Most Christians are likely to be familiar with the question of faith versus works, and the discussion about which one is more important. Some churches stress faith: make the public or private profession, accept Jesus into your life, and rest assured of your place in eternity. Other churches focus on works: faith alone is not enough; we must demonstrate our faith through our actions.
Though others with different experiences might disagree with me, it has long been my impression that most Christian churches, and most Christian believers, tend to abide more by the first option – faith is what really matters in the end. I think this is probably particularly true in evangelical churches, which stress salvation and mission work. Someone may be a "bad" Christian if their actions do not follow their profession of faith, but it is the profession of faith and the acceptance of God's free gift of grace that ultimately secures a place for us in heaven. Many Christians, in fact, do not believe a person can "lose" their salvation once the gift has been accepted, no matter how "bad" they may subsequently behave.
I would like to propose a completely different take on this long-standing debate.
PAUL AND JAMES
It has often been asserted – in fact, I have done so myself – that the New Testament teaches opposing views on this topic. This, of course, is one of the primary reasons for the very existence of the debate. If the New Testament was crystal clear on this topic, there would be no reason for Christians to deliberate upon it. Indeed, common knowledge indicates that Paul teaches that faith is what saves us, while James teaches that faith without works is a dead faith.
In the past, I have argued that James' teachings may likely have come – at least in part – in direct response to Paul. Early Christians who studied Paul came to understand professions of faith as the most important, perhaps the only important, aspect of the Christian life. James, then, in an effort to contradict this, taught that faith is only the beginning; true faith, for James, was demonstrated through good works. James was clarifying Paul.
I still believe this is a likely scenario, because it cannot be denied that much of Paul's theology seems primarily faith-based and not works-based. Paul, writing in the book of Romans, says: "For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law." Later in the same text, Paul asserts that the Jews have not found righteousness, despite their devotion to the law. To explain why, he states in 9:32: "Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works."
In another letter, this time to the church in Galatia, Paul states: "…we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law."
In an oft-quoted passage from Ephesians, Paul says: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast."
James, on the other hand, states his case in quite opposing terms. In James chapter 2, the writer states: "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."
James' point could not be clearer. True faith is demonstrated by action. Without action, the faith is not real, and no salvation – whatever you understand that term to mean – will come from your profession of faith.
So who, then, was right? Do we follow Paul's teachings about the primacy of faith, or James' teachings about the primacy of works?
I think the problem with that question is that it assumes a dichotomy that is not really there. I do not believe that James and Paul were that much different in how they viewed the Christian life, and I believe they would have largely agreed on just what it meant for someone to call themselves a Christian.
Simply put, for Paul and James both, a Christian was someone whose life was transformed by faith in God through Jesus.
The key phrase there is not "faith in God through Jesus," but rather "someone whose life was transformed by faith." A profession of faith is meaningless. A changed nature, based on the transforming power of a life led in the footsteps of Jesus, is what really saves us.
But what does that fancy Sunday School talk really mean? To get the answer to that question, Christians need to understand just how it was that Jesus taught us to live.
JESUS'S VISION FOR HUMANITY
It is well-established that Jesus was a kind of alternate-wisdom teacher who came out of the backwoods of Galilee teaching and preaching a new vision for humankind, encouraging his followers to shrug off the yoke of oppressive religious systems and embrace a life of love, compassion, and selflessness. Whether one supposes that Jesus did this because he was the divine son of God, or simply because he was an exceptionally gifted human being uniquely in touch with the societal problems of his day, does not change the fact that Jesus preached a revolutionary message, calling his followers to have new life, and to have it more abundantly.
In Matthew chapter 25, Jesus describes those who will inherit the kingdom of God. He states that the kingdom is reserved for those who feed the hungry, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit and minister to those in prison – in other words, those who put others before themselves and who use their gifts and abilities in service to others. "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." Jesus then points out that those who do not do these things – those who watch out for number one, those who lead lives of self-serving hypocrisy – will live in perpetuity apart from God.
In John 15:17, Jesus puts it more simply, "I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another." Or, as it is stated in the NIV: "This is my command: Love each other."
In Matthew chapter 22, Jesus states that the two "greatest" commandments are to love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
In Luke 7:47, Jesus is talking about a "sinful" woman who has shown up at a dinner party Jesus was attending. He says: "…her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." The wording here is a bit cumbersome, but what Jesus is saying is that those who demonstrate love are forgiven – that is, they are welcomed into the kingdom of God – while those who do not show love, are not welcomed.
The point of all these quotations (and these, of course, only scratch the surface) is to show that Jesus' vision of a Godly life was a life lived in unconditional love and service to others. In fact, such a life is the only Godly life, in Jesus' vision. To put it differently, a life lived with God is a life transformed into one of love, compassion, service to others, and humility. If one's life is not transformed in this way, one is not living a life with God. Indeed, such a person is living apart from God.
Having established, then, some of the basics of Jesus' vision for humanity, how does this factor in with the teachings of Paul and James? We have already looked at the common passages and the common interpretation of those passages. Now we turn to a more complete picture.
THE BIGGER PICTURE OF PAUL
In the letters of Paul, we have seen that he routinely talks of the importance of faith over works. However, we must understand what Paul was talking about when he spoke of "works." In most cases, the phrase used in the original Greek is actually something like "works of the law," or "deeds of custom." Paul was referring not to acts of kindness and goodness, but rather to Jewish custom and Mosaic Law. Paul's words were meant to convey his message – and that of Jesus – that Pharisaic adherence to strict religious traditions and laws was not the way to live a Godly life; instead, a Godly life was one lived in love, compassion, and selflessness. Paul sums this up well in his famous hymn from 1 Corinthians: "And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love."
In Galatians 5:6, Paul reveals, perhaps even more succinctly, his Christ-centered vision: "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything;" (that is, your religious background is irrelevant); "the only thing that counts is faith working through love." Faith working through love. Not faith alone. But faith working through love. In other words, faith is inextricably tied to a life of love, compassion, and selflessness. That sort of life is faith. That sort of life is the life of Jesus. That sort of life is a Godly life.
Paul puts this into even better perspective in the book of Romans. In chapter 2, he states that there will be "glory and honor and peace" for those who "do good," but only "anguish and distress" for those who do evil. Notice Paul does not say good things will come to those who make the right profession of faith, and bad things will come to those who make the wrong profession of faith; what Paul says is that rewards come to those who do good, and punishment comes to those who do evil. It is about action, not about faith. As Paul states a few verses later: "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God's sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified." (It is important to note that the Greek word "nomos," translated here as "law," is used in a different context from the "Mosaic law" or the law of the Pharisees, used in other spots. For Paul, Jesus' message was a new law unto itself, supplanting the old.)
Later in that same passage, Paul goes on to say something that seems quite revolutionary in light of common beliefs about the exclusivity of Christianity. He says:
When Gentiles, who do not possess the law [that is, the message of Jesus], do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
In other words, those who do good are doing the work of God – living the life of Jesus – even if they do not realize it, and even if they follow a different religious tradition (the "Gentiles" of Paul's letter to the Romans were references to the pagans of the Roman empire). Things like love, compassion, kindness, goodness, forgiveness, and selflessness are things that many people do naturally. For Paul, these things were evidence of God's existence in the natural world. All that was good came from God. As such, all who do good works will be judged accordingly by God. This is a profoundly revolutionary thing to say, and digs deep at the common refrain within many Christian churches that claim to corner the market on God. Paul is telling us that if you are doing good – if you are following your conscience and making positive change in the world – you are doing the work of God, and are therefore part of God's kingdom.
THE BIGGER PICTURE OF JAMES
In the passages that often sit at the heart of the debate on faith versus works, it is important – as it was with Paul – to understand what James meant when he talked about works. We have already seen that Paul's language, in the original Greek, was something akin to "works of the law" or "deeds of custom." Paul was talking about Pharisaic tradition. James, on the other hand, is talking about good deeds.
As such, when we look at the bigger picture of James, we see an ideology in line with both Paul and Jesus. In the opening chapter, James reveals this alignment perfectly: "Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above…" That is, everything good is of God – which is precisely what Paul and Jesus teach us. James even – apparently – quotes from Paul's letter to the Romans a few verses later, when he says, "…be doers of the word and not merely hearers…"
James tells us, quite bluntly, that Christians whose lives are not transformed by their faith like to "think they are religious," but, in fact, "their religion is worthless." What a wake-up call that should be to any Christian!
James ends his first chapter with perhaps the phrase that best sets forth the theme, or thesis, of his letter: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." In other words, religion is not about professions of faith; rather, religion is about transformation and subsequent action in the world. Christianity is about helping others. Christianity is a verb.
CHRISTIANITY IS A VERB
Jesus, and many of the writers of the New Testament, preached a revolutionary message – revolutionary in the context of Jewish custom and Roman beliefs. Worthless are the customs of the world, they said. Worthless are the pseudo-religious proclamations and professions of faith of institutional religion. Hopeless is a life of self-serving hypocrisy and hate-fueled rage. Meaningless is the pursuit of wealth and creature comforts. Useless is the lifestyle that watches out for number one.
Instead, they called us to exchange hate and derision for love and compassion, grudge-holding for mercy and forgiveness, selfish desire for selfless humility, the pursuit of wealth for the pursuit of generosity, antagonism for peace and tolerance, and self-centered concern for self-sacrificing acts of kindness.
To do these things is to be transformed by faith in God. To have faith in God is to do these things. Christianity is a verb. Religion is a verb. Any lifestyle, religious or otherwise, that involves this kind of action and this kind of transformation has hit the target squarely in the center, and has reached communion with the mystery of God. Likewise, any lifestyle, religious or otherwise, that does not involve this kind of action and transformation, has missed completely.