Which is worse–works without faith, or faith without works?
Paul of Tarsus tells us a lot about works without faith–his own, for starters:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that comes from faith–
A lot of people practicing a lot of religions are just like Paul. They think they can work their way to heaven when they’re actually working their way to hell. Paul reminds us here in Philippians 3.4b-9 that neither his impressive pedigree, nor his religious affiliation, nor his sincere effort could ever produce what pleases God–perfect righteousness. Absolute holiness. The only thing He will accept as a visa into glory.
I recently read an article by a scientist–one of the world’s leading chemists–who makes molecules. Even if all of us could do that, and even if holiness could be measured in such a way, none of us has the capacity to offer God even one molecule of our own holiness.
At about the same time he wrote to the church at Philippi, Greece, Paul explained to the congregation at Ephesus, Turkey, that
…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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (EPH 2.8-10)
When Adam fell, we all fell with him. Hard and flat. Sin is a leveler. The people in prison did not all commit the same crime, but they all view the world through the same vertical lines.
But James, Jesus’ little brother, looks at the faith-and-works continuum from another angle. In James 2.14-17, after his short treatise on the sin of partiality, he writes:
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.
Twice, the writer of Hebrews mentions “dead works.” (HEB 6.1, 9.14) Now, James writes of “dead faith.” In the subsequent verses of Chapter 2, he mentions that even the demons believe in God–and tremble before Him!–so simply believing facts about God is not saving faith. James then cites two Old Testament characters whose faith was demonstrated by their works: Abraham, the Iraqi father of the Jewish nation was not content simply to tell God he was willing to sacrifice Isaac. He unsheathed his dagger and was about to plunge it into Isaac’s belly when God stopped him and provided a substitutionary ram. Rahab the whore did not stop at believing that God was conquering His enemies through the Israelites–she protected their spies, knowing the awesome power of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
James concludes his discussion by writing,
For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
On some occasion, James probably heard his Brother say that God is glorified when we prove we are His disciples by producing fruit. (JOH 15.8) He came to understand that principle clearly, as the second half of James 2 demonstrates: just as it is vain to think that my works–religious duty, outward devotion, social activism, neighbourly consideration–could possibly get me to heaven, so also is it vain to suppose I am truly a child of God while my life manifests nothing of my faith. As Jesus said, a fruit tree with no fruit is cut down and burned.
The terrible truth is that hell–a real, dreadful place mentioned far more often in Scripture than heaven–will be populated by people whose works were dead or people whose faith was dead.
Both roads lead to the same place.