James chapter 2 tells us what we all instinctively know to be true.
26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.
Is this really a controversial or confusing statement? If one purports to be a Christian yet does no works are they really living the Gospel?
But many people, out of a love of the Lord and a deep and abiding respect for his omnipotence (and our corresponding insignificance), suggest that we are saved by “faith alone” and that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that we can do to merit salvation. How do we reconcile these two seemingly irreconcilable concepts?
First, we must be clear, the only place in the Bible where the words “faith” and “alone” appear together in the same sentence is here, in James chapter 2:
24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Second, we must dispel the notion that “true” faith compels good works. As James points out, the demons have faith. In fact, they have absolute faith. They have certain knowledge of God but it does not just automatically produce good works. Again, this shows God allows for free will – in demons and men.
The solution comes in James’ description of Abraham
21* Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works…
I learned the other day the the Hebrew word for faith actually means “trust”. Isn’t that what was happening when God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Abraham already had faith – and initial trust in God – but Abraham was learning to trust God more. Isn’t this what Jesus asks us to do? To trust in him completely.
With this framework in mind hopefully we can see the fine distinctions a little more clearly. Our initial justification, when we first find faith – when we first place our trust in God – is an act of God’s grace, freely given. God extends the knowledge of his presence to us just enough that we can freely choose to trust him him. We then must make that choice daily by doing what he asks of us, but living and working according to his teaching. Living rightly and doing good works makes the choice for God real, it makes our faith completed. But these works have no merit of their own accord. They have merit b/c as it states elsewhere in the bible, we are incorporated into the body of Christ and therefore what we do – how we live – reflects on him. That is why James also says,
13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment.
In other words, we will be shown mercy to the extent that we have extended mercy to others in our works.
In conclusion, trust in the Lord and if you trust in him you will live according to his word and if you live according to his word your trust will be rewarded with great mercy b/c you will have shown great mercy.