What About Works, Part 3

To focus on the fruit of faith is to put the cart before the horse. If there is a lack of fruit, the problem usually is with the root.

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Am I really saved by grace alone through faith alone?

Or is there something I must do to secure my good standing with God as a forgiven, accepted, and loved son or daughter?

And if I am saved by grace alone, then what role do works play in the Christian life? If they don’t save me or sustain me, then why should I be at all concerned with whether or not there is any practical change in my life as a result of being a disciple of Jesus?

What about works?

This is the question James answers in James 2:14–26.

If you missed Part 1, catch up here. If you missed Part 2, here you go!

Otherwise, let’s move on to What About Works, Part 3.

Counterweights for Two Errors

Having both Paul and James serves to counterweight two contemporary errors in the church:

1) The Modern Approach: Propositional

The first error to correct is the modernistic, Enlightenment approach to faith as primarily assent to propositional truth, where deeds are not nearly as important as doctrine. To this James asks, “Do you believe God is one? Good, even the demons believe that, and shudder.”

In the years just before the first great awakening, Johnathan Edwards says that the professing Christians in his church could shuffle doctrine like cards, but had no real concern with deeds of mercy. What they really cared about was making money.

2) The Postmodern Approach: Demonstrational

The second error both James and Paul correct is the postmodern approach to faith as primarily demonstrational rather than doctrinal. In this worldview, the substance of faith is not nearly as important as the showing of love.

You can see how we need both Paul and James, the priority of faith and the proof of faith, doctrine and demonstration, truth and love.

We do well to remember that genuine, saving faith has a root that produces fruit. It is the root that saves, not the fruit. The fruit is merely the evidence of life in the roots.

The person who denies this is called “foolish” in verse 20, where the Greek word kene is translated foolish, but other places is translated as empty or hollow. The idea is that, like a fruitless tree, a fruitless faith is empty, hollow, useless, and worthless.

An Unavoidable Implication

25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

The unavoidable implication is that there are many professing Christians who lack external evidence of saving faith. There is just not much visible fruit on the tree. There is very little love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, or self-control. There is very little repentance and strong resistance when it comes to forgiving others. And when it comes to sharing possessions and giving financially to the kingdom, they give as little as they can rather than as much as they can.

If you find yourself convicted, there is a question you must answer.

Not how can I show more fruit, but how can my faith live?

The Problem with Fruit is the Root

To focus on fruit is to get the cart before the horse. It is to put sanctification before justification. If there is a lack of fruit, the problem is with the root.

What will make faith live? Or we could say, “What will cause me to come alive to the wonder of the gospel?”

Not by focusing on my works, but by coming alive to the wonder of God’s works! By beholding the glory and beauty of the cross!

Remember what faith is. Faith always has an object. Where is your trust when you are rappelling down a 200-foot rock face? It is in the tree to which the ropes are attached and in the ropes and your equipment. This is not a theoretical faith, is it? It is actual faith. Not just intellectual assent; but personal trust.

A Rappeler’s Trust

Just like a rappeler trusts in a rope that is cinched to a tree, the sinner trusts that Jesus was nailed to a tree in our place.

Jesus was condemned and rejected for our fruitlessness so that we, through faith, could be justified and accepted, filled with his Holy Spirit unto fruitfulness.

James is concerned that without deeds, our words will ring empty and hollow, misrepresenting the Savior, whom we see throughout his ministry expressing practical love, not only in word but also in deed—especially in deed— with the paramount deed being his sacrificial, giving love expressed in the cross.

In a very real sense, we can say that we are saved by works, just not our own. We are saved by the works of Jesus — the Jesus who didn’t just say, “Be warm and filled.” He has clothed us in his own righteousness and filled us with his own Spirit.

Robert Murray McCheyne, the 19th c. Scottish preacher said, “For every one look at ourselves we must take ten looks at Jesus!”

So, look to Jesus now!

Trust in his life lived for you; trust in his wounds for you. Abide in him as the one who clothes you in perfect righteousness and fills you with his Spirit, and he will begin producing his fruit in you — his love, his joy, his peace, his patience, his kindness, his gentleness, his self-control, his generosity, his courage — all for your good and joy and the blessing of our marriage and home, but ultimately, for the praise of God, who receives all the glory as our Justifier and our Sanctifier.

Get posts like this sent directly to your inbox for easy-to-read yet substantive spiritual nourishment that highlights the grace of God in the cross of Jesus.

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