As we have discovered in our study of the book of James, James makes it clear that our faith should influence how we live. We are to be “doers” of the word, and not “hearers” only; there should be a correlation between our faith and our lifestyle (or “works”). As a result of reading the epistle of James, some have concluded that salvation and eternal life are contingent upon a life of good works. This conclusion raises a crucial question: Is salvation a free gift, dispensed on the basis of faith in Christ alone, or is salvation awarded—at least partially—on the basis of a life of good deeds? Mainstream Christianity has always upheld the belief that salvation is a free gift; it cannot be earned through meritorious effort. Forgiveness of sin is bestowed on the basis of faith in Christ alone, according to the apostle Paul. Here is where the dilemma arises. In his epistle, James seems to make good works a condition for some kind of salvation. James (James 2:14 & 24) and Paul (Romans 3:28; Ephesians 2:8-9) appear to have different opinions on this issue, don’t they? Is this a contradiction? Some believe that it is. However, most conservative Biblical scholars, those who have a high view of Scripture, believe that the teachings of James and Paul can be harmonized. In other words, when understood properly, the teachings of James and Paul are not contradictory, but complimentary.
Among Bible-believing Christians there are three main views. Each of these views represents an attempt to reconcile all that the Bible has to say about the relationship between faith and works.  The Arminian view states that if a person claims to be a Christian but gives no evidence of true faith by the way he lives, he may never have been saved, or he may no longer be saved. A careful study of Scripture, however, clearly states that once a person has placed his trust in Jesus Christ as his sin-bearer, his relationship with God is secure: nothing can separate him from God’s protective love (John 6:37- 40; John 10:28-30).  The Reformed view states that if a person claims to be a Christian, but gives no evidence of true faith by the way he lives, he was never a Christian to begin with. It is clearly God’s desire that his children live godly lives. But living such a life depends upon our responses to God’s love and grace. God has given us the dignity of a will: we can choose to obey God, or we can choose to disobey him. We can be “doers” of the word or merely “hearers.” The choices we make either advance our spiritual growth, or they retard it.
We have numerous Biblical examples of Christians who did not live victorious Christian lives. In writing to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 3:1-3), Paul assumed that these church members were real Christians (he called them “brothers”). He referred to them as being infants “in Christ.” And yet they displayed little evidence of their faith. Rather than being “spiritual,” they were worldly! Paul even went so far as to assert that their lifestyle was virtually indistinguishable from that of their non-Christian neighbors. The Reformed view assumes that assumes that where there are no good works, there never was genuine faith. Paul doesn’t make that assumption. Let’s look at another example from the first century church at Corinth: 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. Here is a man who is having an intimate relationship with his stepmother. Not only was this man disobedient, but the church congregation to which he belonged seemed to approve of his actions! Paul makes something very clear: serious consequences await the Christian who lives in blatant violation of Biblical teaching, including an act of church discipline. This wayward brother is to be put out of the fellowship, and Paul tells us that Satan himself will be God’s instrument of discipline. Notice something very important in 1 Corinthians 5: this man’s eternal destiny is not called into question. He hasn’t lost his salvation, nor does Paul warn that this is a possible outcome. No, Paul says very clearly in verse five that his spirit will be saved, even if in judgment God were to take his life. The lack of good works in this man’s life did not lead Paul to question the genuineness of his faith.
There is a third view,  the Mediating View, which best fits the Biblical data. The Mediating View states that if a person claims to be a Christian, but gives no evidence of true faith by the way he lives, there are two possibilities. He may not be saved, or he may be saved but not living by faith. He is not being a “doer” of the Word. This mediating view is based upon four assumptions: (a) Although genuine faith normally produces a life of good works, there is no inevitable connection between faith and works. (b) Where there are no good works, there is no vital living faith. (c) Faith which was once vital can degenerate and become nonproductive. (d) Nonproductive faith leads to divine discipline and loss of reward in the kingdom of God, but not to a loss of salvation. Next week, we’ll take an in depth look at James 2:14-26. It is my contention that James’ perspective of the relationship between faith and works is best summarized by this mediating view.
Application / Challenge
- Prayerfully read James 1:1 through 2:26.
- Reread James 2:14-26 with each of the three views studied today in mind.
- Jot down your thoughts about the relative strengths and weaknesses of each view.
- Continue our study of this important New Testament passage!