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James on "Faith" and "Works"
James is the Bible writer that ties faith and works together. His presentations have caused some consternation among those who see works as counter to grace. Yet there is no conflict, only perfect harmony once properly understood. It is clear from Paul's treatment of grace that works were not relevant in God's election and selection. This matter is rather clear and most Christian writers would agree with this assessment. However, one must understand another matter that troubled the early church-Gentiles were being confronted with keeping the Jewish law. Works of the law, the keeping of Sabbaths, dietary restrictions, the feasts, the cleansing rituals, circumcision, etc., were permissible to the Jewish Christians who still wished to keep them. They had the freedom to do so. But trouble arose when these rituals were being enjoined on Gentile converts to Christianity.
"There rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them [Gentile Christians], and to command them to keep the Law of Moses" (Acts 15:5). The occasion for these words was the conference at the Church in Jerusalem. Some were saying Gentile Christians had to keep certain features of the Jewish law, and others were saying, not so. Meanwhile, the controversy caused whiplash to those who were being yanked from one direction to another. The Jerusalem Conference was called by the Apostles to settle this controversy in clear, understandable terms for everyone. The conference ended with this clarion message to all the churches: "That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well" (Acts 15:29).
Before the Law of Moses, God forbade partaking of blood and strangled meat improperly bled. In Gen. 9:4 God told Noah and the flood survivors, "But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat." This was enjoined on the entire world after the flood and still stands today, even though few concern themselves with this commandment. In our modern world all meat sold meets these requirements. However, the Apostles enjoined this law on all Christians, and it still applies.
Keeping from "fornication" is a moral requirement also enjoined on Christians. The only compromise made was in "not eating meat offered to idols." This command was given so as not to offend the conscience of any who might witness this. No compromise was made with the Jewish Law Covenant. "Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died" (Rom. 14:15). Eating meat sold in the market place which had been offered to idols would not harm the individual in itself. However, if it offended another, it would be wrong to do. Paul clarifies the matter saying: "As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one. … Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh" (1 Cor. 8:4, 13).
The Jewish law was not enjoined upon Gentile Christians at this conference. Officially the matter was settled; however, tradition and habit die hard. A strong element within the Jewish Christian Church continued to teach that Gentile Christians should keep certain features of the law. Consequently, the New Testament writers had to speak out against the works of the law. In our day, some commentators see Scriptures that show the futility of works of the law, but failing to see the difference between works of the Jewish Law and works in general, they conclude that all works are futile. Such is not the case. Never do the scriptures demean works of the Spirit in the hearts of God's people. They are necessary "fruit of the Spirit" (Gal. 5:22-25). The issue before the early church was whether justification was brought about by faith in Christ's sacrifice or works of the Law. Paul says, "Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law..." (Gal. 5:4).
The free grace movement has taken all the arguments used against works of the law to deny all works. This is a serious mistake. For instance, the Bible says, "For whatsoever is not of faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23). This whole chapter deals with Christians who were bound by Jewish features of the law. Paul says in Romans 14:17, "For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit." Christians need not follow dietary restrictions of the law. However, if their conscience condemns them for not keeping certain features of the law, they should honor their conscience. If they keep the dietary Jewish law out of lack of faith in Christ's atonement sacrifice, it would be "sin."
To argue that all works are sin misses the point. God's grace has been given to enable us to put on the "Lord Jesus Christ." We need all the "fruit of the Spirit" which is the work of an entire Christian lifetime. Anyone who has watched an orchard knows that you first have a blossom, then an immature fruit, and finally the fruit matures into a luscious treat. All of this takes time.
"Was Not Abraham, Our Father, Justified by Works?"
James 2:21, 22 reads, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?" Words are easy to generate. The world is full of wonderful words and beautiful sentiments; but if the world were filled with wonderful deeds and beautiful actions, it would be a sweeter place to live. Words are not dependable. Lawyers only accept legally signed contracts. A verbal agreement will not do. Courts are filled with cases of broken contracts. Words are hard to keep without character. Character enables promises and agreements to be kept.
Abraham believed God. How do we know this? Works demonstrated his faith and belief. God put Abraham to the test, asking him to do the hardest thing a man could be asked to do-to offer his son in sacrifice. God asked Abraham to act out what God himself was going to do. Abraham played God's role flawlessly. Abraham demonstrated by his works his faith and love for God. That is why Abraham is called "the Friend of God" (Jas. 2:23). James then says, "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only" (Jas. 2:24).
James is showing that the measure of faith and love that a man has for God will not be determined by words alone. Words need to be backed by deeds of love and faith. The free grace movement almost implies that one may promise God anything without delivering it, and it is all right with God. That would be like saying that God embodies love so no one needs good character.
James says, "Was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also" (Jas. 2:25, 26). Rahab jeopardized her life and family to save the lives of the Jewish spies. Her works demonstrated her faith. If "faith without works is dead," so it must be that living faith will be demonstrated by works-the things we do, the company we keep, the thoughts we think, the love we bestow, etc. Paul defined love by works-qualities of love (1 Cor. 13:4-8). To argue against Christian works is to argue against love and the graces of the Spirit. James correctly says, "Faith without works is dead."
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