Our perspective is so small compared to God’s. We can only see things a certain way. I can’t tell you how many times my perspective has been expanded by new experiences. Experience is a good teacher. It changes the way we think about things.
There’s a great debate that rages every time people read Paul and James. James tells us that works are important but Paul highlights faith. Paul fights against Jewish teachers that claim Christians must also follow the law of Moses.
James is a Jewish wisdom teacher turned Christian, a brother of Jesus. He is also the pastor of the Jerusalem church, the very first church in Christendom. So who is right and who is wrong? After all, this great contradiction in the Bible might bring the whole thing down.
Atheists wish that was true. But a closer look at this debate will show a completely different results. Why should we care? Because if we’re going to live a holy life before God, we need to know if we should emphasize our faith in God or if works matter.
Let’s start with Paul. He argues several places by quoting Old Testament Scripture that faith is paramount for our salvation (Ephesians 2:8; Galatians 3:3-6). We cannot be saved by works. Paul and the Bible are very about this. That makes it sound like works are not even desirable for Christians.
When we turn to James he says that works prove our faith (James 2:14). So which one is right? They both are! If we did deeper into this debate, we will understand that Paul is saying that works don’t save us. They don’t make us righteous. We can’t fulfill every letter of the law before God.
But when we are saved, our faith is shown by our works. Paul is talking about a faith that saves but James is talking about a faith that works. Our works show that we have faith. But they don’t save us. Grace saves us.
Some people get pretty upset when we start talking about works and faith. They feel like being holy requires them to be doing something. The difference is that people who talk about works taking them to heaven are talking about a saving ability on their own part. Christians talking about works are demonstrating their faith the unbelievers.
If I give a cup of cold water to a thirsty person in the desert and tell them, “Jesus is the living water that will never make you thirst again,” I am demonstrating my faith in Jesus by doing something for that person.
When people see what we do, our holy lifestyle, they will be convinced that we know God. Our works don’t save but they testify about us and our relationship with Jesus. When I was in high school, I never had to tell anyone, “Hey, I’m a Christian!” Everyone already knew because of the way I lived in front of them.
I would have people swearing all around until I showed up. Then they were careful not to offend me, even though I wouldn’t take offense to it. But they knew there was something about me, a higher standard that I lived by. I didn’t have to say word. That doesn’t mean that I kept quiet about my faith, either.
We are assuredly saved by God’s grace. There’s nothing we can do to earn salvation. This is the perspective Paul gives us. But James reminds us that when we as Christians do something or act it shows our faith in Jesus.
They are two sides to the same coin. The coin is being a believer in Jesus and following everything that he teaches. On the one side, our faith saves us. On the other side our works testify that we have faith.
So what’s all this mean as far as holiness? Jesus gives us his righteousness. We don’t have to earn it by doing good things. We do good things out of gratitude for his saving grace. We do good things to demonstrates that God is real and Jesus cares about people.
We do things the Holy Spirit tells us to do. When he finds a part of our character that is not where it should be on God’s high standards, he wants us to change it. He tells us how by who we are, which works out into what we do.
And that is how we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). As the Holy Spirit leads and guides us into holy living, he tells us what to do. Through our obedience we do with the Holy Spirit directs us to do.
Works don’t save us and they don’t make us holy. But when we do them through the direction of the Holy Spirit in obedience, they do show that we are holy.
What you think about the whole debate between faith and works? Have I helped to clarify the issue? Leave a comment and tell me what you think.