Understanding James, faith, and works through the gospel of grace

If salvation is by grace through faith in Christ without works, then what about James who said that “faith without works is dead” ?

James was not saying that we need faith and works to be saved. He was trying to distinguish between believers and unbelievers.

James said that the demons also believe in One God but they have no personal salvation.

James 2:19 “19 You believe that God is one. You do well. The demons also believe, and shudder.”

James was quoting the Old Testament Law of Israel:- ( Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear, Israel: Yahweh is our God. Yahweh is one.” )

Just like the demons, many Jews believed in One God but did not trust in Christ for salvation.

Consider the two Jewish thieves on the cross:

  • One of them knew about Jesus but did not believe in Him.
  • But the other thief on the cross believed/trusted in Jesus as Lord. The “work” was to believe.

John 6 “28 They said therefore to him, “What must we do, that we may work the works of God?”29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.””

Many Jews had heard the gospel but only few of them were saved because most of them went back to the Law.

Jesus said the same thing in Matthew 7:13-28 – the broad majority of Jews were condemned but a small minority were saved. (See Luke 13:22-33 where many Jews called Him “Lord Lord” in His earthly ministry but few of them believed in Him after the CROSS. But Jesus said that many Gentiles would be saved by faith in Him).

Most of the Jews knew about Jesus as a Prophet/Teacher but did not trust in Him for salvation. They did not believe in Him as LORD and GOD.

But when a person truly believes in Christ for salvation, they will acknowledge Christ’s divinity

  • John 20 “28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!””
  • Romans 10 “that if you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

James was distinguishing between believers and unbelievers using the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit (love) in the believer just like Paul did in Galatians 5.

When a believer is saved by grace, we receive the love of God through the Holy Spirit living in us. After we receive the love of Christ, then we love others, especially our fellow believers.

Galatians 5 “6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision amounts to anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith working through love.”

The fruit of the Spirit is not our strenuous efforts but Christ Himself bearing fruit within us effortlessly when we know His love for us.

We will not be perfect in our behavior but the love of Christ within us will cover the multitude of sins committed by the believer.

James 3:2 “We all stumble in many ways.”

1 Peter 4:8 “love covers a multitude of sins.”

Salvation is not by loving others…..but believers love others after we are saved.

John 13 “34 “A new command I give you: Love one anotherAs I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Under the old covenant, the Jews had to love God and others to be saved – and they failed.

But now in the New covenant we have a new way – Jesus saves us believers by grace. We love others after we have received the love of Christ. His love manifests within us – not by our efforts but only His grace.

James and John said that the believer will manifest love (James 2:1-17)

James 2 “14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

1 John 3 “17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?

1 John 3 “14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. He who doesn’t love his brother remains in death. 15 Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him.”

James must be understood in context – He was writing to the 12 tribes of Israel – the entire Jewish population in the world – most of them were NOT believers!

James 1 “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are in the Dispersion: Greetings.”

Most of the Israelites were not even saved but were trusting in the Law.

  • Most Israelites were very legalistic about the Law because they hated & crucified Christ, persecuted the Church and killed the Apostles horrifically during the 1st Century.
  • That is why James was very harsh in his epistle to the Jews because most of them were deceived by the Pharisees and false teachers – most were not even saved.

James implored these unbelievers to be saved by hearing the Gospel (word)!

James 1 “21 Therefore, putting away all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness, receive with humility the implanted word, which is able to save your souls

But the believer was already saved in the past (Ephesians 2:8 “or by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,”)

James addressed these unbelievers as sinners who were far away from God.

James 4 “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners. Purify your hearts, you double-minded.”

They were double-minded because they heard the gospel but were not fully convinced about Jesus – they were still trusting in the Jewish Law.

This is why James told them that they would be judged by the Law if they didn’t obey it!

(James 2:10 “For whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.”)

But the believer is already near God by the blood of Christ. We are not sinners but already cleansed in the past by faith in Christ. We are near God, seated with Christ in heavenly places!

Ephesians 2 “But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…….”13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off are made near in the blood of Christ.”

1 Corinthians 6 “Some of you were such, but you were washed. But you were sanctified. But you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and in the Spirit of our God.”

The believer is not even under the law (Colossians 2:13-14, Galatians 3:23-26, Romans 6:14-15).

The audience of James’ epistle were not even forgiven of their sins yet! They needed faith to be saved. They did not yet believe in Christ. He asked them to go to the Church to be saved (hint: they were not part of the church).

James 5 “14 Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the assembly, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord, 15 and the prayer of faith will heal him who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”

But the believer is already forgiven by faith in Christ.

Ephesians 1 “in whom we have our redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace,”

Colossians 2 ” 13 You were dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh. He made you alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses

Therefore James was distinguishing between two groups:

  • unbelievers who were deliberately hating & killing Christians.
  • believers who are not perfect but have love in the heart.

This is similar to the judgment between the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46 – the same distinction between believers and unbelievers.

We don’t have to over-analyze ourselves. Every believer will have varying degrees of love – some are more loving than others – but we are all growing in the grace of Christ.

Some believers may have done very little good works but still receive the same salvation as other believers who did a lot of works (Matthew 10:42 and Matthew 20:1-16).

The truth is that we are not saved by works- we are saved by grace alone through faith!

Romans 11 “And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.”

The New Testament is very clear about that.

Ephesians 2 “8 for by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, that no one would boast.”

Romans 4 ” 5 But to him who doesn’t work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”

Titus 3 “5 not by works of righteousness which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy, he saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,”

Romans 3 “21 But now apart from the law, a righteousness of God has been revealed, being testified by the law and the prophets; 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all those who believe.”

The Good News is that if you believe in your heart that Jesus Christ, the Son of God died for your sins and rose from the dead, then you are saved without doing a single work!

Christ Himself manifests the fruit of the Spirit in us by grace through faith and not by works, the more we trust in His love for us.

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