Have you ever read two portions of Scripture that seemed contradictory? Yesterday morning I was cramming to finish memorizing James 2 before my accountability partner arrived in the afternoon. I was working on this part: “Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete. And so it happened just as the Scriptures say: ‘Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.’ He was even called the friend of God. So you see, we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone.” (James 2:21-24)
Wow – did you catch that last part? “We are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone.” Memorizing that sentence seemed to fly in the face of the gospel itself. Salvation by faith alone. The Romans road – all have sinned – its not about works. I was chewing on that when later that morning, I was doing my daily reading and found myself in Romans 4. The same verse about Abraham is quoted but with a totally different spin: “Abraham was, humanly speaking, the founder of our Jewish nation. What did he discover about being made right with God? If his good deeds had made him acceptable to God, he would have had something to boast about. But that was not God’s way. For the Scriptures tell us, ‘Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.'” Then in verse 13 it says, “Clearly, God’s promise to give the whole earth to Abraham and his descendants was based not on his obedience ot God’s law, but on a right relationship with God that comes by faith.”
Memorizing one passage and then reading the other caused me to ask some questions. Which comes first – faith or deeds? Like the chicken or the egg – the argument seems circular. Both verses quote the same OT passage but emphasize different points. James says we are shown to be right by what we do, not faith alone. Romans claims that Abraham’s deeds weren’t what made him right with God, it was faith alone. I thought a lot about the apparent discrepency.
Having just finished Beth Moore’s James study, I knew a little history about James’ audience of Jewish believers. Coming out of Judaism they needed to be assured that following Christ was not a ticket for license. Real faith produces good deeds. However, Romans addressed Gentile believers who needed to know that they weren’t signing up for the intense rule-following of the Pharisees. Faith was the basis of salvation. Both messages are the same. The key is the chicken and egg argument. Which comes first? Which is our focus? Faith or good deeds.
If we live by faith as Abraham did, our lives will produce good works. Abraham believed God and his life wasn’t perfect, but it did reveal obedience. He left his home and traveled by faith. He believed God for an heir when it didn’t seem possible. Then he took his one and only son and was willing to sacrifice Him. His faith revealed itself in action. He focussed on believing God, and actions naturally flowed out. Faith comes first. To make your priority the good deeds, however, is a recipe for legalism. It’s manufactured works, with wrong motives, and ending in pride and entitlement. To try to live in obedience to God in our human strength is futile.
When obedience and good works don’t flow out of our lives, it shouldn’t cause us to work harder. Instead, we should evaluate our faith. Are we believing God fully, without wavering? We start with faith. Then real faith produces good deeds. It’s all about the order. While we may never figure out which came first in the case of the chicken or the egg, we know what needs to be the priority with faith and deeds. Faith first. Then real faith can’t help but display itself in our lives.
The passages aren’t contradictory after all. They are emphasizing different points based on the needs of the audience. Romans 3:31 falls right in line with James teaching when it says, “Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the law? Of course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the law.”
So today let’s start with faith, “the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen.” (Hebrews 11:1) This has been a heady post. Now our theology needs to meet our reality. What will build our faith today practically? How about meditating on these promises from God and asking Him to help you believe them in your circumstances today:
“And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:19
“’My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9
“But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:57
These verses and the many others keep us from chickening out in our pursuit of God. As we study His Word and then believe it without wavering, God’s Spirit will give us the supernatural power to live it out.