This requires a study of the totality of scripture versus a specific passage and this is not meant to be an exhaustive study. The aim is to provide some help in thinking about all three. Note: we embrace Sola fide or justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
James 2:14-26 concludes by telling us that faith without works is dead. The Greek word for works is érgon (phonetically er’-gon) and it’s used 174 times in Scripture. It means a worker who accomplishes something and it’s an action that carries out an inner desire, intention, or purpose.
Faith is the Greek word pistis (phonetically pis’-tis). This word is used 243 times in Scripture and it’s derived from peithô, which is persuasion (be persuaded, come to trust). Faith is rightly understood as a gift from God, and never something that can be produced by people. It’s not blind faith or you just gotta believe like we often think or hear today. So those who have faith in God have God’s divine persuasion (His inworking) which enables them to trust in Him or believe in Him. He draws His children (the elect) to Himself and by His grace gives us faith as a gift that we receive (Ephesians 2:8). And like any gift that we receive, once we possess it it becomes ours, and we use the term our faith or my faith.
Regarding belief, James tells us that even the demons believe (James 2:19) so we need more than simple belief, yet we often interchange faith and believing or call all Christians believers and this can be confusing. When the word believe (or belief) is used in the Bible we have to look at the context of the passage to best understand it. One of the most well known passages in all the Bible is John 3:16. Here the Greek word for believe is pisteuó (phonetically pist-yoo’-o) and it’s used 244 times in Scripture. In this context (unlike James 2:19) this is the belief that proceeds from God’s gift and inworking of faith. Thus, faith is distinct from human derived belief (confidence there is a God or persuading ourselves that there is a God). The bottom line is once we receive the gift of faith, we certainly believe it, but someone could believe there is a God without true faith (like the demons).
Faith and Works (Paul and James)
James teaches us that we have to practice the truth that we have learned and our works or actions speak louder than our words. Some people only talk about their belief, but mature faith-filled believers live out their beliefs with action. James 1:22 reminds us to be doers of the Word and not just hearers only.
As referenced earlier, Paul teaches us that, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-10). And our justification before God is through faith and not our works or trying to be good enough by keeping the law. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians (Galatians 2:20-21) he says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. If righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”
Thus, we are justified and made righteous through Christ by faith alone, while faith leads us to good works, and good works show what we believe and prove our faith. This is the result of the Holy Spirit working within us (see Galatians 3).
What’s interesting is that both Paul and James use Abrahams’s life to prove their point (Romans 4, Galatians 3, and James 2). Paul was citing Abraham’s early life when Abraham first believed and it was counted to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:5-6) and James was citing an event later in Abraham’s life when he was willing to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:12), even believing that God would raise him from the dead (Hebrews 11:19).
Examining Our Works (Where’s the Fruit?)
But what about those who say they have faith, but don’t have works? This is what James is warning against and this is where we need God’s wisdom and discernment. We are needy people and can easily deceive ourselves (James 1:22). We need to be aware of what our lives are producing and why we’re producing it. This requires the help of God and others speaking into our lives.
So let’s examine ourselves and pray that God will reveal our hearts and intentions when it comes to works or the lack thereof. May we seek Him and seek help from others when we’re struggling. Let’s also strive to come alongside others as God provides opportunities to do so. Hebrews 10:24-25 reminds us that we should stir up one another to love and what? Good works…
I’m grateful for Ephesians 2:10 where Paul tells us how God has prepared our good works beforehand that we should walk in them. And we know that if God has prepared good works for us, He’ll provide all we need to carry them out (including one another). Therefore, whenever someone has God given faith, you will always find good works. They won’t be perfect works, but the direction of their lives will be looking to the Perfect One. For Christ is the Founder and Perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).
When it comes to faith, works, and belief, it’s wonderful to know that He authors it, He gives it, we believe it, and He perfects it! Aren’t you glad it’s not dependent on us to muster it?