I hope we can all agree that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. To teach that in an evangelistic Bible study or in meeting with a new believer, it makes a lot of sense to draw heavily on the truth that is in Chapters 3-5 of Romans.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26 ESV)
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: (Romans 4:1-6 ESV)
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:1-8 ESV)
A Good Problem to Have
However, after someone comes to faith or professes to already have saving faith in light of those truths, it is not uncommon for them to have difficulty when they read James 2:14-26 or when it is communicated to them that Jesus does expect obedience from his followers. They might say, “I thought Christianity was by faith and not by works…what is all this about ‘justified by works’?”
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 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? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:14-26 ESV)
An Opportunity to Minister
When we disciple a new believer or someone who professes to believe, they are under our care. We want to help them have assurance, understand their sin, and see that true faith has fruit. James 2:14-26 is not at odds with Romans 3-5. In fact, it is helpful teaching about what saving faith looks like. James 2 characterizes a dead faith (a faith without works) three ways:
- Dead faith has empty words; it has said what it does not mean (vv15-17)
- Dead faith has no communion with God or desire to be in His service (vv19-20)
- Dead faith never demonstrates real conversion or a new life (v26)
There are some who profess to believe who do actually believe, but they are so grieved over their sin that they can’t see any of the real fruit in their lives. There are others who profess to believe but demonstrate no changed life, no fruit, no evidence (that a person can see) of saving faith. So, in order to foster assurance of salvation in those who do believe and to provide a sober outlook to those who do not have saving faith, we should not avoid the instruction of James 2; we should lead new believers there immediately.
A Conversation Outline
We Are Made New in Christ
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV)
When we trust in Christ for salvation, it isn’t only that our sin is not counted against us, but we are made new, given a new heart with new affections, and we are guided by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
This side of Heaven, we will never be perfect. That is still true for believers. We should not expect to be perfect. When we do sin, we should repent of the sin and strive to not sin any more.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9 ESV)
Believers Desire to Obey Christ
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, (Romans 6:17 ESV)
We were all sinners and rebels that, upon faith, desire to be obedient to Christ—not because we have to, but because we want to out of love and gratitude. This also means that we will not just give in and lazily wallow in sin supposing that Christ forgives all sin (he does!). No, we will fight against sin even when sinning is what we desire on some level (Romans 6:12).
Believers Are Confident in Christ (Not in Works)
Our salvation is never accomplished by what we do. Our salvation is by grace alone trough faith alone in Christ alone. We cannot out-sin Christ’s grace (Romans 8). The presence of sin in a believer’s life is not the single indicator of whether or not one has saving faith; trusting Christ is the single indicator of whether or not we have saving faith. We should not gloss over sin, but we also should not elevate an inward look at sin over the promises of Christ and his ability to save. Our assurance should rest first on the person and work of Christ, secondarily on the repentance and grief we have over sin, and lastly, on the presence of sin (and even then, evaluating sanctification trends and employing the counterbalance of evident fruit are more helpful approaches). Too often, it is the especially humble and spiritually sober in our churches who grieve over their sin to the peril of their assurance. True grief and repentance over sin is an evidence of faith and a reason for assurance.
If someone never exhibits any fruit, it is a warning sign. The big point of James is that faith is made evident by our actions. Here’s the major fruit to look for: (a) publicly professing faith in Christ as their savior, (b) follow Jesus in believer’s baptism, (c) wants to read the Bible, (d) wants to pray, (e) wants to witness, (f) has a changed life, (g) repents of sin, and (f) loves followers of Christ and fellowship. If there isn’t any of that present, it is obviously time for a frank conversation.