Not long ago I was surprised to read that we are saved by “faith, not by obedience.” How easily the writer had identified “obedience” with Paul’s “works of the law” in Romans 3:28, ESV: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” This error was in material written for the lay person. Sometimes, however, such confusion occurs in scholarly work.
A brief comparison between Paul’s “works of the law” (Romans 3, Galatians 3) and James’ “works” (James 2:14-16) will be instructive. On the surface, James seems to contradict Romans 3:28, quoted above, when he says: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24 ESV).
In Paul’s discussion, faith verses works. Faith is reliance on God for our salvation. “Works,” in Paul’s usage, refers to things we do in order to put God in our debt or obtain merit from God. (This statement is true whether Paul is referring to Jewish practices such as circumcision and dietary laws or to the broader demands of the Old Testament law.) We do these “works” in order to earn our salvation as a matter of wages. Understood in this way, “faith” and “works” are opposite and incompatible. Either we trust in God and receive salvation as a gift through the work of Christ or we vainly try to earn that salvation by what we do. To attempt to earn our salvation in this way is, indeed, disobedience because it is diametrically opposed to the word of God.
In James, however, “faith” and “works” are close allies, not enemies. Here “works” or “deeds” refers to the things we do that flow from our reliance upon God for our salvation. These works are the fruit of faith. We cannot possibly depend on them as earning merit because they flow from dependence on our gracious God for salvation. It is common to say that such works are “evidence” of our faith. We may be saved by “faith alone” but that faith, if it is true living faith, is “never alone” but always attested by “works.” Does this way of describing the relationship between “faith” and “works” do justice to James straightforward statement, “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone”? I don’t think so. James is asserting a more intimate relationship between the two. Let’s look carefully at several of the things that he says.
He begins by implying that a claimed “faith” without corresponding “works” is invisible—that is, unsubstantiated (James 2:14-16). So, “works” are the “evidence” of faith. But what about his next assertion, that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17 ESV). He goes on to say that “as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (2:26 ESV). “Works,” understood as trusting obedience, are not merely the “evidence” of faith, they are what makes faith alive. They are the animating principle of faith. James doesn’t liken faith to the life-giving spirit and works to the body, but faith to the body and works to the life-giving spirit. Finally, note what James 2:22 says about Abraham’s obedient offering of his son Isaac. By this “work” of obedience Abraham’s faith was “completed” or “made perfect,” brought to fulfillment. His faith became real in this act of obedience. God did not command Abraham to offer Isaac just to see if Abraham had faith, he commanded him to make this sacrifice so that, by Abraham’s obedience, that faith would become a concrete reality in his life. Let’s use the word “obedience” for “works” that flow from trusting in God. We might almost say that “faith” and “obedience” are two sides of the same coin, two ways of looking at the same reality.
This understanding of “faith and obedience” is confirmed when we turn to the book of Hebrews. On the basis of Heb 11:1-7 we can define faith as “living like God’s promise for the future is sure and his power in the present is real” (see Cockerill, Hebrews NICNT, Eerdmans, 2012: 520-21, 530-31). According to this definition, faith involves action. Thus, Hebrews can speak of faith and obedience, or, perhaps more often, of unbelief and disobedience, as virtually the same thing. For too long we have, gnostic-like, restricted “faith” to a mental act or inward disposition, rather than acknowledging that it refers to a way of life. The statement that we are saved “by faith, not obedience,” is not only Biblically inaccurate, but dangerous because it suggests the irrelevance of obedience so long as we have something that we call “faith.”