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Reflections: Faith, deeds, or both?

My First 5 devotional, continuing in the book of James, has recently brought to mind discussions from college biblical history classes about whether the Bible teaches salvation by works or by faith alone. Over the centuries, theologians and scholars have compared James’ statements such as “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:17) with Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church stating, “For by grace are you saved through faith . . . Not of works, lest anyone should boast” (2:8–9).


Recalling those discussions also took me, like many things do, back to a conversation with my dad, who pointed out that the debate was easily settled by looking at a) the context, and b) the words of Jesus. First, James doesn’t say that works, or deeds, bring salvation; rather, that they are the result of it. His Old Testament examples, Abraham and Rahab, took specific action—in Abraham’s case, he acted on belief in what God specifically assured him; Rahab acted on her observation of God’s mighty acts on Israel’s behalf and her realization that the God of Israel was the true God. The belief came first, but it led to action. And after Paul reminds his readers their salvation is by grace through faith, he goes on to say God has created us for good works (2:10).


James and Paul both got their information from Jesus himself. Matthew chapter 7 records Jesus’ teaching that “by their fruits you will know them,” (v. 20) and that true wisdom is in hearing His teaching and then doing it (v. 24–26). Matthew chapter 25 is also a call to action; the end-times illustration of “sheep and goats” in v. 31–46 is particularly scary, as everyone gathered refers to Jesus as “Lord,” but their reward or punishment is directly tied to how they treated the hungry, the needy, or the imprisoned. The parable of the talents in the same chapter is an exhortation to put our God-given skills and means to work for the Kingdom.


The religious leaders of Jesus’ day are Exhibit A of works without believing in Jesus as Lord. But once faith is in place, the word “works” as used by Paul and James could also be expressed with the word “obedience” to commands from Jesus himself.


How does this affect me? I made a profession of faith as a child, but I’ll admit to ups and downs in the obedience department. My dad took the obedience part seriously. He regularly visited the county jail to share the gospel with inmates, regardless of what their mistake or crime was. He contributed to organizations that assist persecuted Christian believers, and also to the U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots and local food drives; while he was a big believer in hard work, he also knew from experience that “everybody hits an occasional rough patch.” And, again basing his “deeds” on the words of Jesus, he was a strong supporter of Israel in his words, prayer and finances.


While studying James and reflecting on Dad’s example, I’m looking closely at my own volunteering and giving. Letting Scripture interpret Scripture, I see there is no contradiction between faith and works, but that one naturally leads to the other.

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