What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?James 2:14
My first response to this question – “Can faith save you?” – is yes! Faith can save us! At least I hope so! Isn’t that what scripture tells us in many places, and isn’t that at the heart of what we Christians believe? We are “justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law,” Paul tells us in Romans. “By grace you have been saved through faith,” Paul tells us in Ephesians. “It is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” And in Acts of the Apostles, we are told: ““Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And there are many other places throughout God’s Word with similar messages.
So, yes, we are saved by faith, scripture tells us. But if that is the case, then what is James getting at here, when he suggests that faith cannot save us? I think that James is trying to tell us, first of all, that faith without works cannot save us, because that is not true faith. That is not living faith. “Faith by itself,” he writes, “if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17).
But on a deeper level, I think that James is trying to remind us that faith is not what saves us – it is Jesus who saves us. When we claim that faith saves us, we run the risk of making faith a work, of falling into the trap that both James and Paul want us to avoid. Faith without works cannot save us, but neither can making faith a work. Because we cannot save ourselves. No matter how much faith we have, no matter what works we do. We simply cannot ever be good enough on our own. Anyone who has lived long enough knows that, on some level. No matter how hard we try, we cannot get this life completely right on our own. We need a savior. We need Jesus.
But the good news is that Jesus does save us – he pulls us out of the sea of sin that we are all drowning in, and draws us into a relationship with him. And that relationship with Jesus gives us life. It is a relationship rooted in our faith and trust in Jesus, but that faith and trust in Jesus is just the root, not the fruit. Our faith connects us to Jesus, and in so doing, gives us new life. And that new life cannot help but bear the fruit of the Spirit – love and joy and peace and, yes, good works. This is a new life borne of a living faith that connects us to our loving Savior. And this life, this love, is what saves us, and what leads to a life spent loving God and loving our neighbor. A life rooted in faith that is filled with good works, because it is a living faith.
I love how Martin Luther (who passionately believed that we are saved by grace through faith) describes this faith, the faith that does save us:
“Faith is a work of God in us, which changes us and brings us to birth anew from God. It kills the old Adam, makes us completely different people in heart, mind, senses, and all our powers, and brings the Holy Spirit with it. What a living, creative, active, powerful thing is faith! It is impossible that faith ever stop doing good. Faith doesn’t ask whether good works are to be done, but, before it is asked, it has done them. It is always active.”
This is the faith that saves us, this living, creative, active, powerful thing. Because this faith connects us to our living, creative, active, powerful Savior. This faith is not our world – it is a work of God in us. It connects us to Jesus, and gives us new life. Which means that this faith is alive, not dead. Not because it leads to works, but because it connects us to Jesus. And when we are connected to Jesus, we can’t help but do such works.
James and Paul are often thought to disagree with each other about this question of whether or not faith can save us, but I don’t think that they disagree at all. I think that they are both making the same point, but with a different emphasis. Both of them are simply trying to point us away from ourselves and back to the One who alone can save us. Not our faith. Not our works. Our Savior. We are saved by Jesus. And when we believe this, there is no telling what wonderful things we might end up doing. Not for us or for our salvation, but for our Savior.
May each of you be filled with this wonderful, live-giving gift, the gift of a living faith in a loving God. This is the faith that brings us joy and peace, and that cannot ever stop doing good for those around us. To the glory of God. Amen.
This is another in my series exploring scripture’s most compelling questions. I share more about this series here: What Are Scripture’s Most Compelling Questions?