A STUDY BY
GARY RAY BRANSCOME
While it is common for people to associate the word "works" with "works of the law" the Bible actually uses that word in many different ways (Galatians 2:16). For example: the "works of Abraham" could not have been works of the law, because the law had not been given at that time (John 8:39). Likewise "works meet for repentance" are simply the change in behavior that takes place when one is truly sorry for his sin, while "good works" are good things that we do, and "wicked works" are bad things that we do (Acts 26:20, Colossians 1:21, Titus 2:14). Therefore, in order to understand the book of James it is important to understand that he is not talking about works of the law or works of righteousness, but works of faith (James 2:18). [Titus 2:14, Romans 13:12, Galatians 5:19, Hebrews 9:14, Titus 3:5]
THE BOOK OF JAMES
Since James is mentioned in Scripture and was a well-known figure in the apostolic church, early church leaders knew of his book. Yet, it was not regarded as Scripture until Athanasius added it to the list of sacred books in 367 AD. Even then the church at large did not accept it until it was shown that it could be understood in a way that agrees with the teaching of Paul. Nevertheless, in every century since that time the words of James have been twisted to contradict what Paul says about faith in Christ. However, the words, "the devils also believe, and tremble" tell us that James was not talking about faith in Christ, for no devil ever believed that Christ died for his sins, and none ever will (James 2:19). Therefore, Paul and James are talking about two different things.
In order to have the works James is calling for, we must first have faith in Christ. Once we have that faith the works will come automatically as the fruit or by-product of that faith. In other words, acting like one of Godís sheep will not make us one of His sheep, but once we become one of His sheep, through faith in Christ, we will act like one of His sheep. Works cannot make a dead faith come to life any more than they can make a dead soul come to life, but once we have faith in Christ that faith will make a difference in our lives. (James 2:26)
THE EXAMPLE OF ABRAHAM
The carnal mind is quick to read "works of the law" into the words, "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?" However, the fact that the law does not require human sacrifice should make it obvious that Abrahamís willingness to offer his son had nothing to do with works of the law. In fact, if Godís test of Abraham was a test of his willingness to adhere to the law, then God would have been tempting Abraham to sin, and God never does that (James 1:13). God was testing Abrahamís faith, not his willingness to submit, and that fact is revealed by the words, "By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead" (Hebrews 11:17-19).
The fact that Abraham said, "I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you," makes it clear that Abraham did not expect his son to remain dead (Genesis 22:5). Therefore, what Abraham did simply revealed the faith that he already had before he did it. In other words, he was willing to offer up his son because he believed that his "seed" would die a sacrificial death for the sins of the world and rise again, and that is the faith that was imputed to him for obedience (Genesis 15:4-6).
THE EXAMPLE OF RAHAB
If James was talking about works of the law, works of righteousness, or the obedience of works Rahab the harlot is the last person he would hold up as an example. Nevertheless, James says, "Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way" (James 2:25)? Since the law says nothing about hiding spies that statement leads us to ask: "What works is James talking about?" And, as we seek the answer to that question, we learn that she hid the spies because of what she believed regarding the God of Israel (Joshua 2:9-11). In other words, she acted on her belief that the God of Israel would deliver her, and that is why the book of Hebrews says, "By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace" (Hebrews 11:31). Therefore, James is talking about the works of faith.
WORKS OF FAITH
None of the examples of faith given in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews has anything to do with obedience to the law. Yet all of them relate to what James is trying to tell us about the works of faith. We read, "By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house," and those words tell us that Noah put his faith into action. We read, "By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones," and those words tell us that Jacob put his faith into action. We read, "By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaohís daughter," and those words tell us that Moses put his faith into action. Furthermore, the words, "Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt" tell us that the faith being spoken of is faith in Christ (Hebrews 11:26).
The words, "By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain," tell us that God accepted Abelís sacrifice because of his faith. However, instead of seeing the role of faith, the carnal mind assumes that God is somehow pleased by the death of an animal. Nevertheless, the words, "I desired mercy and not sacrifice" make it clear that such was not the case (Hosea 6:6). God wanted to assure those who offered animal sacrifice of His mercy, yet because they failed to understand the relationship of faith to grace, they twisted it into something they could do for Him.
Applying what I have just said to church attendance, what God wants is mercy and not just attendance that is devoid of faith. However, the carnal mind assumes that church attendance is something that we do for God, and fails to see that God works through the church service to convict us of sin, assure us of His grace, and strengthen our faith.
Applying what I have just said to baptism, what God wants is mercy and not just water devoid of faith. The words, "scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe," tell us that the promise of forgiveness God has connected with baptism comes to us only through personal faith in Christ (Galatians 3:22, Acts 22:16). Therefore, the important thing is not whether we were baptized as infants or adults, but whether we have faith in Christ (Galatians 6:15). If we have faith we have the forgiveness that is promised, without faith we remain in our sins.
THE FRUIT OF FAITH
When James says, "faith without works is dead" do not assume that adding works to a dead faith will produce a living faith, for a dead faith plus works is still dead! Actually, as Jews the people James was writing to probably performed a number of works that you would not even think of, however, without a living faith their works were not the works of faith, and only what is done in faith is acceptable to God (Hebrews 11:6). If we have faith the works will be there, if we do not then imitating them will not make our lack of faith acceptable to God. For that reason, there is no need to urge people to perform works of faith. In fact any works we perform only because we are told we should, are not of faith. Therefore, if pastors will simply preach faith into the hearts of their listeners the works of faith will follow. We see that even in the case of the thief on the cross, for it was faith that led him to rebuke the unrepentant thief, say "this man hath done nothing amiss," and ask Christ to remember him (Luke 23:41).
All of the passages that speak of a connection between receiving mercy and showing mercy, or receiving forgiveness and showing forgiveness, are speaking of the works of faith. If we truly believe that God has shown mercy to us, we will be willing to show mercy to others, if we believe God has forgiven us we will be willing to forgive others. However, this is not something we need to do in order to be saved, it is something we will do if we are saved (James 2:13, Psalm 109:16, Luke 6:37).
Likewise, the works spoken of in connection with the final judgement are the works of faith, not the works of the law, and those works are not something we need to do in order to save ourselves, but something we do if we are saved. The law does not require us to feed Christ when He is hungry or clothe Him when He is naked. However, when we are saved we show love to others because God has shown love to us, and as that love leads us to feed and clothe fellow believers, or even our own children, we are doing it unto Christ (Matthew 25:30-46).
Those who are dealing with people who live in open and manifest sin, while professing to be Christian, all too often twist James to contradict Paul. However, they fail to see that the problem with such people is unrepentance, not behavior. And the way to deal with that problem is to warn the unrepentant of Godís wrath (allowing the Holy Spirit to put them under conviction) instead of leading them to think that they need works to be saved (1 Corinthians 5:5 and 6:9, Hebrews 10:26).
We should never allow the words of James to be twisted into a false gospel of salvation by faith plus works. If we pay close attention to what James says we find that he places a different definition on the words "faith" and "works" than does the Apostle Paul. When James refers to a dead faith, he is not talking about faith in Christ, but a false faith. And when he speaks of works, he is speaking of the works of faith.