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Note on James 2: 14-19 by Thomas Ross

james 2

Please see my review of Mr. Ross’s book refuting baptismal regeneration here.

Many within the Churches of Christ insist that James teaches that faith includes “works” or that works must be added to faith before faith can save.

(James 2:14-19) What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no [works]? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by [works], is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have [works].” Show me your faith without [works], and I will show you my faith by [works]. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

James’ argument, of course, makes perfect sense. What good would it be for God to send his Son to save us, to forgive our sins, if we were to respond by continuing in sin? Surely God expects more from us than just faith!

The distinction is this: when Paul opposes “works” against “faith,” he means works on which we rely to give us merit before God, that is, anything that we add to the gospel as additional requirements to be saved (or stay saved). When James refers to “works,” he is speaking of doing good deeds, not to become saved, but because we are saved.

The contrast is well seen in Ephesians 2:8-10— For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Here Paul speaks of three kinds of works. First, Paul denies that we are saved by our own works. Indeed, we are saved by a second kind of works: not our works but the works of God. Hence, we are God’s workmanship, that is, we have been re-made by the working of God. But all this is for a purpose, for us to do a third kind of works: “good works.” Hence, our salvation rests on the working of God, not our works, but having been saved, we are charged with doing good works.

Now the key is the direction of the arrow of causation. Works do not cause salvation; rather, salvation causes works. We can state this in terms of formal logic. The statement “If I do good works, then I will be saved” is false, because no one other than Jesus is capable of doing works that merit salvation (Rom. 3:23). On the other hand, the statement “If I am saved, then I will do good works” is true. Now, my logic professor at David Lipscomb taught me that any true statement can logically be “double reversed” into the “contrapositive,” and it will still be true: “If I don’t do good works, then I am not saved.” And this is precisely what James says.

It is easy to confuse the first statement, which is false, with the contrapositive, which is true, because they look very similar—but they are not the same. If all saved people do good works, then the fact that I don’t do good works necessarily means I’m not saved. But it’s not because my salvation depends on those works. It’s because salvation necessarily produces works. (We are confident that God makes allowance for those whose physical or mental frailty make them incapable of good works.)
An example might help. My wife loves me, and I love her. Because Ilove her, I do good things for her. Thus, it is generally true that “if I love my wife then I will do good things for her.” But this does not mean “if I do good things for my wife then I love her.” I may not love her at all and yet out of guilt or duty do many wonderful things for her. But if I love her, that love will inevitably produce good deeds benefiting her. Thus, it is also true that if I don’t do anything beneficial for my wife, then I don’t love her.