There has been a raging debate over the past 2000 years about works vs faith. To the Jewish mind, the relationship between faith in God cannot be separated from the works done in His name according to His commandments, but they go to the extreme believing that the actions or works they do are what make them acceptable to God.
To the Christian mind that can go to the other extreme, they can believe that any kind of work or act drives you back under the Law and you’re no longer saved. In fact, some will go so far as to suggest that doing good works simply demonstrates that you’re not really saved at all, that by ‘doing’ things to please the Lord you’re trying to earn your salvation.
Both these extremes are truly missing the mark altogether.
James 2:18-20, ‘Some may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works and I’ll show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works in useless?”’
I once had a conversation with a lovely orthodox rabbi in his shop in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. He holds Bible studies for Christians who are interested in the Jewish view point of the Bible, and he told me that he loves the Apostle James because he can truly understand what he was saying, but he and many other Jews, who are seeking to understand what the New Covenant (Testament) teaches, struggle to understand the Apostle Paul.
Paul talked so much about faith and not being burdened with the Law because he was trying in large part to help Gentiles understand faith and salvation without getting caught up in Judaism, but James understood that the relationship between faith and works was inseparable…one simply confirms the other.
I was surprised but this rabbi was quoting the New Testament chapter and verse, in fact he knew it better than many Christians. As far as he could understand, James wasn’t teaching something difficult at all…if you have faith in God and that His Word is absolute truth, why wouldn’t you want to obey it and do what He commanded? That’s a good question isn’t it?
Why is the book of ‘Acts’ called ‘Acts’? Because it’s a book about the actions – or works – of the very first believers who made up the church community and what they ‘did’ in serving the Lord and spreading the Gospel around the world. Not to gain salvation, they already had that, but as an evidence of the salvation they’d been granted through faith.
Acts is a description of the ‘acts of the Apostles’, perhaps we could say it this way, the ‘works of the Apostles’. Can you imagine what would have happened to the first church if the Apostles didn’t do what they did. If they simply didn’t take any action, or undertake any work for the cause of the spreading of the Gospel or the teaching and maturing of the church as it was growing, because they didn’t want to be mistaken for falling back under the Law and trying to work for their salvation?
Most Christians are familiar with the man called Cornelius. He was a Roman Centurion, he wasn’t Jewish but he observed the Jewish people and came to believe in the God of the Bible. That’s a big thing, because it meant rejecting the paganism and false religions of his nation and his family.
What did he do? He actually did something.
Acts 10:4, ‘Fixing his gaze on him and being much alarmed, he said, “What is it Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God.”’
Now what that’s describing is an angel who came to speak to Cornelius to tell him that the acts or works that Cornelius was engaged in had grabbed God’s attention and God was going to respond by sending Peter to him.
Was Cornelius saved at this point? No he wasn’t. He believed in the God of the Jews and he was undertaking actions or works of kindness on behalf of God’s people…but not for salvation, he was simply putting his faith into action. The result was that God moved on his behalf and sent Peter to him. Peter preached the Gospel and by faith, Cornelius and his entire household were saved…not by works but by faith. The works were an outworking of belief.
If I told you that I was a brain surgeon and I could rattle off all the necessary terminology a brain surgeon would use and if I could describe the processes of certain procedures a brain surgeon would undertake it wouldn’t actually mean much unless I could actually operate on a patient and surgically operate on his brain.
Anyone can learn the rhetoric, but not everyone can ‘do’.
Faith and works are a partnership. James said that belief in God isn’t enough. Cornelius believed in God, the One True God of the Jewish people and it wasn’t enough, however his works, his actions demonstrated his belief and the result was the preaching of the Gospel and salvation through faith.
If we have been saved by faith in Jesus, then it follows that our actions will demonstrate the faith we have and the salvation we’ve been gifted. James said that belief is good, but inadequate because even demons believe in God but they have no faith in God and their actions demonstrate this fact.
James 2:26, ‘Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.’
If we’ve truly been saved, if our faith is in Jesus alone and salvation has been given to us as a free gift, then our lives will demonstrate this by the works and actions we live out.
Salvation doesn’t come to us because we’ve somehow earned it because of our works, rather our works are the result that demonstrate how much we love our Messiah for the gift of His salvation given to us.
This is based in part on an article at oneforisrael.org