We’re not saved by good works. But no works is no better.
I grew up among Christians who believe they’re saved by faith. Not, as the scripture teaches, God’s grace. It’s weird, too; they read the very same letter of Ephesians as the rest of us (“by grace ye are saved”
This isn’t a unique phenomenon either. To this day I run into Christians who think they’re saved by faith. All they gotta do is believe in Jesus—which is correct; it really is all we gotta do—and they’re saved. But they’re not saved by believing in Jesus. Nobody is. We’re saved by grace.
If we were saved by faith, it’d mean in order to be saved, I have to believe certain things. Believe ’em really hard. Reject every other belief, no matter how likely I might be to believe them instead. Sort out my beliefs so I’m believing all the correct things. Get my theological ducks in a row. And then I’m saved.
Um… doesn’t that sound like work to you? We’re not saved by works.
“Well yes,” these folks reply: “We’re not saved by works. We’re saved by faith. Faith’s not a work! It can’t be, otherwise we wouldn’t be saved by it.” And then they proceed to demonstrate how they’re not saved by works… by not doing any.
What kind of
Anyway, these folks don’t know at all what to do with the letter of James. ’Cause not only did he equate faith with works in the next chapter (a lesson they’d love to call heresy, except it’s in the bible), he had lots to say about people who figured their beliefs matter, but their deeds don’t. Like so:
James 1.22-25 KWL
- 22 Become doers of the word, and not merely self-deceiving hearers,
- 23 because if you’re a hearer of the word, yet do nothing,
- you’re like a man studying the face he was born with in a mirror:
- 24 He studies himself… and goes away, and quickly sets aside what sort of person he is.
- 25 You who look down into the perfect, freedom-giving Law, and remain there,
- aren’t becoming forgetful hearers, but doers of good work.
- What you’re doing is awesome.
James drilled directly down into their lifestyle. It’s not enough to listen to sermons. It’s not enough to shout “Amen!” when the preacher says clever things. It’s not enough to memorize bible verses and church doctrines. We gotta act on the word, the message, the prophecies, as given. We gotta behave like Christians. Not just believe like Christians.
Those who believe, yet don’t obey Jesus’s teachings, don’t obey his interpretation of the Law, who figure all that stuff was done away with, are gonna wind up in the last place in God’s kingdom.
Looking at the man in the mirror.
The Message translates James’s analogy of a man with a mirror like so.
James 1.23-24 Message
- 23 Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, 24 walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.
I’ve heard a lot of male preachers insist a man would never spend that much time looking at himself in a mirror. Certainly they never would. And okay, maybe they wouldn’t. Some of them obviously put little thought into their personal appearance. On the other hand, some of ’em clearly do. My guess is these preachers are only saying this, ’cause they personally fear such behavior would make them effeminate. Their hangups are making them lie.
In real life, a lot of men do take a good, thorough look at themselves in the mirror. Like when we shave. Or when we’re examining blemishes and wrinkles. Or brushing teeth, combing hair, applying concealer; and of course if you’re in the entertainment business you’ll wear makeup. And sometimes even if you’re not.
James described this hypothetical man as katanohúnti/“carefully knowing” his own image. Analyzing it extra-closely. Likely because mirrors in the Roman Empire were made of metal, not glass. You’ve seen metal mirrors in public bathrooms; you know how deficient they are. You’ve gotta look more closely than usual, just in case you’re confusing the mirror’s imperfections with your own.
Another possible interpretation comes from the adjective James threw in there to describe the man’s face, genéseos, which I translated “he was born with.” It’s the same word as génesis/“origin,” and it implies this man’s looking at his face to figure out where he came from. Do his eyes look like his father’s? His nose look like his grandmother’s? His hair look more Galatian than French? (Trick question; they’re the same ethnicity. The word Galatian comes from Gallia, the Romans’ word for France.)
Yet after this man studied himself as closely as possible, and katenóisen/“carefully knew” himself (same verb as earlier), he was done. Inspection was over. He “quickly sets aside what sort of person he is,”
And that’s how many a Christian gets with sermons, teachings, and messages from the scriptures. Sounds profound when we’re reading it. Sounds inspiring when we’re listening to it. We contemplate it for a few minutes. Then we don’t. Something else caught our attention.
In this way we miss out on the abundant life Jesus offers us.
Salvation makes the abundant life possible and accessible. But we gotta want and pursue it. We gotta act. Not just believe really hard.
A lawless relationship with Christ?
People who believe they’re saved by faith not only avoid James; they dodge this bit of the Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew 7.21-23 KWL
- 21 “Not everyone who calls me, ‘Master, master!’ will enter the heavenly kingdom.
- Just the one who does my heavenly Father’s will.
- 22 At that time, many will tell me, ‘Master, master! Didn’t we prophesy in your name?
- Didn’t we throw out demons in your name? Didn’t we do many powerful things in your name?’
- 23 And I’ll explain to them, ‘I never knew you.
- Get away from me, all you Law-breakers.’”
This, they insist, doesn’t apply to them. Can’t. Because it’s the old dispensation. After Jesus died for our sins, God changed all the rules and we’re no longer saved by following the Law. Now we’re saved by following proper doctrines; i.e. “faith.”
So they ignore Jesus’s warning. And when James brings up the Law, they go with one of two interpretations:
- James was writing to diaspora Jews,
Jm 1.1meaning people who were still under the old covenant. Not our covenant. Therefore the entire letter of James is old-covenant advice and doesn’t apply to us. We can ignore it safely.
- James didn’t really mean the Law. Not that Law, anyway. The letter calls it “the perfect, freedom-giving Law,”
Jm 1.25and they can’t fathom thinking of the Old Testament Law that way. ( Psalm 119notwithstanding; like they’ve even read it.) Therefore James meant some other law; one that’s perfect and freedom-giving, unlike the “imperfect, binding” Law of Moses.
But there aren’t two Laws. There aren’t multiple dispensations. There’s one Law, God’s Law. We need to become familiar with it because it shows us what God is like. No, obeying it doesn’t save us, and never did. Salvation was never its job. Only God has ever saved anyone. The Law’s job is only to show us what sin looks like,
But ignoring it means we won’t steer clear of it. We’ll drive right into it. Do doughnuts in the muck for fun. Which is precisely what happens to many a Christian: We confuse lawlessness with freedom, flail around in sin… and wonder why Jesus’s so-called “abundant life” still looks like misery.
As James says, when we study the Law, when we learn what God wants. We do it. We become doers. We do what’s makários/“awesome, blessed.” Our lives transform. Our relationship with God grows deeper. Our Christianity becomes substantial, instead of just another label we check on a census form. Our faith gets grounded.
Those who do nothing more than believe? Their faith shatters easily. Or, if they’re stubborn, they cling to to their beliefs but defend their lack of fruit, and redefine their fleshly works till they sure sound like fruit. They get more fruitless over time: Less loving, more impatient and joyless, less forgiving and honest. They wither inside, leaving very little for Jesus to resurrect at the End. And they refuse help from anyone who tells us the Christian life includes self-control and discipline: Those folks, they insist, are trying to earn salvation. Not them! That’s why they look so hellbound.
Don’t deceive yourselves. Do good works. Be your Father’s children.