Many have a hard time reconciling the words of Paul with the words of James on faith and works. Does “faith without deeds is useless” discount “faith alone”? In this excerpt from Faith Alone, Thomas Schreiner explores both, bringing the two into tension. Consider this excerpt from the first book in the “5 Solas Series.”
When some hear the Reformation cry of sola fide — “Faith alone!” — they assume that it means that good works are an optional part of the Christian life or that they play no role at all in our final justification or salvation. Such a perspective radically misunderstands the NT witness, while also distorting the historical and biblical meaning of sola fide. The NT clearly teaches that bare faith cannot save, and that works are necessary for final justification or final salvation. As we will see, this latter notion does not compromise or deny sola fide when it is properly understood.
MENTAL ASSENT ISN’T SAVING FAITH
What do we mean when we speak of “bare” faith? By bare faith I refer to what is often called intellectual assent to a set of statements, doctrines, or beliefs. In other words, merely saying that one believes isn’t the same thing as saving faith. As James says in Jas 2:14, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” Obviously not! Faith without works, a faith without deeds, does not profit us. To put it another way, it doesn’t deliver us from God’s eschatological wrath. A “claiming” faith, a “saying” faith, an “assenting” faith without any accompanying works is not a saving faith.
Devils have bare faith. James gives what is probably the most powerful and telling example of such in the Scriptures. “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder” (Jas 2:19 NIV). Ascribing to and endorsing orthodox doctrines should never be confused with genuine faith. Demons can confess monotheism, and yet their hearts are far from the one true God. Indeed, they hate him and all of his ways. Consider the reactions of the demons when they encountered Jesus during his earthly ministry. They acknowledged that he was “the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24; cf. Luke 4:34), and in that sense, they “believed” in him and knew more about him at that stage in his ministry than most anyone, even Jesus’ own disciples. But they certainly didn’t love Jesus, and they didn’t believe in him to the extent that they entrusted their lives to him. This leads me to conclude that there is a kind of faith, an intellectual understanding, that is “bare” and “empty.” It subscribes to mental propositions but doesn’t embrace and love Jesus, and in the final analysis it proves to be no faith at all.
Some in the movement known as the Free Grace movement claim that bare mental assent actually saves people. They have come up with a novel interpretation of James 2, for they claim that the words “justify” (dikaioo) and “save” (soz̄ o) do not refer to eschatological salvation. James, they claim, isn’t actually talking about end-time salvation, for that would contradict salvation by faith alone. Instead, James refers to a fruitful life on earth, to being saved from a life shorn of God’s blessing and power.
The motive behind this interpretation is commendable, for those who espouse it long to celebrate the grace of God. They want to eliminate any notion that human works qualify us to stand before God. They want to preserve in all its power and beauty the notion that salvation is sola fide. Still, the gambit fails, for this is an example of desperate exegesis. It doesn’t work to provide new definitions for the words “justify” and “save,” definitions that aren’t found in the rest of the NT.
We have every reason to think that the words “justify” and “save” refer to our final salvation. After all, James uses the same words Paul uses when discussing soteriology (“faith,” “works,” “justify,” and “save”). Indeed, one of the most prominent verses that Paul appeals to in discussing justification (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:3; Gal 3:6) is cited in James (Jas 2:23). And James and Paul both discuss the same person — Abraham. Surely, the burden of proof is on the one who thinks the issue is salvation in Paul but an entirely different matter in James.
Instead, the natural way to read these texts is to say that both James and Paul are addressing the same issue. The Free Grace interpretation looks like an expedient to defend and support one’s theology. While Scripture interprets Scripture, at the same time we must ensure that we don’t do violence to what texts say, for otherwise we are in danger of twisting the Scripture to fit our own preconceptions.
It is clear, then, that James is teaching that bare faith alone — simply agreeing that certain statements are true — does not save us. “Faith by itself” when “it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (Jas 2:17). Or, “faith without deeds is useless” (2:20 NIV). By this, James isn’t denying sola fide; rather, he inveighs against an empty faith, a barren faith, an inactive faith — a dead faith. Genuine faith is a living and active thing, and it will inevitably produce results. We see this plainly in 2:22, “You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did” (NIV). Faith and works belong together.
If I really trust my auto mechanic, I will trust him when he fixes my car instead of accusing him of cheating. If I trust my doctor’s expertise and wisdom, I will take the medicine he or she prescribes. Faith is shown as genuine when it is brought to completion by our actions. As Prov 20:6 says, “Many claim to have unfailing love, but a faithful person who can find?” (NIV). People can claim to believe, but the reality of their faith is demonstrated in their actions. Their actions reveal whether they have a bare faith when they nod in mental agreement but nothing more. (Pgs 191-193)
To continue reading, order your copy of Faith Alone today.
This post originally appeared on the Zondervan Academic blog.