Do you realize how often we give and receive contrasting pieces of wisdom? Several popular proverbs in our culture are diametrically opposed to one another.
- Some people say that “birds of a feather flock together,” but others claim that “opposites attract.” One saying contends that similarities bring people together while the other contends that differences bring people together.
- It has been said that “actions speak louder than words,” but it has also been said that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” One saying contends that what one does is more powerful than what one says while the other contends that what one says is more powerful than what one does.
- Some subscribe to the mentality of “better safe than sorry” while others ascribe to the mentality “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” One saying contends that playing it safe is better than taking risks while the other contends that taking risks is better than playing it safe.
- You have likely heard “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” but also “out of sight, out of mind.” One saying contends that separation leads to greater affection for someone or something while the other contends that separation leads to less affection for someone or something.
The point is that there are many proverbs we promulgate which, on the surface, contradict one another. Some believe that such contradictory words of wisdom can be found in Scripture, particularly when it comes to the subject of faith and works. Let us consider whether or not such a contradiction actually exists.
In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul said,
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.
Then, in James 2:14-17, James said,
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.
Since Paul spoke of faith absent works, and James spoke of faith in conjunction with works, some allege there is a contradiction between these two inspired authors. However, if you examine the texts closely you will discover that, instead of contradicting one another, they are actually complementing one another. What we need to realize as we approach these two passages is that each author has a different emphasis. Paul is emphasizing the truth that our works do not produce salvation, while James is emphasizing the equally important truth that our salvation produces works. In other words, Paul is emphasizing the fact that we are not saved by what we do while James is emphasizing the fact that we are saved to do things. Do their writings contradict one another? Absolutely not. When one explores the fuller context of each passage, he or she will discover that both authors are essentially saying the same thing.
When Paul wrote Ephesians 2, he was addressing the subject of salvation, and he was particularly concerned with discussing HOWone is saved. He contended that salvation is a gracious gift we receive through faith rather than a prize we earn through works. His objective was to dispel the concept of works righteousness; therefore, he emphasized that we are saved not by what we do for God but by what God has done for us. However, it was not Paul’s objective to minimize or ignore the importance of works. After discussing HOWwe are saved in Ephesians 2:8-9, he discussed WHYwe are saved in Ephesians 2:10. He said, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus TO DO GOOD WORKS, which God prepared in advance FOR US TO DO” (emphasis added). Paul’s point was that we are saved so that we can do good works for God. So, while Paul emphasizes that grace is how we are saved, he also emphasizing that works are why we are saved. In other words, Paul taught that we do good works because we are saved not in order to receive salvation.
When James wrote his letter, he was addressing the subject of faith, and he was particularly concerned with discussing how faith is evidenced. James was not saying that works earn salvation but that works serve as evidence of a saving faith. In fact, James acknowledged the relationship between faith and salvation when he rhetorically asked, “Can such faith SAVEhim” (James 2:14, emphasis added). It is important to note that James did not ask “Can works save him” because the issue for James was not whether or not works play a part in salvation but whether or not a profession of faith absent the evidence of works is really a saving faith. Throughout James’ letter he is going to contend that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17, 26), not “salvation without works is dead.” Thus, James is saying that works are the results of a saving faith rather than the replacement of a saving faith.
These two passages do not contradict one another because they both emphasize faith as the means through which salvation is received, and they both emphasize works as the response of those who have been saved.Maybe John summarized the relationship between faith and works best. In 1 John 5:1, he said, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” His words indicate that one becomes a child of God through faith. Then, in 1 John 5:3, he continued by saying, “this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments.” His words indicate that we demonstrate our love for God as His children through obedient action. Thus, faith and works are presented as complementary not contradictory by three different New Testament authors— Paul, James, and John. Scriptures ultimate point is that faith without works is a hollow profession, and works without faith is an inadequate attempt at salvation. The two go hand in hand because we receive salvation through faith, and, as a result of that gift, we desire to do good works for the One who saved us.