Faith or Works?

Q. I told a Catholic friend salvation is by grace through faith, not as a result of works (Eph 2:8-9). She then asked her priest, who told her James 2:14, i.e. can that faith save him?  I am sure this passage is not about salvation, what does it mean? 

A. There are two Protestant views on Jas 2:14-26. The majority view believes James to be contrasting two kinds of faith – a genuine saving faith versus a false intellectual assent dead faith. The minority view feels James was not referring to true versus false faith but mature versus immature faith. Either way, the Catholic priest’s rejection of the Protestant position would be wrong. Let me explain.

First, the priest pits Jas 2:14 against Eph 2:8-9 as if they contradict each other. He chose Jas 2:14 because it refers to works which Catholics believe in. In his mind, Jas 2:14 trumps Eph 2:8-9, and for him, that settles the issue. That is wrong because God is omniscient, so His word is infallible and inerrant, and never self-contradictory. If there is an apparent contradiction, the problem is with our understanding, not with the word of God. The solution is to reconcile the difference, not just choose the idea that appeals to you. Catholics tend to do that because they accept tradition as a basis of authority besides Scripture. But how can human thinking which at best is finite and at worst depraved be on par with, or even override, God’s word? That is error #1, in his premise.

Second is the issue of hermeneutics or interpretation. To determine if there is a real contradiction, we must ascertain whether the words employed are used in the same sense or refer to different things altogether. While Paul and James both use the word faith, they use it to refer to different things, as we will show below. To assume that they meant the same thing and conclude that there is a contradiction would be a mistake. That is error #2, in his methodology.

What exactly does James mean? Let us examine the text in its context. James listed several characteristics of the kind of faith in 2:14-26 –

  1. It is useless (v 14, 16, 20) – both to the person who has it and others i.e. those in need,
  2. It is what someone says he has (v 14) i.e. it is only a claim when it is not backed up by works (v 14),
  3. It does not save (v 14),
  4. It is dead (v 17, 26),
  5. It cannot be shown to others (v 18),
  6. It is only a belief (v 19), an intellectual assent held even by demons, but not something to be obeyed,
  7. It is not perfected (v 22), or complete, and
  8. It is not the type that justified Abraham (v 24) and Rahab (v 25), which are accompanied by works.

But the characteristics of the faith Paul talked about in Eph 2:8-10are:

  1. It is the vehicle of salvation (v 8 saved through faith),
  2. It is not of yourselves, but God’s gift (v 8),

Based on the above most scholars conclude that Paul and James are referring to two different types of “faith” altogether:

  • Paul is talking about a true “saving faith” whereby he places his trust in God alone. That faith is not the result of his own effort and is visible only to God, as the LORD looks at the heart (1 Sam 16:7). God justifies him and declares him righteous. Rom 4:3, 5 Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. … But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness. This faith is the basis or root of our salvation, which invariably manifests itself in good works, since Christians are created in Christ Jesus for them, and would walk in them (Eph 2:10).
  • James is talking about a nominal faith in name only, which a person professes but which lacks good deeds as evidence that the faith is genuine. This type of faith is useless, does not save, and dead. Other people cannot see this faith, as man looks at the outward appearance (1 Sam 16:7), but there are no accompanying works or fruits as proof. It is a cognitive faith only, in which a person subscribes to the truth of some doctrines, but which does not change him/her on the inside. Because there is no root, there is no fruit, and therefore a false, dead faith, not the type possessed by Abraham and Rahab.

The minority view does not go so far as to label the faith James described as false, but as imperfect, incomplete, immature. I will not dwell on it but suffice it to say that with either view, James did not contradict Paul. Their views are complementary. In fact, both are derived from what the Lord Himself taught:

  • Mt 7:20-21 So then, you will know them by their fruits. 21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 

The faith that saves is always that which trusts in the finished work of Christ alone, never in one’s work. But this faith is not alone in that it leads to good works as fruits. The priest’s error #3, then, is a lack of understanding of the context. He followed his church’s teaching in putting the focus on works, not faith in Christ. Hope this explanation helps.

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