Throughout the Christian centuries debate has sparked regarding the relationship between faith and works. Are they complimentary or contradictory? Does faith alone bring salvation, as Paul writes (Eph. 2:8-9) or is James correct to assert that “faith without works is useless” (Jas. 2:20, 24). Martin Luther, the spearhead of the Protestant Reformation, argued that James’ letter should not be included in the New Testament. The lens through which Luther read the NT, and indeed the Scriptures, was Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. He didn’t think James’ insistence on works harmonized with Paul or the Reformers’ understanding of salvation, which included Sole Fide (“faith alone”).
But perhaps the wording makes for confusion. The debate certainly concerns theology, but it also struggles in semantics. Allow me to make my case for the perspective that faith and works belong together, addressing theology/psychology first, and then offering a different way of speaking about the issue.
In the first place, there is more of a relationship between belief and behavior than Luther admits. Psychologists recognize that what one believes impacts how one behaves. In other words, if you really hold to an intellectual/spiritual conviction (in the case of Christians, the belief that Jesus is Savior and Lord), that conviction will guide the way you live. To insist that one can maintain belief apart from consequent behavior is to deny a fundamental aspect of human personality.
Regarding language, the word “works” is often what throws people off and turns them away. All orthodox Christians, after all, affirm that salvation isn’t a work to be achieved, but a gracious gift to be received. Faith responds to grace. Wherever there is faith, there has first been grace. But none of the NT authors refer to the works of faith as precipitators of salvation, but as ramifications or consequences. Works don’t lead to salvation, but they result from it.
The NT language of fruitfulness helps us understand this better. In Galatians 5:22-23 Paul describes “fruit of the Spirit,” i.e., the kind of life expected from one who cultivates awareness of and obedience to the Spirit. Jesus spoke of fruitfulness often in his teaching (Matt. 7:17-19 is one example). A life of faith bears the fruit of salvation, fruit of the Spirit, fruit of repentance. No dichotomy exists between faith and fruit, belief and behavior, for the genuine disciple of Jesus Christ.
For this reason, the Bible’s many invitations for us to take inventory of ourselves (Hag. 1:7; 2 Cor. 13:5) or let God search us (Ps. 139:23-24) are appropriate. If we profess faith, we should bear fruit—good fruit that grows from a life in union with Christ.