Good works must be defined biblically. Otherwise, we will start to think of good works as anything and everything. Good works are those behaviors which God has prescribed and which bring him glory.
If good works are those which bring glory to God, then they are works which we can only do in faith. No man attributes glory to God before the act of regeneration. The Confession continues with the place of works in the life of the believer.
“These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith.”
There are those who say that Paul’s doctrine of justification is contrary to James’ doctrine of justification. But reading each of the relevant passages in context shows that to be untrue. Paul is speaking of justification as the declaration of God’s justifying act on sinners. James speaks of justification as the demonstration of the faith that results from God’s act on sinners. It is James who primarily speaks of works as the evidence of faith, though by no means is it absent from Paul’s letters.
James asks, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14). “Works” is the usual biblical term for the evidence of saving faith. Some examples include charitable acts, a renewed way of treating your family, a renewed work ethic, a renewed prayer life, and an ever-increasing sense of love and joy in being made right with your creator.
Martin Luther came very close to saying that he hated God because God demanded righteousness and we cannot meet the righteous standard. But everything changed when Luther read and meditated on Romans 1:17, “For the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”
This was the turning point for Luther. He later wrote, “Night and day I pondered until I grasped the truth the the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven.”
And yet, Luther, including many other firm believers throughout the ages, have struggled with the language that James uses. He said that he would give his “doctor’s beret” to anyone who could reconcile justification and works between Paul and James.
We must keep in mind a few things when we come across texts that at first seem to say opposing things. The Bible does not contradict itself; use clear texts to interpret unclear texts; understand the context; we should attempt to build a system of theology that considers the full counsel of God.
At the Jerusalem council, Peter reported on his ministry to the Gentiles, concluding that “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:11). James then speaks on behalf of the entire council, perhaps even being the one who drafted the letter sent with Paul and Barnabas. Their decision is to not impose any burden on the Gentiles coming to faith in Christ except refraining from what would offend their Jewish brothers and sisters (Acts 15:19-21). James agrees with Peter that God saves by grace through faith.
Famously, Paul writes in Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
And again in Romans 4:5, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
Is James contrary to Paul when he writes, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar” (James 2:21)?
Or again, “And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way” (James 2:25)?
Context helps clear the confusion. Paul was writing to those who taught that we must add works to faith in order to achieve justification. James was writing to those who taught they had faith but whose works proved otherwise.
By way of reminder, Paul is speaking of justification as the declaration of God’s justifying act on sinners. James speaks of justification as the demonstration of the faith that results from God’s act on sinners.
What’s incredible is that both Paul and James use Abraham to make their point, quoting Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (cf. Romans 4:3, James 2:23).
James ties Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac to this statement, but it took place 30-40 years before Genesis 15:6. So while Paul simply uses it as proof of the source of Abraham’s righteousness, James is using it as proof that Abraham possesses righteousness.
James also uses the story of Rahab to make his point, from Joshua 2 and 7. We don’t read the conversion story of Rehab; we simply read about what she did. And that’s the point: a renewed heart and a renewed spirit will without question be reflected in renewed behavior, however meager. If Rahab made this big verbal show of her faith in God, but then she let the spies get killed, what would we have thought about the validity of her faith?
Trying to separate faith and works into two different categories is like trying to separate body and breath. You might separate them for reasons of discussion and understanding, but to say one is unnecessary is to kill the other.
But we can’t combine faith and works in such a way so as to make faith a work itself. Works are simply the expression of our faith. We worship, we pray, we serve, we repent, we commit, and we humble ourselves not to get anything from God but because of what God has already done. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).
Next week, we’ll look at what results from good works.