Faith Works

Faith is Never Alone[1]

Since the Reformation, which we rightly celebrate on October 31, protestants have loved the phrase “faith alone” or in Latin, as is often seen, sola fide. Is this good? Yes it surly is. Yet, with so many things, we must be aware that the pendulum has a tendency to swing further than was intended. We are saved by faith alone but faith is never alone. We see this truth in James very clearly.

James asks, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (2:14). No, that “faith” cannot, because it is no faith at all (cf. v. 17, 26). It is senseless to say to a brother or sister who is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” (15-16). We may say we care about something but our actions can prove otherwise. We can say we care for our needy brother or sister, but unless we show it then it is likely not the case. It is the same way with faith. We can say we have faith but that does not mean that we do. “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (v.17).

We must seek to “show… faith by… works” (v.18) because even the demons believe but that obviously does not mean that they are in Christ; that Jesus is their Savior and Lord. Correct beliefs do not always translate into justifying faith. Abraham is an example of this. He showed his justifying-faith by his works.

“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” (v. 22). Why did Abraham offer his son on the altar? Abraham offered his son on the altar because he truly believed. “The LORD said to Abram [later Abraham], ‘Go from your country… And I will make of you a great nation… So Abram went as the LORD had told him” (Gen. 12:1-4). Later on in chapter 15 it says, “He [Abram] believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness” (v. 6). He had faith that God would bless him so he moved (cf. Rom. 4:20-25; Heb. 11:8-9). Likewise, he had faith that the LORD God could even raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:19) so he laid him upon the altar (Gen. 22:1-19).

God tested Abraham’s faith (22:1; Heb. 11:17). Would Abraham’s works back up his faith? God told Abraham to offer his son, his only son, on the altar.[2] When Abraham’s boy asked where the lamb for the burnt offering was. Abraham showed that he had faith by saying, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22:8). But he also showed that he had faith. He placed his son on the altar and took the knife to slaughter him (vv. 9-10). But the angel of the LORD said, “Abraham, Abraham! Do not lay your hand on the boy… for now I know that you fear God” (vv. 11-12); or now I know that you have genuine faith.

“You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (James 2:22). We are saved by faith alone but faith is never alone; we must complete our faith by works. Will we pass the test and show we have faith by completing it; that is, living it out practically (will we sit in the chair)? “The Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’” (v. 23). That is, Abraham fulfilled or demonstrated his belief by his works. Abraham, “received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith” (Rom. 4:11). He was righteous “while still uncircumcised” (v. 11) but he fulfilled or demonstrated his righteousness by receiving the sign (good work) of circumcision. He not only had faith but “walk[ed] in the footsteps of the faith” (v. 12).[3]

This is the context that this very controversial verse comes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).[4] It must first be noted that James and Paul addressed different audiences, with different problems.[5] Paul is coming at the question in an all-together different way than James. Paul’s letter to the Romans is more hypothetical in that Paul is predicting how he believes the Romans will react to what he says and then responds to that. So, in this process Paul assumes there will be those who will go towards legalism and also those who will go to antinomianism. However, James is not responding to those who have a tendency to legalism but those who are (at least in some ways) antinomian.

It is understood that we would confront the two groups differently and this is also the case with James and Paul. James is saying, “Faith and works are closely correlated, in fact, faith will inevitably produce works.” Thomas R. Schreiner has rightly said, “James does not disagree with Paul’s contention that faith alone justifies, but he defines carefully the kind of faith that justifies. Faith that truly justifies can never be separated from works.”[6] James does not mean that we are saved by works but he does not want people to be mere hearers of the word but doers also; in fact, if we are hearers only we are deceiving ourselves (James 1:22-27).[7]

In Genesis chapter 22, Abraham was justified[8] by his works, by offering his son, but his work flowed from his faith because as we saw he had faith years earlier (Gen. 15:6). Faith and works go together. It was by faith that those immortalized in Hebrews 11 carried out their works.

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain… By faith Noah… constructed an ark for the saving of his household… By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance… By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac… By faith Moses… refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Heb. 11: 4, 7, 8, 17, 24-26).[9]

Abraham was justified “in the same way” as Rehab. That is, they both had faith and then acted out that faith. They showed they had real faith because it “was active along with… works” (v. 22). Rehab had heard about the mighty works of the LORD and she had faith, the fear of the LORD had fallen upon her, but she also had works to demonstrate (or justify) her faith (she hide the spies cf. Josh. 2; Heb. 11:31). If faith does not have works then it is no faith at all (James 2:17, 26). “Faith, in both Testaments, is hearing the word of God and doing it.”[10]

Other NT Examples

At times we see Jesus and the apostles saying, “repent”[11] (cf. Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30) and Paul even told people to “repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with… repentance” (Acts 26:20). Jesus also said, “come to me [faith in action]… and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-30). In repentance, faith and works are tightly connected. You cannot repent without faith and you do not have real faith unless you repent. No one turns from sin to Jesus unless they truly believe, but if they truly believe then they must turn from their sin to Jesus. Faith and works are intricately woven together (We must remember, however, that it is God who grants both faith and works).

Paul calls this the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26 see also Acts 6:7) and we see this same concept throughout his writings. In Acts, Paul talks about performing deeds, or works, in keeping with repentance (Acts 26:20). James and Paul do not contradict each other.[12] They simply address different audiences, employ their own style, and explain things using different concepts. For example, Paul talks about us being dead to sin and alive to God. He says we are slaves of righteousness, slaves of God. He says that we must sow (work) to the Spirit if we want to reap eternal life. Paul is not as different from James as many think he is; Paul just emphases the importance of works in a different way (see also 2 Cor. 13:5; Gal.5:19-25).

Also, notice that in the Gospels there are examples of people acting in faith and thus being healed and saved. For instance, the woman that reached out and touched Jesus (Luke 8:42-48 see also Matt. 9:2; Luke 7:36-50; Jn. 6:35, 51; Mark 2:1-5) demonstrated “works” and faith. Jesus in a sense equated the two, the woman “worked” (reached out and touched Jesus) and Jesus said your “faith has made you well.”[13] These passages demonstrate the unity between faith and works. We must also remember that a tree is known by its fruit (Matt. 7:17-20; 12:35; Luke 6:43-45) just as faith is known by its works. Jesus also talks about us bearing much fruit and thus proving to be one of His disciples (John 15:9). John the baptizer, inspired by the Spirit, equates belief and obedience in John 3:36. He says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey (you expect to see “believe” here cf. v. 16, 18 but note v. 20-21) the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” It is those who do the will of God that our heirs (Mark 3:35). We also see a similar thing in Hebrews, Jesus is “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (5:10).[14]

Jesus teaches that those who merely say they believe by saying “Lord, Lord” will not enter the kingdom of heaven but those that do the will of the Father will enter in (cf. Matt. 7:21). However, Jesus by no means teaches us that we are justified by works (cf. Luke 18:9-14) but that the faith that justifies will be a faith that will unavoidably produce good works (cf. Matt. 7:17-18). Jesus is not merely concerned with right belief because, as we have seen, even the demons belief is orthodox but their belief is obviously not justifying faith for it does not lead to right action or repentance.

D.A. Carson has said,

“What, then, is the essential characteristic of the true believer, the genuine disciple of Jesus Christ? It is not loud profession, nor spectacular spiritual triumphs, nor protestations of great spiritual experience. Rather, his chief characteristic is obedience. The true believers perform the will of their Father… The Father’s will is not simply admired, discussed, praised, debated; it is done. It is not theologically analyzed, nor congratulated for its high ethical tones; it is done.”[15]

He goes on to say,

“It is true, of course, that no man enters the kingdom because of his obedience; but it is equally true that no man enters the kingdom who is not obedient. It is true that men are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ; but it is equally true that God’s grace in a man’s life inevitably results in obedience.”[16]

Mark 16:16 is also another passage to look at, it says, “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”[17] This passage does not teach baptismal regeneration but it does show us that obedience must accompany saving faith. We must remember, however, that just as God speaks all things into existence, He also gives spiritual life ex nihilo, out of nothing. We were dead as dry bones and He spoke life into us through His word. We were dead in our trespasses and sins and desperately wicked and thus we can’t work for salvation (cf. John 1:13; 6:63; Rom. 9:16; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:1, 4-5; James 1:18; Ezek. 37:1-14) this is clear, but salvation will necessarily lead to good works. That is why obedience and belief can be so deeply tied together.

The Divines of the Westminster Confession of Faith accurately wrote that:

“Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone… Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”[18]

We are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone, “it is ever accompanied by all other graces.” Or as question 64 of the Heidelberg Catechism says, “It is impossible that those, who are implanted into Christ by a true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.”

The last passage I want to look at here is John 13. Peter tells Jesus that he does not want Him to wash his feet (v. 6). It is striking to me that Jesus says, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me” (v. 8) and then He goes on to say, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (v. 14). So Jesus is saying don’t try and work for your salvation (you can’t) but follow my example and serve others because I have served you. 

Works do not save us. We are saved by accepting the work that Jesus did on our behalf, He washed us. And, in fact, if we try to work for our salvation we “have no share with [Jesus] (v. 8). However, that in no way negates the importance of works, to the contrary; it gives works deep significance. We are called to imitate Christ (v. 14-16). Jesus told Peter he could not work for salvation (v. 6-8) but works do have their place. Jesus served Peter (even enabling Peter to serve Him cf. John 1:13; 14:16; Gal. 5:16-24; 2 Peter 1:3; Ezek. 11:19-20; 36:25-27) through the cross and thus Peter served Jesus imitating Him, even to death (cf. John 13:14-16); tradition says, death by upside down crucifixion (cf. John 21:18-19). Peter was saved by trusting Jesus Christ’s all-sufficient service and yet Peter served and imitated Jesus out of a supreme joyous thankfulness (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-9; 2:21-25; 4:13-14).

May we serve in the same way and with the same motivation that Peter did. May we work and serve Christ not to earn right standing before God but to demonstrate that through Christ’s atoning death we have right standing before God. If we have been declared righteous in Christ then let’s live righteously before Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2). Let’s show our faith from our works, as Abraham did.


[1] Someone may object that the thief beside Jesus on the cross (and all deathbed conversions) prove that to say that “faith is never alone” is wrong. However, the thief on the cross already began to demonstrate that he had faith and that demonstration would have continued had he lived. There is some fruit that we cannot see right away but in time if the tree is good it will bear good fruit. All fruit is begotten internally but if given time will show externally, that is inevitable.

[2] Though this is not why we are looking at this passage, don’t miss that Jesus is the “only Son” that was slain on the cross for us. Jesus is the offspring in whom all the nations shall be blessed because He, God’s only Son, is the sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world! God did not withhold His only Son! Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide!” And He did provide! Thank you Jesus!

[3] Here in Romans Paul is combating those that think they can be right before God because they are circumcised but Paul shows that it is not the act or work of circumcision that justifies but that it is faith, however; he never says that the work of circumcision was not crucial for Abraham. He shows that he was justified by faith but that circumcision naturally followed. Simirilly works must naturally follow are faith although we, like Abraham, are justified before works (Rom. 4:10-11).

[4] Paul and James are using the word “justified” in different ways. See endnote 8.

[5] “The issue for Paul was how a person is transferred from the realm of sin and death to the realm of grace and life, the issue for James is the nature of faith. Is it possible to have faith apart from works? Can such faith save a person? For James an abstract notion of faith has no power to save, and it will not stand the test of God’s judgment… James is not so much setting faith and works in opposition to each other as he is arguing a concept of faith that he views as barren because it expresses itself in words but not in deeds. Because this kind of faith cannot save or justify, James affirms that a person is justified by works that manifest faith” (Frank J. Matera, New Testament Theology, 362). Thomas R. Schreiner says, “James addresses a situation different from that of Paul… James responds to antinomianism whereas Paul reacts to legalism” (New Testament Theology, 604).

[6] Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology, 604

[7] True saving faith is like sitting in a chair. You have to have faith to sit down (believe that it will hold you) but you also have to do something (actually move and sit down). You will never sit unless you believe but if you believe you must sit down or it will show you don’t actually trust the chair.

[8] Note that we are saved by “His own will” (James 1:18) and not by our works because “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father” (v. 17 see also Eph. 2:8-9). Also some (e.g. Calvin, Sproul, MacArthur) believe that the word justified is used in two different ways by Paul and James: James uses “justified” (dikaioo) in 2:21; 24 he does not use it with the same meaning that Paul typically does. James means “demonstrated to be righteous,” whereas Paul means, “declared to be righteous.” John MacArthur helps us here:

It is important to understand that the Greek verb dikaioo (justified) has two general meanings. The first pertains to acquittal, that is, to declaring and treating a person as righteous… the second meaning of dikaioo pertains to vindication, or proof of righteousness. It is used in that sense a number of times in the New Testament, in relation to God as well as men. Paul says, “Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, ‘That You may be justified in Your words, and prevail when You are judged’” (Rom. 3:4). He writes to Timothy that Jesus Christ “was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated [from dikaioo] in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim. 3:16). Jesus comments that “wisdom is vindicated [justified] by all her children’” (Luke 7:35) (John MacArthur, James, 137-38 see also Wayne Gudem’s Systematic Theology, 731 and Calvin’s Institutes, 2:115).

Here is an example the two types of justification. Imagine two men that were tried for a crime. One of the men is proven not guilty by his actions; he demonstrated that he did not commit the crime by who he is and how he lives. He showed that he was just. The other man is not guilty of the crime because a coworker attested that they were working together at the time of the crime. He was declared just. Obviously this analogy breaks down because we did commit the crime. We sinned against a holy God. Nevertheless, I believe we can still show that we are just, even though it is true that we’ve been made just, by living just lives.

[9] This point was brought to light by John Piper’s book Future Grace (154). In the next chapter he goes on to explain that James’ point “is not merely that saving faith is always accompanied by good works. The point is that the faith produces the works” (Ibid., 167-68). Real faith will produce works.

[10] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 5.

[11] Repent (metanoeite) and repentance (metanoia) means an alteration of mind and purpose that brings a change in life and practice. J. M. Lunde says, “The biblical notion of repentance refers to the radical turning away from anything which hinders one’s wholehearted devotion to God, and the corresponding turning to God in love and obedience” (New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 726. Italics mine). Here, once again, we see the all-encompassing nature of Christianity. Repentance in a sense is to convert mind, body, soul, and strength (i.e. total devotion) to Christ. Similarly, baptism partly represents living in and for Christ. We have died and our life is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3 see also Rom. 6:4, 11; Gal. 3:27). Romans 7:4 says, we “have died… through the body of Christ… [and have] been raised from the dead (notice baptism language) in order that we may bear fruit for God.” Baptism symbolizes “not only the putting off of sinful habits and passions, but actual death to a former life of evil, and also resurrection to a new life of purity and holiness” (Charles R. Erdman, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to the Philemon [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, year unknown], 70.).

[12] John Macarthur says in his book Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles [(Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993), 153] that “James is not at odds with Paul. ‘They are not antagonists facing each other with crossed swords; they stand back to back, confronting different foes of the gospel’” [Alexander Ross, “The Epistles of James and John,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich,: Eerdmans, 1954), 53.].

[13] The Greek word seswken can mean “heal” or “save” but I believe it means both in this context; notice Jesus says “go in peace.”

[14] Jesus does say, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word” (Jn. 14:23) but we don’t keep his word merely through white-knuckling and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. Jesus gives us a Helper and empowers us (v. 16). Jesus only says we will keep His word because He first says that He will give us a Helper to enable us to do so. Salvation is God’s work from start to finish (Heb. 12:2). It is only when we abide in Jesus and He abides in us by grace that we bear fruit (Jn. 15:4-5). So although we must bear the fruits of faith even that fruit is a gracious gift and work of God. It is the direct result of being connected to Christ and does not come from good that is intrinsically in us. As Paul reminds us we work with all the power that God works within us (Phil. 2:13). We must be reminded that if we are in Christ there will necessarily be a work within us but this work is by His power. We were made alive by God (Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:13) by connection to Jesus the “true vine” through whom we, the branches, can now bear fruit. Apart from Him we can do nothing (Jn. 15:5)! Notice that we did not connect ourselves to the true vine, we were dead helpless branches on the ground, the vine dresser connected us (v. 1, 16). We did not chose God, He chose us (v. 16). Faith and fruit are both gracious gifts of God.

[15] D. A. Carson, The Sermon on the Mount: An Evangelical Exposition of Matthew 5-7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1978), 130.

[16] Ibid., 131.

[17] I realize that many people believe that the “long ending” of Mark was not included in the original autographs. Whether or not that is the case is not what I seek to answer here.

[18] Taken from the Westminster Confession of Faith (italics mine). For scriptural grounds for this statement see: Rom. 8:30; 3:24; 5:15–16;  4:5–8; 2 Cor. 5:19, 21; Rom. 3:22–28; Titus 3:5, 7; Eph. 1:7;  Jer. 23:6; 1 Cor. 1:30–31; Rom. 5:17–19; John 1:12; Acts 10:43; Acts 13:38; Phil. 3:9; Eph. 2:7–8; John 6:44–45, 65; Phil. 1:29; John 3:18, 36; Rom. 3:28; 5:1; James 2:17, 22, 26; Gal. 5:6. See also article 4, 6, and 20 of the Augsburg Confession.

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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