Martin Luther—one of the important figures during the reformation—started out as a Catholic priest, but when he actually studied what the Bible said he discovered that Paul declares in Romans that justification is through faith alone.
This revolutionised his entire worldview and he dedicated the rest of his life to sharing this truth. He had a new appreciation for what the Christian life was meant to be like and a love for the truth found in Scripture, yet when he came across the letter of James he refused to preach on it because he thought it contained heretical teaching about works-based salvation.
Many of us struggle today with this, it seems like Romans is saying one thing and James is saying another, how can that be if they’re both in the Bible?
Are faith and works opposed to each other or they actually two halves of the one gospel?
The case for faith
It is understandable that people can come to the conclusion that it is only faith that matters— particularly if they’ve come from a legalistic background like Luther had. There are many passages in the Bible that seem to make it clear that faith is the most important thing.
For starters, there are verses like Romans chapter 3, verse 28—“For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law”; as well as Romans chapter 11, verse 6, "But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace," and Galatians chapter 2, verse 21—“I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”
So it seems pretty clear from these verses that it is faith not works that are important for the Christian believer. But what then of works and what of the awkward book of James which can seem to be preaching a different gospel?
The case for works
It seems obvious to us on an academic level that doing stuff does not win God’s favour but on a more emotional level it seems to makes sense that we should do good things to get good things. This is typically the way we experience the world, yet is that what the Bible says?
First up in James chapter 2, verse 14 we have him saying “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” This seems to directly contradict what we know Paul says in Romans.
James also says in verse 24 “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” and in verse 26, “ For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”
How can it be possible that both these authors are preaching the same gospel?
The case for unity
At first glance, it seems that faith and works are enemies presenting two different gospels, but if we dig a little deeper in the knowledge that God is a God of order and truth and that his word fits together and presents one cohesive story, then we will find that they may actually be friends after all.
The whole of the Bible is equally inspired by God and equally his words. Let’s now look at some things Jesus said while he was on earth doing ministry—in John chapter 6, verse 47 he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life,” and in John chapter 15, verse 8 he says, “ By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”
In Matthew 7:19 he also says, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
This brings us again to our question—are faith and works compatible? I would say yes. The books of the bible are not meant to be read in isolation—nor are verses meant to be read without their surrounding context.
James wasn’t writing an exhaustive manual for the Christian life nor was Paul; they were both focusing on their specific God-inspired topics. The really important thing is to understand not so much whether they go together but how they go together.
We are saved through faith—that is a definitive—but once we are saved we show it by producing good works—we do so out of a love for God and a gratitude for what he has done for us—not to earn anything but as a response, because it is the only thing that makes sense and it pours forth out of us.
In closing I would like to end on one of my favourite analogies—an apple tree is an apple tree by the grace of God but it produces apples to show it is an apple tree.
Jessica McPherson lives with her best friend and husband, Eoin and their family of rescue animals in Christchurch. She loves reading, writing, photography and scrap-booking but most of all sharing God’s love and truth with a hurting world. Jessica is particularly passionate about encouraging children and building them up in gospel truth.