine faith in the matter. Temporal relief from the onslaught ensued. (Other lessons were needed to be learnt before final victory.)

An assertion of belief is not true trust. True faith demands a behaviour that corresponds with and is predicated upon the belief. The above passage, which passed through the mind at the time, personally took on a different and revolutionary personality.

This James passage has very little to do with good works. What it delineates is the definitional nature and quality of faith or trust. It speaks not merely of Biblical faith, but faith as a general philosophical concept; one which transcends faith in God and can be applied universally to any form of faith. The object of true faith is that upon which we directly, deliberately and in the immediate, base our lives, decisions and actions. Our emotional and psychological responses will react in accordance with these perceptions and conceptions of truth. Our rational conclusions will deduce from these basic beliefs of truth and/or other conclusions deduced from such basic beliefs.

Like gravity, faith is an intangible influence, implied and indirectly evidenced by phenomena under its sway. Faith can only be demonstrated by empirical observable acts; whether subjectively pietist, observable only to the subject; or objectively and material, observable to all, to the ability that all can reliably observe. But faith itself, in order for it to be faith, is a psychologically active dynamic which acts to route the propelling of the will. Faith, by definition, must be directive. To have faith in any object or entity, the object or entity of that faith must sway our practicable lives.

One cannot be said to genuinely believe in the integrity of a motor vehicle, in the integrity of the traffic system, in the integrity of the operational manual, in the competence and goodwill of the driver(s) and in the virtue of one’s own life, etc.; unless one becomes a passenger or is genuinely willing to confidently do so. Prior to that willingness or participation, it is mere expressed assertion or opinion. Faith puts pedal to the metal to those truths and counsels that one subscribes to.

One can declare incessantly that he trusts wife or children to bring back the car at such and such a time so that one can get to work. But if a taxi is phoned well beforehand to arrive at that time, it betrays such declarations of trust. Politicians cannot credibly declare that they believe one policy as the best while pursuing something radically different. If unbelief is not being attested, one must conclude that the politician doesn’t believe in seeking the best welfare of the society or in giving precedence to his own personal (partisan) interests over the best welfare of the society. If actions differ from what one purports to believe, is it not indicative that the hearts of hearts is motivated by some other belief or precedence of belief?

A multitude of scenarios could be conjured to elucidate this faith dynamic.

Faith is an active ingredient (though not the only one) which permeates all our endeavours and actions. All people have faith. The issue becomes upon what is our faith dependent. It is not that what we believe automatically generates and propels our actions or will (contra David Hume). It is that our will draws upon, perhaps obscurely to us; that which we truly believe. The person, who trusts the contents of one’s belief, directs his actions according to those contents and their ramifications. Faith, by its very definition, must involve such reliance on the truth of those contents to direct the will.

And it is to this that James alludes. Faith without works is dead. As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead. To be dead is to be inert, inactive, without internally-generated animation. The contents of dead faith remain divorced and alienated from our actions. The contents of living and real faith are animated by our will to direct toward or away from particular courses of action. James’ allusions to Abraham or Rahab are set as examples of faith as active psychological ingredients which direct decisions and behaviour.

A creedal-like assertion is not faith, even in the generic sense, if it doesn’t have active influence, a living part to play in our conduct. A belief assertion, orphaned from practicable bearing on our lives, remains just an assertion. One does not trust it; does not rely on it. I would contend that dead faith is not faith at all; just as a corpse or skeleton doesn’t genuinely qualify as a human being.

The Just shall live by [his] faith.8 That declaration, made famous and pivotal by Martin Luther, does not define the Just as those who inculcate and express an opinion of that which they believe. Rather, the Just are defined as those who live in accordance to what they believe; whose course of their lives are determined by what they subscribe, to the extent that they are able to effect it. Perhaps this take on the verse deviates from historical understanding (i.e. to live being understood as eternal and abundant life). However, this altered interpretation is not inconsistent. Indeed, the Old Testament source from which it derives adds [his] to its understanding; giving it a flavor, consistent with the James understanding of faith. The verse stresses the attributes of being Just. That is; the quality of a Just person is one who lives in reliance on what he/she believes in relation to God’s self-revelation.

Conceiving of the definitional nature of faith in this manner completely, at least to my mind, reconciles the differing emphasis of Paul and James. Paul declares that justification and salvation are begotten by and through faith. James delineates what manner of being, faith is. I hope, as Spurgeon explicitly and often expressed, I haven’t confounded it.

Footnotes:

  1. Philip Schaff, “History of the Christian Church”, 1882, Chapter 4, Section 63, “The Protestant Spirit of Luther’s  Version”
  2. John Calvin, “Institutes of Christian Religion”, III.15.3
  3. James 2:14-16
  4. John Piper, “Does James Contradict Paul?” August 8, 1999
  5. Romans 3:8, Romans 6.1
  6. Something shared in common with John Bunyan and CharlesSpurgeon among countless others.
  7. OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – A label is not an explanation, indicating an understanding. Such labels, largely formulated by armchair generals, are based on the ‘medical model of mind’ dogma (or physiological basis of the psyche) which, having been at and survived the battlefront, I have complete and utter contempt towards. One’s psychology is akin to software logic; one’s physiology to hardware components. The psychiatric approach to all thing’s psyche is to fix a bug in the software by replacing the memory sticks.
  8. Romans 1:17 (AKJV), Habakkuk 2:4
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One thought on “Faith and Good Works – Part 1”

  1. You’ve a lot of writing here! For a less theological and more practical (to balance our yours :)) approach to a Christian understanding of faith and works see my article Campaign for Conscience. I like James Stewart’s quote that Christ “headed no social revolution, and he legislated for no current social problems; but he brought and imparted a spirit that was bound to set men crusading against social injustice everywhere.”

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