by John Samson
The Apostle Paul’s main theme in the book of Romans is that of the Gospel itself, as heanswers the question, “How can an unjust person ever be acceptable to a just and holy God?” In passages such as Chapter 3:20 to 4:8, he makes it abundantly clear that we are justified (God declaring us right with Him) on the basis of faith alone and not by anything that we do. Other passages where Paul states this are Titus 3:5; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8,9; Phil 3:9; to name just a few.
Romans 3:28; 4:3-8 declares, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law… 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: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’”
Having established the case biblically that we are justified by faith apart from works, we then need to ask the question, “What kind of faith is it that justifies?” In other words, what does genuine, saving faith look like?
A CLAIM IS NOT ENOUGH
This is precisely the issue that James is addressing in chapter 2 of his epistle. He writes in verse 14, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”
The obvious answer to James’ rhetorical question is “No, that is not the kind of faith that saves. True faith will produce works.” It is never enough to merely make a claim to have faith. No one is ever saved by a mere empty profession of faith. What is professed, must actually be possessed for justification to exist.
James teaches us clearly that if genuine faith is present, it necessarily produces the fruit of works. That’s the nature of true faith. In fact, if works do not follow from “faith,” then it is proof positive that the “faith” is not in fact genuine, but a mere claim to it.
There is no discord between what James writes and what we find in Romans and the rest of Paul’s writings. Faith without works is dead, and a dead faith never saved anyone. True faith is a living faith, and will inevitably show itself with accompanying action or works. Yet even if all these good works do come from genuine faith, these works still have no part in the ground of our justification. Our works add no merit to us, removing all grounds for boasting. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph 2:8, 9)
The only work that contributes to our justification is the work of Jesus; not the work of Jesus in us, but the work of Jesus for us. His merit is the only merit that counts for us. Paul tells us that it we are justified by faith apart from works, and James tells us that that kind of faith that actually saves is a faith that will of necessity produce works.
The Reformers of the 16th Century were very clear about all this. They described true, saving faith as having three components, which were described by three Latin words: notitia, assensus and fiducia.