Faith or Works?

Counseling and the Book of James. 1

Introduction. 1

James’ Topic. 1

The Pharisaic Mindset 2

Hollow-Easter-Bunny-Type Faith. 3

The Controversy. 3

A Different Gospel 4

The Evidence of a New Creation. 4

The Council of Jerusalem.. 5

The Importance to Counseling. 7




            In the online ministry I am a part of, there are many people who come into our chat room asking for answers to various questions concerning the Bible.  As a schoolteacher, I have always found a joy in answering questions, especially when I have the opportunity to see an answer “hit home” in the person and the light of understanding in their eyes begins to shine.  Never is this feeling more poignant than when I can help lead someone from a legalistic condemnation into the blessing of understanding the gospel of grace.

            The type of biblical counseling I am involved in believes that it is essential to look at the basic beliefs a person has in order to help them realign those beliefs with what the Bible has to say.  When we encounter personal problems, what we truly believe about God will determine whether we deal with that problem in a godly manner or not.  Because of this, grace is the crucial cornerstone of what we do.

            Mankind finds it extremely difficult to give up our own works and to see our salvation as completely founded on the grace of God, totally apart from what we can ever do.  To those who still want to cling to a morsel of their own works, the passage in James 2:14-26 appears to be justification for them to gain and/or maintain their salvation by their own works.  However, if we examine this passage carefully, both within the context given and the greater context of the Bible in its entirety, we can see that James was in no way contradicting the gospel of grace.

James’ Topic


            In order to examine the context of this passage, we must begin at the start of chapter two and see what was James’ topic.  James was scolding Christians about how showing favoritism was in opposition to the gospel by which they were saved.  “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism…Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?”  (vs. 1 and 5, NIV)  He was pointing out that what they said they believed was not matching up to what they were doing.

            On the one hand, James was telling them, they claimed to be Christians and so they should be following the teachings of Jesus Christ.  Yet on the other hand, they were behaving as if they didn’t.  James knew that our actions and our words in general give a much clearer indication of what we really believe than what we do and say when we are having a “religious” moment.  This is why the passage on faith and deeds is nestled between the actions of 2:1-13 and the words of chapter three where James talks about controlling our speech.

            We see at the beginning of chapter two that James was very disappointed with how the attitudes of some Christians towards those who came to them were based on the outward appearance.  Rich people, identified by their fine clothes, were given the place of honor, and those who were dressed in rags were seated on the floor with the dogs.  These Christians had forgotten that God is not interested in our outward appearance, but He looks at our hearts. [1]   They had also lost sight of the value of people.  When Jesus died, He did not die only for rich, but for rich and poor alike.  The old saying is quite true:  “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.”

The Pharisaic Mindset


            This type of attitude is often borne out of the Pharisaic mindset.  When we forget that, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), we soon begin to see some people as more important or more valuable than others.  It is for this reason James talks about the law in verses 8-13.  He points out to them that if they are going to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), this meant that they must rid themselves of the same attitude the Pharisees had of putting some people above others.

            James also reminds them that if they are planning to live under the law, then they must keep the entire law perfectly or it is to no effect. [2]   When we begin to compare people, then some become more righteous, more spiritual, than others.  The standard of measurement no longer is God’s standard, but one set up by men, who, ironically, cannot even measure up to such a standard themselves.

            As a balance, James gives us insight into why we might see some who talk like they are believers but whose actions prove their hearts are far from such a commitment.  He asks us in verse 14, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such a faith save him?”  In the context of the passage we can begin to see what direction he is going with this statement.  James is not saying that our deeds are what our salvation hangs on, but he is questioning the hearts of those who claim to have faith but who do not show the faith by what they do.  “Can such a faith save him?” is talking about a faith that is merely a shell that looks good on the outside but is empty on the inside. 

Hollow-Easter-Bunny-Type Faith


            I remember waking up one Easter morning, my eyes sparkling with delight as I saw a large chocolate bunny as the centerpiece of my Easter basket.  What a joy for a little girl who loved chocolate!  But then came the first bite -- and disappointment was soon to follow.  This bunny was not solid chocolate, as I had hoped.  No, it was only a thin layer of chocolate that housed nothing.  It was hollow inside.

            My smile faded and disillusionment stole my joy.  I had been deceived.  What seemed on the exterior to be wonderful, good, exactly what my heart wanted, turned out to be merely a sham.

            James was talking about hollow-Easter-bunny-type faith.  The outward appearance of this kind of faith looked very enticing.  Those who were claiming to be Christians looked like real Christians on the outside, but to someone like James who saw through the outward façade, the hollow interior was blatantly obvious.  Why was it James was calling them on their sin of judging others by the external appearance?  It was because he understood that this was how they themselves wanted to be judged because they knew their insides were hollow, devoid of any true commitment to Christ, lacking any signs of a real relationship with the Savior.  If they were to be judged according to their hearts, they knew inside that they would always come up short.  It’s easy to hide your heart from others, but not from God.

The Controversy


            It’s very likely that James was passionate about this for a good reason.  After all, he was in charge of the body of believers in Jerusalem and was in the process of witnessing the problems legalism could cause among them in regards to the issue of circumcision.  This controversy, eventually decided by the Council of Jerusalem, would have been a real-life example of the division caused by those who wanted to cling to the works of the flesh as opposed to the gospel of grace.

            The book of James was most likely written in AD 49, one year before the Council of Jerusalem in AD 50, which means that the situation surrounding James was beginning to come to a head.  Since the first converts in Jerusalem were Jews, there was a strong movement there towards holding new Christians to the Jewish laws.  Many new converts were being forced to be circumcised as a confirmation of their conversion, and thereby being required to adhere strictly to the Jewish laws.

This was precisely the same issue that Paul addressed in the book of Galatians.  Although the churches in Galatia were a long way from Jerusalem, the transition from Judaism to Christianity (the Law to grace) was widespread.  In order to get a clearer picture of what was happening in the early Christian church during this time period, it’s essential that we examine two other biblical sources, Galatians and the account of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.

A Different Gospel


During the same time period as James was writing to believers in general, Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians.  He begins his writing to the churches in Galatia with some rather strong language:  “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel -- which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-7, NIV)  In what way were the Galatians deserting Christ for a different gospel?  As we continue to read through the book, we see that these churches were falling into the trap of the Judaizers who were telling them that their salvation depended on their observance of the Jewish law.

Paul’s anger and frustration with them is obvious.  “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.  I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?  Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?  Have you suffered so much for nothing--if it really was for nothing?  Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” (Galatians 3:1-5, NIV)

How could a person, Paul asked, know the freedom found in grace but yet want to turn around and go back to the prison of the law?  Once freed, why would anyone choose to return to the slavery of the law?  Why would an adult want to go back to living as a child under the rules and regulations of childhood?

In Galatians 6:12-14, Paul ends his epistles to the churches in Galatia by summarizing the effects of this turning back towards legalism in a way that echoes James 2:  “Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.  Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh.  May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.  Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.”

The Evidence of a New Creation


This “new creation” was what James was questioning in the so-called Christians who were claiming to have faith in Christ but whose actions and behaviors contradicted this claim to faith.  The gospel of grace does more than merely change what people do.  It never changes people from the outside in; it always changes from the inside out.  Our behavior does not determine what we believe, but what we believe will always determine our behavior.  A changed-heart is evidenced through what we do.

We can imagine a woman who says she is pregnant yet never gains a pound and whose body never changes.  It would not be unusual for her pregnancy to be seriously questioned after several months.  At the end of the nine months, we would most likely ask her, “Where is the evidence of your pregnancy?”  We know that a pregnancy causes certain things to happen in the body of a woman.  Likewise, James knew that true faith caused certain behavior to happen in the lives of Christians.  Without the evidence, James was not willing to accept their claim of salvation.  This is why James wrote, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17, NIV)

The Council of Jerusalem


Within about a year after writing his letter, it was time for James and the church in Jerusalem to settle the matter once and for all.  Paul and Barnabas met some men from Judea who were teaching that the Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to be saved.  Since both Paul and Barnabas saw that this contradicted the gospel of grace, which is given to all men, they strongly opposed this teaching.  The believers in this area commissioned Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem to find out what the apostles and elders would decide.

In Acts 15, we read the account of this discussion, which has now come to be known as the Council of Jerusalem.  Although it was a decision made by all the apostles and elders there, the summary statement, which resulted in a letter being sent out to the Gentile believers in the area, was made by James.  He said, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.  Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.  For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

Was James suggesting that following these rules would save the Gentiles?  Not at all.  Here we see a continuation of the same theme of James chapter 2:  We are not saved by works of the law, but when we are saved, there is a change in our behavior.  James talks about how the law given through Moses was general knowledge everywhere and that following these basic guidelines would identify these converts with Christianity instead of the Paganism that surrounded them.  He is making a great distinction between works of the law and deeds we do as a result of our salvation.

Returning to James 2, we see that this was James’ thinking when he gave examples from the Old Testament of faith illustrated by deeds.  “Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.  And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God's friend.  You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”  James could not have been saying that Abraham kept the works of the law because it would be more than seven hundred years before God would give the law to Moses.

Abraham’s faith did not come as a result of his keeping the works of the law, but because Abraham had faith in God, he put that faith into action.  God told Abraham to leave his country and go to a new country.  Because Abraham believed God (faith), he did what God asked him to do.  If Abraham would have chosen not to do what God said, this would have shown that the faith he had was not a real faith, but merely an intellectual assent.

There is a story that is told about a man who walked tightropes for a living.  He was quite the daredevil and would attempt dangerous situations to entertain on-looking thrill seekers.  Stringing his rope between two tall buildings one day, the man had gained a large crowd of spectators.  He walked the rope easily from one side to the other as if he were walking down the sidewalk.  Once the crowd was persuaded he could do this without any problem, he added more excitement to the act.  He carried many various items across with him, each one done safely and with great ease.

Finally, he stood on one building and held a wheelbarrow in his hands.  He turned to address the crowd, “Which of you believe that I can walk across this rope pushing this wheelbarrow?”  The crowd roared with confidence, many raising their hands high for him to see.

“Good,” the man replied. The man walked across with the wheelbarrow in front of him, never missing a step or wavering.

 “Now that you have seen me take this wheelbarrow across, how many of you believe that I could carry a person across in it?”  Again, the crowd roared with confidence, hands waving in belief.  “Thank you for your confidence,” the man said.  “Which of you would like to be the first one?”

At this question, the crowd grew quickly silent.  Hands immediately were lowered in fear.  Although they had an intellectual belief that this man could safely carry someone across the chasm in the wheelbarrow, when it came to their actions, their true beliefs were exposed.

So it is with the faith James is referring to in this passage.  James is saying that he has seen many hands raised when people ask if they are Christians, but when it comes down to putting their faith into practice, James sees very few who have real, genuine faith.  If our faith is not willing to do what God asks us to do, then it is a counterfeit faith, a sham, having a form of godliness but denying its power. [3]

When our faith is genuine, it will result in deeds that show our faith to others.  These are not the works of the law, which pull us back into slavery, but they are deeds of obedience done out of love and gratefulness for the incredible gift of grace we have been given.  If we rely on the law, we bind ourselves to obeying all 600 + laws that were given.  If we have faith, we will want to choose those things that please God.  Will we live in a faith that is an intellectual faith only, a hollow-Easter-bunny-type of faith?  Or will we have the heart faith that does what we are asked to do, not out of fear of losing our salvation, but a faith that is borne out of believing that God is who He says He is?

Abraham and Rahab not only knew in their minds that God was Almighty, but their actions showed that this was a deep belief of their hearts.  This is the type of deeds James is spurring his readers on towards.  In a sense, James was telling the believers, “Put your money where your mouth is.”  If we truly believe the gospel of grace, then it would be impossible for us to sit back like selfish fat cats, oblivious to the needs of others around us or to the higher calling of the Christian life.  Like the prodigal son, it is time for us as believers to wash off the stench and filth of the pigpen and put on clean garments of good deeds.

The Importance to Counseling


            A heart mired in the sin of Pharisaism may appear spiritual on the outside, but you can be assured that the inside is hollow, with no spiritual substance.  As counselors, it is vital that we confront these people and expose the hold legalism has on them.  In fact, it can often be a matter of spiritual life and death.  Many who are caught up in legalism may think they are earning their salvation, even though this is not at all true.

            It is unfortunate that many churches and believers base a person’s salvation (or one’s spirituality) on the works one does.  This causes quite a dilemma in many people.  On the one hand, they depend on their own works to measure up in God’s eyes, but on the other hand they know full-well that whatever they do will never be enough.  They spend their lives in the pressure of perfection and the silent fear of inadequacy.  They base their value as people on the good works they do, and when those good works aren’t enough, they believe they are worthless.

            This usually results in a depression that secular counseling can only offer drugs to help.  All secular counseling can do is ignore the spiritual issue at the root of the problem.  How can someone live perfectly when they know they can never live perfectly?  Every day becomes a struggle between these two forces, and the person feels like a fake, a false façade, a phony who knows they are not what they put on an appearance to be.

            Ironically, the base issue here is not a lack of self-esteem, but an overabundance of pride.  A shift needs to take place so the person will understand that what they do does not determine God’s love for them.  It is necessary for them to understand that God’s love is constant, invariable, never changing for any reason.  They need to see that relying on what we do to gain God’s love is an attitude of pride that must be confessed.  As long as we cling to our own works as our foundation for value or worth, we are nullifying the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.  Either Jesus paid for it all or He did not pay for anything.  Either we rest in grace (knowing that we are getting something wonderful that we in no way have earned or deserved) or we rest in our own works (which can never be enough).

            There can be no mingling of works and grace.  The minute we begin to rely on our own works for gaining or maintaining our salvation or the love of God, we snatch the glory from God and place it on our own selves.  We pull down Jesus and exalt ourselves.

            When we rely on our own works instead of the grace of God, we find our hearts turning hard.  We easily see the faults in others, but become blinded to our own.  We choose to judge people by our own impossible standards, holding them up to what we think is the proper behavior.  We turn our eyes inward, seeing only our problems and our own needs while we ignore the needs of those around us.  Our heart turns cold or indifferent towards God.  Relationship with God becomes a threat to us instead of a joy.  We fear a closeness with Him because we know it will expose the truth about us.  Our heart fills with pride as the world begins to revolve around us and we become the center of the universe.

            How do we get out of a trap of legalism?  Humility.  Just as grace is the opposite of legalism, humility is the opposite of pride.  A proud heart can never truly understand the grace of God.  It is only when our heart humbles itself before God Almighty and confesses its sin of pride before Him that we can step out of the snare of legalism and into the freedom of grace.  And this should be our motivation and the goal we move our counselees towards:  to strive in our own hearts for that better hope, the hope of the grace of God that draws us to a closer relationship with Him.

            “The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless  (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.”  (Hebrews 7:18-19, NIV)


[1] 1 Samuel 16:7  “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

[2] See also Romans 2:12 and Galatians 4:21.

[3] 2 Timothy 3:5





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