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This question was recently sent in:
Hi Pastor Nick,
Regarding James 2:14: is “works” or “deeds” limited to spiritual disciplines and obedience? Can you expand what an actual “works” is? Based on what I have researched in Strong’s [Greek & Hebrew Lexicon], this word “works” can be likened to evidence. If “works” is limited to spiritual disciplines and obedience, wouldn’t the Pharisee’s have been in the pocket when in comes to saving faith? Can a work, or evidence of saving faith be something like forgiveness, patience, or trusting belief? (John 6:28) I have been listening to you for quite some time online, and so I am thinking it could be “both”. lol. I believe that obedience and spiritual disciplines are VERY important, but they have been an overflow from my friendship with Jesus. They come very naturally to me the more time Jesus and I spend together. I have friends that tend to throw around this verse when they are not witnessing the type of obedience THEY feel should be demonstrated within the church. I tend to be very tolerable when it comes to most topics, but on this issue I get very agitated. I am not sure if it’s because I am denial, or because my friends are, in my opinion, using Scripture to justify moralism. I want to enjoy the book of James, come along side of it, not have any bitterness towards it.
Good question! It seems that James understands “works” to be outward expressions of faith. Clearly this includes acts of obedience, as James describes in chapter 2, using Abraham as an example, but it James also says that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).
As Jesus explained, sin includes not just outward actions, but thoughts of the mind and attitudes of the heart. He also taught that to not forgive is a sin. Therefore, to keep oneself unstained from the world includes forgiveness and other attitudes that pertain to holiness. As you rightly mentioned, Jesus stated that the “work” of God is to believe in Jesus whom He sent (John 6:29).
It is possible to do good works apart from faith, but, as John Calvin stated, the motivation for good works in that case will be self-justification or self-glorification. This is what the Pharisees were guilty of, and why Jesus claimed that they were lost in spite of their good works. Calvin argued for “Total Depravity,” which he understood as meaning that apart from Christ, our motives for doing good deeds are skewed, and it is only once the love of God has been poured out in our hearts that we are capable of doing good for truly pure motives.
In his commentary on Romans, Martin Luther compared works to the heat and light that are exuded by fire. You can have light apart from fire, and you can have heat apart from fire, but if you have fire, it will naturally result in heat and light. In the same way, you can have works apart from faith, but faith naturally produces works.
So, the answer to your question is: Both 🙂