Dialogue with Robert Prater: What Is “Faith”? Part 2 (James, Paul & the Spirit)

dialogueSo what about James? Let’s take a fresh look, beginning with his thesis sentence —

(James 2:14) What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?

He doesn’t say “if a man has faith,” but “if a man claims to have faith.” James isn’t speaking of real faith but claimed faith. And if we miss that point — which he makes abundantly clear at the beginning of his lesson — we get very confused indeed.

James Adamson writes in the New International Commentary (p 125),

Here (2:14-26) “faith” is used sometimes to mean mere intellectual belief in God’s existence, a faith even the devils share (v. 19), a dead (vv. 17,20, 26), useless and fruitless (vv. 14, 16) faith; and sometimes it has the ordinary Christian meaning of faith as the activity of a believer seeking to obey God. So also Paul, 1 Cor. 13.

Therefore, we make a very serious mistake we take the parody of faith James mentions — the “faith” of demons — and treat that faith as the faith being spoken of in John or Paul, as though a faith without works could be a faith at all. James’ point isn’t that we need faith + works, but rather faith without works isn’t really faith at all. It’s dead faith, whereas true faith is living.


We now need to turn to Paul to demonstrate that this meaning of faith doesn’t somehow contradict what Paul teaches. It doesn’t, but it changes our reading quite a bit.

(Rom 1:5) Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.

Obviously enough, Paul sees no contrast between “obedience” and “faith.” Rather, faithfulness or loyalty produces obedience.

Paul explains that many Jews had not been true to God.

(Rom 2:21-24) … you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

He argues from the deeds of the Jews. He concludes,

(Rom 3:3) What if some [Jews] did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness?

He hasn’t questioned their faith [intellectual acceptance] in God so much as their lack of faithfulness to God — and this meaning is far more parallel to Paul’s argument. His point is that God is faithful to us even when we aren’t faithful to him.

(Rom 10:9-10) That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.

Here we find a passage central to Church of Christ soterology (doctrine of salvation), where at first glance “believe” is only intellectual acceptance of the premise. But as we look more closely, we are soon disabused of that notion. We confess that Jesus is Lord. This is no mere intellectualism. It’s an affirmation of whom we must obey. We are to believe this in our hearts — the seat of emotions (9:2) — that is, it must affect our desires, not merely our knowledge.

I could go on. The point is hopefully made. “Faith” in New Testament parlance is not mere intellectual assent except when the author is speaking of a dead, inadequate, pretend faith. The faith that saved people must have is a faith that repents, that submits to Jesus as Lord, and that is loyal and faithful. Indeed, a First Century Jew would have considered these concepts virtual synonyms.

That’s true — but I’m not adopting the view that this means we are saved by works. Obviously, Paul would disagree, and who am I to disagree with Paul? Astonishingly enough, there are those within the Churches of Christ who really do argue for a works salvation, but I am not among them.

Why works? (with explanation of the Spirit’s work)

Okay, if we must have faith to be saved, and if faith includes faithfulness and is dead without works, why aren’t works essential?

There are two ways to respond. For the scholars, I suggest you read N. T. Wright’s book What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? It’s too elaborate an argument to summarize here, but some part of it is dealt with in my series on the New Perspective.

Here’s a different approach to the problem. You see, it’s all about the arrow of causation. Faith/faithfulness => works. Faith produces works, except in those Christians with severe disabilities, of course. (God does not “exact day labour, light denied,” for you John Milton fans.)

Now, in logic class we learned that “p implies q” is the logical equivalent of “~q implies ~p.” The tilde (~) means “not” in logic symbolism.

In real words, “X is square” implies “X is a rectangle.” Of course, “X is not a square” does not tell us whether or not X is a rectangle. Maybe so. Maybe not. But if “X is not a rectangle,” it is certain that “X is not a square.”

If you have faith/are faithful, then you do good works. Therefore, if you don’t do good works, well, you don’t have faith/faithfulness.

Now let’s take it a little deeper. Faith/faithfulness => salvation => gift of the Spirit => good works.

I’m ignoring baptism for now. We’ll come back to it. Ignoring baptism, we can surely agree with the first step. I cited dozens of verses saying exactly that in the last post on this subject. The fact that salvation produces the gift of the Spirit in us is shown by Acts 2:38 among many other verses. The fact that the Spirit produces good works is found in —

(Acts 4:31) After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

(Rom 2:29) No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.

The Spirit changes our hearts, which of course changes our actions.

(Rom 8:13-14) For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, 14 because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

“Put to death the misdeeds of the body” means to grow in righteousness. “Led by the Spirit” means, of course, that we follow the Spirit’s leadings, which means we act as God wishes.

(1 Cor 12:7) Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

If you study the list of gifts in 1 Cor 12, Rom 12, and Eph 4, you’ll quickly see that many of the gifts aren’t miraculous in the sense of healing or speaking foreign languages. Rather, God gives us gifts such as leadership, encouraging, and generosity, and we receive these even today for the purpose of doing good works.

(Gal 5:18-25) But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. … 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

We are called to follow the Spirit’s leadings so that we bear the Spirit’s fruit. When we teach classes on “fruit of the Spirit,” we nearly always ignore “of the Spirit,” acting as though the fruit is produced by our own efforts alone, but the grammar is quite clear that these Christian virtues are fruit of the Spirit just as grapes are fruit of the vine. That does not mean that we aren’t responsble for following the Spirit’s lead — keeping in step with the Spirit. It just means that we have very real and present divine help.

Finally (as to this point), we have to consider two key texts that don’t even mention the Spirit explicitly —

(Phil 2:12-13) Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

We are called to work out our salvation — this is something we do — but as we do that, God works in us “to will and to act” as God wishes. God changes what we want. He changes our hearts. And changing our hearts changes what we do.

(Heb 8:6-13) But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. 7 For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. 8 But God found fault with the people and said :

“The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 9 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord. 10 This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 11 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

13 By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.

The author of Hebrews quotes a passage from Jeremiah describing the Messianic age. The point is that when the Messiah comes, things will be radically different.

I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

The Israelites read and studied God’s laws. At the time of Jesus, most Jewish males had memorized the Torah. And they were often fiercely devoted to obedience, even if they misunderstood Jesus and God’s plan for their redemption.

The difference isn’t that Christians will study God’s word more intensely. We don’t. It’s that God will put them in our hearts and minds — rather than us. God will change our will and so our actions.

This is no loss of free will. We can and do resist the Spirit’s work, and we can even quench the Spirit. Rather, God helps us through his Spirit. If we yield to his hands, he reshapes us into the people he wants us to be — not perfectly, but far better than we’d otherwise be.

And so — how do faith and works fit together? Faith saves. Salvation brings the Spirit. The Spirit helps us in our weakness, making us better people. And if we don’t resist the Spirit (and we sometimes do) the Spirit will help us put to death the misdeeds of the body and bear fruit. The Spirit gives us gifts. And all this is to equip us to serve — which we want to do. After all, when we first repented, that’s the commitment we made.

But notice this: salvation came first. We were saved and then we received the Spirit and then we began to work. We don’t work to one day be saved. We are saved.

Now, we can throw that salvation away, but we don’t need to earn it. We can’t. Rather, we just need to be true to what we’ve received.

And the “works” we do aren’t perfect, complete, sufficient works. No one can do that — other than Jesus. The test isn’t perfection. Nor is it great scholarship. It’s being led by the Spirit.

Therefore, if I obey God’s word as I understand it — as a penitent, believing Christian — I’ve not rebelled against God and I’ve not fallen away. I must remain true to what God required to save me in the first place — faith in Jesus, penitence — but I don’t have to have the perfect doctrine of divorce and remarriage or the age of the earth or the role of women.

But, of course, because I’m faithful and penitent, I will study God’s word so I can please the Lord I serve. I love God, therefore I want to do his will. But if I get something wrong along the way, I’m still saved.

(2 Cor 3:6) He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant — not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.


7 Responses

  1. If/When I am forced to give a simple sentense definition of faith that synthesizes the entire biblical narrative, I define faith as “an unyeilding trust in God that results in uncompromising obedience unto God.” Neither James, Paul, nor any other biblical writer envision faith as being mere intellectual agreement. As for James and Paul, I try to help people remember that James was addressing people who have already become disciples of Jesus while Paul, in Romans and Galatians, is addressing a situation in which people are becoming disciples. I think the distinction is helpful when talking about faith and works (at least it seems to be a better solution than Luther had of wanting to remove James from the NT canon).

    Thanks for this post and all your other posts. I really appreciate the time you put into them.

    Grace and peace,


  2. Go to any UFO or Star Trek convention; to any rock concert; to any NFL football game or NASCAR race – and you’ll know who the “true believers” are. They’ll wear the gear. They’ll show the colors. They’ll pay whatever it costs. They’ll tell you in no uncertain terms (and animatedly!) what their faith is in.

    I am certain that God wants us to be true believers, no matter how unconventional we may look or sound. He wants to work through us; through the foolishness of the cross and the Spirit and the wisdom of God to work His miracle of changing lives from self-absorbed to selfless generosity.

    Just going to the convention or the concert or the game or the race doesn’t make you a “true believer.”

    You’re an observer. You’re lending a genial degree of mental assent. You’re considering. You’re being entertained by the company around you. You’ve had your ticket punched. You’re there.

    But it doesn’t mean you believe.

  3. Rex,
    I’ve read many of your posts on this blog as well as some others that we both read. And I appreciate so much your devotion to God and your desire to share the good news with others.

    Above you made mention of a “simple sentence definition of faith that synthesizes the entire biblical narrative,” and said you define faith as “an unyielding trust in God that results in uncompromising obedience unto God.” I was baptized right about this time of year in 1962 (I was 12) and I don’t know if a 20 mule team could have stopped me from walking the aisle at that gospel meeting. I was so very aware of my sin and so wanting to be washed clean and start over fresh. I can’t imagine anyone more committed that was to changing my thoughts and behavior.

    Regrettably, I was weak. I was relatively good for a few days but the old man seemed as strong as ever. After compromising more times that I could could I recommitted to live right. soon thereafter I was compromising again and again. Eventually I all but gave up in my everyday life.

    I was good enough when I was at church. I was about as bright as the next kid in getting things right in the Sunday School class – but even there I was an arrogant, smart alec little punk. and away from church, … now there would be some condemning stories I could tell.

    I had a concept of the penalty of sin i.e. death and eternal punishment. But I had no understanding of the power that sin exerted over me; and no grasp why I would take such pleasure in sin. Even when we read Romans 7 it was explained away by one of the church leaders saying that was Paul talking about himself before he was baptized.

    Thankfully, God was faithful even when I was not. Had his love ever been conditioned on my behavior/thoughts I would have been thrown out of the family so very many times that it would be unimaginable that I would ever be included again. I can only surmise that his love for me was unconditional and he that began the work in me saw it through.

    There is far more obedience now than there was 40 something years ago and I can claim overall faithfulness. But I give the credit for that to God for making it happen – not to my frail self. Even now if someone could read my mind and see all of my behavior they might use me only as a poor example of one that claims to be a Christian.

    I do know the day is coming when I will be unyielding and uncompromising in my faithfulness but for now I am living in the already – not yet in almost every aspect of my walk.

    Please forgive the length of this comment.

  4. Randall,

    I appreciate your reply. In fact, there is much about it that I can resinate with. I defined faith as “an unyeilding trust in God that results in uncompromising obedience unto God” and I want to stand by that but I would like to qualify it a bit. That type of faith is the ideal and not something I (or anyone else) lives by/with everyday. Some days we find it hard to have an unyeilding trust, other days it is hard to have an uncompromising obedience to God. I also believe the depth of such faith grows deeper over time. In other words, the depth of such faith will be at one level for a teenage boy and at an even deeper lever for a 60 year old man who has lived life and gone through many more trials and tests than the teenage boy.

    On a personal note, I resonate with your concern because of my own life story. One of the biggest challenges ever to my faith was the death of my first born child. In fact, that experience nearly destroyed my faith. I can say with much grattitude for God, that thankfully God’s faithfulness to his children is not dependent on how deep or shallow, strong or weak, present or absent the faith of his children have for God. If that were not true, God would have given up on me along time ago.

    And for those who need a Bible verse for justification of such thinking…read the OT and see how God remained faithful to Israel even when Israel did not reciprocate.

    Thanks for the conversation and dialogue Randall!

    Grace and peace,


  5. For me, I have concluded that “faith” is a willingness to rely on the fact that God will do what he says he will do. And if I do rely upon God’s promises, then it must by definition change the way I live my life.

    Faith changes us. But only God can judge the change — no one other than God has enough information to make any judgement at all.

  6. As I read your article, Jay, my heart swells in gratitude for what He has done in me. And I am grateful for your gifts of teaching and encouragement in helping to make it so clear.

  7. […] as I’ve pointed out before, in John and Paul (not James), “faith” or “believe” includes the idea of […]

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