"Faith without works is dead."
Every Christian who knows their Bible even just a little bit will recognize this phrase. It's the phrase that sparks debates in the classroom, causes divisions in the Church, and spurs fierce disputes amongst the theological elite. It's the controversy that never ends. Which side are you on?
From what I've seen, no "side" is safe. You say that faith is all you need for salvation and suddenly, you're accused of being "all talk and no walk." You're seen as the person who just wants a Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free card with no commitment. You're viewed as a heretic who wants an excuse to continue living selfishly and sinfully, never changing, never growing, and never maturing.
But on the flip-side, as soon as you suggest that one also needs good works to accompany their faith, everybody's up in arms, yet again. Now, you're nothing but a legalistic Pharisee. You're claiming that grace and faith aren't enough- that we have to work our way to Heaven. Once again, you cannot escape the title of "heretic."
From the time of the Apostles to the Protestant Reformation, from the age of Martin Luther and John Calvin to their modern theological descendants, a quick glance at Church history reveals that the argument is nothing new. This 2000-year-old fiery debate is still alive and well and causing all sorts of problems. In short, the Faith-Works Dilemma has been giving Christians nothing but trouble ever since it was first brought to the table. And we owe it all to James the Apostle.
James 2:14-17 - What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
There it is, people. In black and white. Faith without deeds is dead. Faith without deeds cannot save you.
Faith without deeds is useless. The end.
But wait a minute- the Apostle Paul has something to say about it, as well.
Romans 4:2-5 - If [Abraham's] good deeds had made him acceptable to God, he would have had something to boast about. But that was not God’s way. For the Scriptures tell us, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned. But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners.
Uh-oh. Could it be that even the Bible contradicts itself on the matter? James says that faith without works can't save anybody. Yet here, Paul writes that people are saved because of their faith, and not their works! No wonder theologians haven't come to a consensus; the Bible doesn't even appear to have a definitive answer!
During my year at university, I took a New Testament religions class. One 3-hour lecture per week. 3 hours of mind-bending, heart-pounding, ideology-challenging discussion every week. It was terrifying, it was clarifying, it was awesome.
One week, near the end of the semester, my professor put these "contradicting" passages of Romans and James up on the screen, side by side. One line at a time, he read to us the seemingly opposite claims that the authors made. And one line at a time, he caused more and more students to raise their hands defiantly, scoff loudly, or leave the room altogether. 90 self-proclaimed Bible-reading Christians in the room, and none of us had ever actually compared these two critical passages of the New Testament. Our reactions made that quite obvious.
Our prof called on us to give our attempts at a rational explanation. He opened the floor for discussion, but it was chaos. Students stood to try to rationalize the contradiction- to try to explain away the frightening discrepancy up on the screen. "Well, James just means that if you're a Christian, you have to prove it by the way you live...." "Well, maybe Paul just means that works aren't necessary for salvation, but you still need to do good deeds once you're saved...."
"Well," "But," and "Um," seemed to characterize the majority of the discussion. My professor didn't answer our questions that day. He left many confused and frustrated students to go back to their dorms feeling conflicted and anxious. He left us with an unresolved problem, hoping that we would continue to read and mull it all over.
So that's what I did.
I had already been reading through the Gospels with a friend. It's a hard thing to do, when you've read the same passages so many times in your life, and the parables and miracles are all so familiar. Nevertheless, as we had been working our way slowly through the Gospel accounts, we were being struck every day with new realizations and insights. It seemed as though every chapter held some secret surprise we had never stumbled upon before.
The story of Jesus healing a sick woman was no different.
Luke 8:42b-48 - As Jesus was on his way, the crowds almost crushed him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped.
“Who touched me?” Jesus asked.
When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.”
But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.”
Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”
This is a well-known miracle of Jesus's. But it's not a very glamorous one. It doesn't get talked about a whole lot. It's short, it's to the point, and it's really quite simple. A sick woman touches Jesus's cloak, and is healed. What more can be said? Well, in lieu of this whole Faith vs. Works conundrum, apparently quite a lot. I'd read this little story a million times, but had never noticed the profound and insightful phenomenon it was illustrating. So let's analyze it.
This woman who had been sick for twelve years hears that Jesus is in the area, so she goes to find Him. The streets are packed- there are people everywhere. The sea of onlookers is so dense, she can hardly see anything. But after being jostled and shoved and tossed back and forth by the crushing crowd, she catches a glimpse of the Teacher. She worms her way closer to where Jesus is walking. In fact, she gets so close that she could touch him if she wanted to.
So here, we have the crossroads.
Does she really believe that Jesus can heal people? Does she believe that he actually has the power that everyone says he does? Her answer to that question will determine her next move. If she has faith in Him, she will reach out her hand to touch him. If she doesn't have faith, she will stand back.
But she does have faith. She believes in his power. She believes, and so she reaches out her hand. Yes, she is healed instantly, but I want to draw your attention to the very fact that she reached out her hand. In other words, she moved. She acted. Her beliefs were converted into works. A private, personal faith was translated into a tangible, physical response.
a faith that was internal and invisible
became external and tangible by simply
reaching out her hand.
Let's imagine now that you were standing there with this woman as she moved closer and closer to Jesus. You know she's sick. You know her suffering. And so you ask her, "Do you really believe that Jesus can heal you?" Now, if she were to tell us, "Yes," and then stand there, motionless, leaving Jesus to walk away and out of sight, we would be confused. If she believed Jesus could heal her and then didn't reach out her hand, what would we conclude?
She must not really believe.
It wouldn't make sense. The proclamation of belief without the corresponding action simply wouldn't line up. It's incoherent. It's nonsensical. It's like a man leaving the house in a winter coat, boots, and a toque, saying, "It's gonna be a hot one today!" Or perhaps it would be like someone exclaiming, "I'm gonna win the lottery today!" And then failing to purchase a ticket.
If you knew your neighbourhood was going to flood, would you leave all your valuables in the basement? If you knew you had cancer, would you neglect to go to the hospital? If you knew there was a cop up the road, would you continue speeding? Pardon my redundancy, but if you knew your house was on fire, would you stay inside?
Of course, the answers to these questions are obvious. And that's just the point. They are obvious. It is obvious to us that when you believe something, your actions follow. Your judgements and convictions and notions and understandings are naturally accompanied by the logical physical responses. And often, these responses are not even intentional! Most of the time, we act according to our beliefs completely subconsciously. It's natural to act according to what you think. It's obvious.
That's why the story of this woman provides such profound insight into the Faith-Works debate. She believed, so she acted. She had faith, so she responded. Her faith and her works went hand-in-hand, literally! If she hadn't believed, she wouldn't have held out her hand. It wasn't a calculated response. It wasn't a planned work. It wasn't an event she had orchestrated thinking to herself, "I have to do something to prove that I believe in Jesus!" It was simply faith expressing itself in action. Confident hope manifesting itself in visible, palpable movement.
And Jesus said to her,
"Daughter, your faith has healed you."
He didn't say her action had healed her. He didn't say her work had made her well. He didn't say that she was healed because she had reached out and touched Him. In fact, nothing she did had healed her. All Jesus had seen was an action, but all He commended was faith. He couldn't see her faith, he couldn't hear her faith, he couldn't touch her faith- but he saw the result of her faith. That's how He knew she believed.
Yes, James declares that "faith without works is dead," and he sends a lot of Christians into a frenzy of fighting because of the harshness of this statement. However, his statement is completely and totally logical! Faith without works is dead, because if there are no works, there must not be faith! The woman might have said she believed, but if she hadn't reached out her hand, her words would have been empty. Her faith would have been nothing more than senseless talk.
It's the work that verifies the faith. It proves the faith. No, we are not saved by the things we do; we are most certainly saved by grace through faith, for salvation is a gift that none of us could ever earn. However, if the faith we profess is real and true, it is only reasonable to assume that our lives will show it.
Perhaps my favourite metaphor for this spiritual phenomenon is found in the first chapter of Philippians:
Philippians 1:11 - May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation- the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ- for this will bring much glory and praise to God.
Paul says that righteous character is the fruit of our salvation. Righteous character is what our salvation produces. For when we are saved, when we accept the gift of our Lord, we have the privilege of being connected to Christ. He is the Vine, and we are the branches. He is our salvation, and the fruit we produce is the work He produces in our lives. If we abide in Christ, we will produce much fruit. The fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of love, of joy, of peace, of patience, of kindness, of goodness, of faithfulness, of gentleness, and of self-control. These things can only come to fruition if we are connected to the Vine. And if we are in Him, living submissively, living in trust and obedience, they will naturally come forth.
The fruit of our salvation is the proof of our salvation. It's the evidence of the state of our heart and it's the testimony of our faith. A lot of believers will panic and stress over the whole thing, wondering if they're "doing" enough. Are they performing enough works to validate their faith? Are they physically proving that they have been saved?
I wonder if maybe we don't need to stress about it as much as we do.
Maybe the relationship between faith and works is a lot more spontaneous than it is planned.
Maybe it's a lot more natural than forced.
Maybe we just need to rest in the fact that through faith, we are His children. We are His garden. We simply abide in Him, and He shines through in us.
Because He is the Gardener. And He is the One producing the good works within us.