Faith And Works?

Text: James 2:1-10, 14-18

We Lutherans are sometimes a fragile bunch, but I love it. Since we’ve finished up our walk through Ephesians in the Epistle readings of the last two months, we now turn to the Book of James – The dreaded James. Some people think it doesn’t even belong in the Bible. After all, isn’t it where we get the verse, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone”?[1] Yeah, that’s in the chapter we’re looking at today. Doesn’t that just make your Lutheran skin crawl? Martin Luther himself couldn’t decide how he felt about the book. He didn’t go so far as many people think he did; He did not say it doesn’t belong in the Bible, just that it did its job poorly. That was in 1522 and Luther would go back and forth on the topic. As I said, Lutherans are sometimes a fragile bunch.

I’d like for us to look at this text today because I think that we Lutherans have a distinct malady, maybe an illness, in that we’re sometimes afraid to talk about good works. The Lutheran reformation happened partly because of a misunderstood relationship between faith and works. The Roman Church was teaching that works are a contributing factor to salvation. That teaching continues in the Catholic Church, and ironically, in Protestant churches that teach that one can choose to become a Christian. The correct teaching of Scripture is that works contribute nothing at all to our salvation. Jesus Christ suffered and died for the forgiveness of our sins and gives that forgiveness to us freely through faith, without any work or merit on our part. If you ever hear anything other than that, I want you to plug your ears, because it wouldn’t be the truth.

The illness that we have as Lutherans is that, because we know so well that works are not part of salvation, we end up throwing out the topic entirely. This becomes a problem because, as James so well points out, good works flow from an active faith. You cannot see in a person’s heart that they are a Christian, but you can tell it from their lives. You can also see the opposite. Therefore James exhorts his fellow Christians to be rich in good works. As we are made to hold to the faith of Jesus Christ through His Word and Sacrament, we are also led to bring forth good works as the fruit of our living faith.

I.

But, like I said, Luther went back and forth on whether James should be in the Bible or not, but we don’t hang on every word that proceeds from the mouth of a German ex-monk. We do hang on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God; As does James. The focal of James and the thrust of the Epistle is not that our good works save us. Rather, it is the salvation that we have received freely by the grace of God. James writes, “Of his own will [God] brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”[2] James says that it is not because of our works that God chose us, but purely out of His good and gracious will. If you remember the Catechism you know that God does all good things out of pure, fatherly, divine, goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness within us.

James also readily teaches in our text today, “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?”[3] The whole relationship between God and us is based on His mercy. In love He chose us out of the world, we who are poor in its eyes, to be rich in faith and heirs of heaven. That actually sounds a lot like St. Paul. St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”[4] In 2 Corinthians Paul wrote that Christ, though He was rich, became poor for our sake, so that we might become rich in Him.

James and Paul kind of sound alike when read together. It continues. Everyone knows, “For by grace you have been saved by faith…” but the very next verse continues, “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”[5] Paul does it again Colossians where he prays that they, “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”[6] So we see in James and Paul, who both correctly teach the doctrine of Christ, exhorting Christians to good works. The focus for both Paul and James is the salvation that we receive freely through faith. Our works have no bearing on the justification that we receive in Christ; they flow from faith in response to Christ’s love.

So now that we’ve determined that it is not against Scripture to speak about works, so long as we keep them separate from salvation, let us move to the teaching the Holy Spirit has for us through James. This Epistle is perhaps the earliest book in the New Testament. At this point Christianity was still operating within the realm of Judaism. Acts tells us that there were a great many priests that converted and were seeking to minister to the others. One of the downsides of Judaism at this time was complacency. People were content to identify as Jews and God’s chosen people, but not really anything beyond that. They were greedy, swindlers, idolaters and adulterers. It even seeped into their worship life. Therefore St. James exhorts his hearers to be rich in good works.

II.

Now we’re talking about the part that makes our Lutheran skin itch. Good works. The text says, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”[7] James concludes, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead.”[8] We Lutherans have been so accustomed to talk only about how we are saved by grace through faith (which is totally true) that we sometimes don’t know where to go next. Well, we can talk about works without confusing ourselves. James here is talking about sanctification, the redeemed life that we have in Christ and led by the Holy Spirit.

Scripture says that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. Stanza 9 of “Salvation unto Us Has Come,” speaks concerning this, “Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone and rests in Him unceasing; and by its fruit true faith is known, with love and hope increasing. For faith alone can justify; works serve our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living.”[9] What does that mean? We are justified by God’s grace through faith alone. In Baptism we are given a new heart and a new spirit which then brings forth good fruits. Good works neither create faith, nor are they added to faith as the Catholic Church teaches, but they flow from a living and active faith and cheerful obedience to God’s Word.

Where does that put us? Well, for starters we should stand convicted. We are not as active in love as we could, should, and are called to be. What is a good work? A good work proceeds from a cheerful and willing obedience to God’s will as revealed in Scripture. Feed the hungry, cloth the sick, house the homeless, visit the sick and distressed, stand up for the unborn and the institution of marriage, showing in all things the mercy, the compassion, the love, and forgiveness of Christ. By these things the world will know that we are Christians, the body of Christ on earth. He is the one who created all things, who loves all things, and for us and all people, died on the cross.

Lutherans do have a sort of aversion to this talk. Even the word, “works,” kind of hurts coming out of the mouth, so we resist talking about it, thinking that everything will be okay. But it won’t, and it isn’t. Without the teaching that good works flow from an active and living faith, the sinful nature within us will do its best to have a field day. We behave poorly in church, and before the world Christians become no different than anyone else. For that, we must always stand convicted before the Word of God.

Our lives as Christians will never be totally perfect. We will be partial; we will be complacent to be well-wishers and not good-doers. However, hear this word from James: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”[10] Though we grow complacent and cold, the love of Christ never grows dim or tired. He forgives all of your sins and has given you His Holy Spirit. Through the preaching of His Word and the Sacraments He strengthens you and leads you to bring forth good works through the gift of a living and active faith.


[1] James 2:24.

[2] James 1:18.

[3] James 2:5.

[4] 1 Cor. 1:27.

[5] Eph. 2:10.

[6] Col. 1:10.

[7] James 2:14-15.

[8] James 2:17.

[9] Lutheran Service Book

[10] James 1:17-18.

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