Explaining saved by faith alone principle

by Kyle
published October 5, 2013


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Martin Luther — hero of the reformation and champion of the phrase “sola fide,” or “by faith alone” — hated the book of James.

On the one hand, he thought the book as a whole lacked a clear and logical line of thought from beginning to end and that it seemed to be a disjointed collection of wisdom sayings. (Luther and I completely disagree here.)

On the other hand, James 2:14-26 seemed to Luther to contradict the whole “saved by faith alone” principle. Luther himself said that the idea of being saved by faith alone was the “doctrine by which the church stands or falls.”

James, however, said “faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” in 2:17, and again says in verse 26 that, “just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” James even goes so far in verse 24 to say, “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

This seems to contradict other well-known passages of Scripture like Ephesians 2:8-9, which says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

So which is it? Faith or works?

There are some keys throughout the passage that should help.

First, James is clear in verse 18 that so-called “works” — the good things a believer does — are evidence of faith. James says, “show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Works, then, are the product and evidence of saving faith. The good things a believer does points toward their saving faith rather than actually doing the saving.

Second, in verse 19, James distinguishes between faith as a simple belief in a truth claim and faith as a complete reliance on that truth claim. James points out how even the devil believes in God and understands who Jesus is, but that doesn’t make any difference in what he does. He strongly implies that some people who call themselves Christians are in the same boat, both in how they believe and in their relationship to God.

Third, everyone forgets when they quote Ephesians 2:8-9, to include verse 10. Ephesians 2:10 states, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” Christians are absolutely saved by faith, but that faith should become evident in what we do because we were saved for the very purpose of doing good in the world.

If you trust that a chair can hold your weight, you sit in it. If you trust the claims of the Bible, then you live like it.

Faith and works are two sides of the same coin. What you believe should determine what you do.

So it would seem that the apparent contradiction is a matter of emphasis. If we believe, then we will do certain things. While Paul often emphasized the believing, James here emphasizes the doing that the believing inspires.

Paul struck the perfect balance between the two in Acts 26:20 when he told King Agrippa that he “kept declaring that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.”

With all the religious weight we sometimes give it, “repent” really just means to change your mind from thinking one way to thinking another way. In the case of Christianity, it means changing your mind from thinking that you can somehow do something to be a good person and/or have a relationship with God to thinking that Christ actually did all the work that ever needed to be done to make you a good person and give you a relationship with God. He did that by living the perfect life you and I were supposed to live and dying the death you and I deserve to die.

If your mind controls what you do, and you have changed your mind, then you will necessarily change what you do.

If, as you read this, you are honestly assessing your own life and think to yourself, “I really do believe in Jesus, but I don’t guess anyone would be able to tell it if they looked at my life,” then the solution is really simple. 2 Corinthians 13:5 says you should “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!”

If you “pass the test,” will you do what James says and put your money where your mouth is in the way you live your life?

If you don’t “pass the test,” what are you going to do next? It seems you have the choice of remaining exactly how you are, or you could choose to change your mind and believe differently about God. This will not make your life easier, but in serving others the way faith in Christ would lead you to, you will find a satisfaction and joy you never knew before.

In either case, be sure that what you believe and what you do line up. Otherwise, saying you believe what you do makes no sense at all.

What do you think?

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