Faith that Lives, Works that Justify

In March I joined a handful of WPCA women at the Dwelling in Scripture women’s conference (You can learn more about the conference in Patty’s blog). The aim of the conference was to develop a statement about God from an assigned passage in James. The God-centric framework pushed me to engage a familiar passage in a fresh way, but a stronger theme dominated my passage.

The book was written by the apostle James in Jerusalem to Christians scattered by persecution with virtually no support network. It would have been easy for them to claim a private faith that didn’t affect their lives. We, even with the benefit of an established church and a relatively accommodating culture, have the same temptation. James exhorts his readers to live as those who genuinely believe that the man Jesus was the Son of God who lived, died, rose, ascended, and will return.

James is full of practical applications: endure trials, don’t show favoritism, control the tongue, pray in faith. My passage, the familiar “faith apart from works is dead” passage (James 2:14–26), shows that these works are not an optional add-on to Christianity. A faith that does not include works is not a faith that saves.

“Can that faith save him?”

“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, emphasis added). James is introducing a question of eternal life-or-death consequences. Are you saved or not? The implications are twofold:

  1. One can claim “faith” and not be saved.
  2. There is a faith that saves!

The remainder of the passage presents some symptoms of false faith and then offers two case studies of true, saving faith.

Invisible Faith

Faith that does not save hides behind excuses, debates, and platitudes. “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). The hypothetical rebuttal here tries to logic its way out of works, but it creates a false dichotomy. It assumes that faith and works can exist independently. James counters with a slightly cheeky challenge to show faith without works—an impossibility. One’s actions are not just evidence of faith but faith itself made visible. An invisible faith is no faith at all.

Striking uncomfortably close to my own heart, James also points out that reciting doctrinal statements is not the same thing as works, and certainly not the same thing as faith. “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19). Demons—the literal forces of evil—can recite truths about God, but without acts of repentance and obedience, their knowledge only condemns them. God values our actions, not solely our doctrine.

Faith that saves

James treats faith and works as more tightly intertwined than we are used to talking about. He uses them almost interchangeably, so much so that he says:

“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).

All the Reformed people are suddenly sweating.

Faith and works are two sides of a coin and just as inseparable. James says both Abraham and Rahab were “justified by works,” but he unites their works inextricably with their faith (James 2:21, 25).

When Abraham sacrificed Isaac, “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (James 2:22). His faith was incomplete without his works, and his works were hollow without faith active in them. As it stands, Abraham’s worked-out faith was credited to him as righteousness, justifying him before God (James 2:23).

Rahab the Gentile prostitute may seem like an unlikely candidate for the Hall of Faith, but nevertheless Hebrews 11:31 states: “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.” Rahab did not perish (i.e., she was saved) because she welcomed the spies, by faith. Faith, works, and salvation are all tied up together.  

But, Sola Fide, right?

Our church, as part of the Reformed tradition, leans heavily on the rich biblical truth of Ephesians 2:8–9, that “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Faith that saves is a gift of God! But it is inconsistent with the rest of Scripture to assume that works have no part in it.

Consider the very next verse: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Faith for salvation is a gift of God—and so are the works that accompany it!

We are powerless to enliven dead faith through works; this is just salvation by works by another name. As recipients of the gift of true, living faith that leads to salvation, we are to gratefully accept the works that accompany it.

There is a warning in James to examine your faith for signs of life, but primarily his heart is to encourage his readers to do good works—such as those found in the rest of his letter—joyfully as those who have been saved and await the return of our King!

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A Picture of the Faith That Leads to Salvation

What is faith? One of the go-to biblical answers to this vital question comes from the book of Hebrews.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

The chapter that follows this definition provides dozens of examples of this faith in action. But we are not limited to Hebrews 11 when looking for biblical teaching on faith.

Faith in 1 Peter

The apostle Peter has a lot to say about faith in his first letter. The first chapter of this letter alone is filled with descriptions of faith and its consequences.

Peter opens this letter with effusive praise to God (1 Peter 1:3–12). He reminds us of God’s mercy toward us in giving us new life (verse 3), an imperishable inheritance (verse 4), and his powerful protection (verse 5).

But faith is never far from Peter’s mind. Faith is the instrument through which we are being guarded (verse 5). Genuine faith will result in honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (verse 7). And the outcome of faith is salvation (verse 9).

A Working Definition of Faith

I take two verses in the middle of 1 Peter 1 as a working definition of faith that is memorable, encouraging, and motivating.

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8–9)

For the purposes of a discussion on faith, there are at least four important parts of this statement.

You have not seen him; you do not see him. Like the definition from Hebrews, Peter reminds us that faith is not one of the five natural senses. We have not seen Jesus with our eyes, and he is not with us in the flesh. Faith is a spiritual, God-given sense.

You love him. Faith is not merely belief. We do not receive faith by merely ascribing to a list of propositions about God. Faith involves our hearts, and a true believer doesn’t just acknowledge or trust Jesus, they love him.

You believe in him. Faith is more than belief, but it is not less! These verses follow several beautiful statements about salvation (verses 3–5) in which God’s role and the centrality of the resurrection (verse 3) are clear. Faith always has an object, and Christians must know and believe what is true about Jesus in order to have faith in him.

You rejoice with great joy. A faith that does not lead to rejoicing may not be true faith. Peter wrote to people who were suffering, and yet there was a deep, bubbling spring of joy within them because of their new life in Christ. Faith is always future-looking, and Peter points ahead several times in this first chapter. Suffering and trials are not reasons to rejoice; but when we understand the effect of our trials (verse 7) and we rest in the inheritance that is kept in heaven for us (verse 4), we can be joyful people. This joy doesn’t mean we are delusional or fake-happy. But our abiding trust in God’s goodness, his control, and his fatherly love will give us a satisfaction in him that looks strange to a watching world. And that may give us a chance to discuss the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15).

Cultivating This Faith

Faith is a gift of God, but it is also something we can tend and water so that it will grow (by God’s grace). This discussion of faith from 1 Peter prompts a few ideas about cultivating faith.

  1. Get to know and love Jesus. – If faith involves belief, then we need to know what God is like and what he’s done for us in Jesus. This means that the Bible is essential to our faith! We might be naturally drawn to the New Testament to learn about Jesus, which is good and right. But the Old Testament also feeds our faith. Hebrews 11 (quoted above) points to dozens of imperfect, Old Testament saints as having great faith. As you learn about Jesus, train your heart to respond in adoration and worship. Keep the Psalms handy.
  2. See beyond your sight. – Peter twice mentions that we cannot rely on our eyes to see Jesus. Many of the most important things about us are invisible. Illnesses, injuries, loneliness, grief, and despair—they can crash upon us like a tidal wave. They are so tangible! But we must remind ourselves (and each other) that our circumstances are not the only true things about us. Crucially, they are not the final true thing about us. Instead, we are “born again to a living hope,” we have an inheritance in heaven that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” and we are being guarded “by God’s power…for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” By Jesus’s work we are loved, adopted, and secured by God as his children.
  3. Grow in joy. – Faith should produce joy, so if our efforts to cultivate faith are not leading to greater joy, we’re doing something wrong. There are many ways to grow in joy in Christ, but here is one suggestion: Find joyful Christians and learn from them. Listen to their music; read their poems, stories, essays, and biographies; watch their films and videos; take walks with them; call, text, or email with them. God gives his children faith, and he also brings his children into his church where we can learn from each other what it means to have such a loving and powerful father.

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Singing Is An Act of Faith

Singing is a big part of the Christian life. We sing several times each Sunday, and we read of singing throughout the Bible. Christians are musical people.

When viewed from outside the church, however, all this singing is weird. There’s no other part of life—except, perhaps, birthday parties—that involves as much singing as Christianity.

I notice this whenever we have an official ceremony at Washington & Jefferson College, where I teach. Most of these ceremonies end with the alma mater, a song written to express one’s undying loyalty to and affection for the school. (Most colleges have such a song.) The music begins and everyone stares at the program. If not for the student singers up front, there wouldn’t be much to hear. For those who don’t sing outside the shower, it is a strange moment. I’m supposed to sing these words? To a tune? With my mouth? It’s no wonder most students (and faculty) end up mouthing the words or standing in disinterested silence.

Why We Don’t Sing

For Christians, singing is simply part of the deal.

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! (Psalm 100:1–2)

Paul commands the church to sing as well—see Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18–20. He connects this command to thankfulness, being filled with the Spirit, and “making melody to the Lord with your heart.” Singing is part of the way we glorify God as his body.

But, let’s face it. Not many of us are born singers. We are grateful for the word “noise” in the phrase “joyful noise.” We naturally make comparisons, and we feel awkward singing when our skills fall so far short of the worship leaders or soloists in church.

And beyond the lack of talent, singing exposes us. We put ourselves at risk when we sing; there’s nowhere to hide. Those near us hear our wrong notes, missed beats, and bad pronunciation. To avoid embarrassment, we sometimes decide to make a joyful noise internally.

Why We Sing

However, our obedience to God’s command to sing doesn’t depend on our ability. God doesn’t only want singing from the choir.

Think of an analogy. We wouldn’t leave giving, praying, Bible reading, caring for orphans and widows, or loving neighbors only to those who were naturally gifted. If a friend confronted us with the Biblical command not to gossip, we wouldn’t respond, “Oh, it’s okay—I’m just not very good at not gossiping!”

We’re not called to sing because we’re great singers. We sing because God is great and greatly to be praised! And, by God’s design, one of the chief ways we praise him is through song. He is worthy of our song, so we sing!

And as we sing, especially for those not naturally gifted, we exercise faith.

As we open our mouths to sing, we must believe the truth that God is pleased with us. We trust that because of Jesus’s work for us, our Father loves us and wants to hear our voices. Because he is good and tender and faithful, he won’t turn away if we can’t carry a tune.

In a world where we rely on our senses and instincts, this will take some adjustment. We must believe the Bible over our impulse to hide. We need to trust God that our relationship with him does not depend on our performance.

Jesus, the Perfect Singer

If we’re commanded to sing, and if Jesus has perfectly obeyed every command for us, then Jesus is a singer. In fact, he’s the best singer ever.

Think of your favorite hymn or praise song. Or think of the Psalms, most of which were written to be sung in worship by the people of Israel. Jesus has sung and continues to sing these songs of praise to God! His praise to God is perfect, and that obedient praise is credited to us. This is the good news of the gospel!

So when you stand to sing at church this week, don’t hesitate. Don’t worry about your skill. Open your mouth and make your melody, trusting that God loves and accepts you on the basis of his perfect son.

Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! (Psalm 95:1–2)

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