What does James say about the relationship between faith and works?
This question has to do with James Chapter 2, which I addressed elsewhere on this blog a few months ago. And it is one of the questions that really was the genesis of this project because I hear Christians saying the same things, and reaching the same conclusions, about James Chapter 2 that Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons do. This just cannot be a good thing.
Latter Day Saints: (Mormon)
In LDS doctrine, ultimate salvation is known as "exaltation"… this is entrance into the 3rd Heaven. With that in mind, the LDS interpretation of James Chapter 2 is that there is no exaltation if works are not added to faith.
The Watchtower: (Jehovah's Witnesses)
According to Watchtower teaching, works are a necessary component of faith. If you don’t have works, you must not have faith and you will not be saved.
…anyone who has genuine faith will have works to go with it - works of obedience to the commands of God and Christ, works that demonstrate his faith and love. Without such works, his faith is dead. -Local Jehovah's Witness
James makes it clear that a person with genuine faith will automatically produce action that gives evidence of his faith. -Local Jehovah's Witness
Notice that the JW answer characterizes works as a sort of "evidence" of true faith, and so if they don't have works, they must not have faith. The absence of works indicates the absence of faith, in other words. This is why they look to their own works for assurance.
The Mormon position is slightly different, based on my personal conversation with the LDS missionaries, as they didn't say anything that connected works with "evidence" of faith. They just said that if you don't have works added to your faith, you won't be exalted.
Well, in either case works have to be added to faith, and that's the main point we're looking for here so that we can compare that with the Lordship answers.
Lordship teachers account for the apparent tension between faith and works in James Chapter 2 in a couple of different ways. One way is to understand that James advocates works of a different kind than Paul when Paul said salvation is “not of works”. Perhaps the more common explanation, however, is that if you don’t have works, then this is evidence that your faith is not genuine and you were never really saved in the first place. Does that sound familiar?
The key is to understand the difference between works as Paul defined them and works as James defined them. For the purposes of my argument I will refer to Paul's term as "works" and James' term as "work." We are not to do works, but we are to work. -Don Johnson, "The Road To Heaven" page 135
And therefore if you say "But I'm justified because I believed the doctrine of justification by faith… and then it doesn't change your life and you go on to live like the devil; a selfish, self-centered person the rest of your life, James would say 'You're not justified" But he wouldn't say that because you didn't add a second thing, simply, to your faith but because your faith is dead. It wasn't faith. -John Piper
Notice John Piper's quote and compare it especially to the quote from the Jehovah's Witness. There's absolutely no difference. Why is that? Why is this prominent and incredibly popular Christian teacher teaching the same thing that the Watchtower teaches about this? What does that tell us about Lordship Salvation if we already understand and accept that the Watchtower teaches salvation by works?
If we are to maintain that we understand salvation to be by grace and not of works, then our answer needs to be different than the cults, not the same. And I think it's rather clear that the Bible provides a very different answer.
The Free Grace perspective on James Chapter 2 is to point out first of all that James knows he's addressing an audience that is saved. We know this from his repeated use of the word "brethren" elsewhere in the epistle. And also that "faith" in this passage is not the word for trusting in Christ. It is the word "pistis" which is a noun which refers to "that which is believed." When we say salvation is by "faith in Christ" usually we mean an act, a verb. Actually the verb "pisteuo" as in so many passages in John and also Acts 16:31. But that's not the word James uses in Chapter 2. He uses the word "pistis" instead and this means "a body of knowledge or belief". Notice that this is a very, very broad term. But James says "faith (pistis) without works is dead." So what does he mean by "dead"? Some English translations use the word "useless" instead of "dead", for the Greek word there is "nekros" which can mean "dead" but also means "useless" and the latter fits better in this context. But what does "faith without works is useless" mean?
Here's an illustration: You believe (I assume) that fastening your seat belt when you drive somewhere is a good idea. You could describe this belief of yours as "pistis", or "that which you believe." Now, if you drive somewhere without actually fastening your seat belt, of what use to you is that belief? Absolutely none. If you get in an accident, the unfastened seat belt that's flopping around at your side will not help you one bit.
To apply this in a more Biblical illustration, consider Jesus' teaching "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." That is "pistis"; or part of the body of knowledge which you have as a Christian. But if you do not live by that teaching, then obviously the fact that you believe it is of no use to anyone. In other words, James is basically saying "apply Bible doctrine" in your life. If you don't, that Bible doctrine is useless.
That is an answer which is totally different from the cults' teaching and is entirely consistent with the Bible and eliminates any apparent contradiction between James and Paul.