This week we begin with Question 34 of the New City Catechism, found in Part 2 (questions 21-35), which focuses on Christ, redemption, and grace.
Question 34: Since we are redeemed by grace alone, through Christ alone, must we still do good works and obey God’s Word?
Answer: Yes, because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, also renews us by his Spirit; so that our lives may show love and gratitude to God; so that we may be assured of our faith by the fruits; and so that by our godly behavior others may be won to Christ.
We are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. James makes this point clear in a passage that, at a surface level, appears to contradict Paul’s teaching. In chapter 2, verses 14-26 of his letter, James addresses the question of whether faith without works can save us. Notice, first of all, that even in asking the question that way (v. 14), James must be assuming that faith alone saves. He does not question that teaching; his question has to do with the kind of faith that saves. After all, faith itself is invisible, and any person could claim to trust in Christ without really entrusting himself to Christ as Savior and Lord. So how can we know if a claim to faith is real or not?
James’s answer is that faith will be revealed by one’s works. If a person claims to trust in Christ but does not obey Christ, in what sense is that person’s claim true? If you tell your doctor that you trust his judgment, but then refuse to take the medicine he prescribes for you, then you don’t really trust his judgment.
This is the sense in which Abraham was justified by works (James 2:21): he was vindicated as a true believer in the moment of testing when he showed his willingness to sacrifice his own son at God’s command. This is also the sense in which Rahab was justified by works when she hid the Israelite spies from her own people, showing that her trust in the God of Israel was more than mere lip-service (James 2:25). Neither Abraham nor Rahab merited eternal life by works. They were not counted right with God in those moments of testing. Rather, they were proven to be people with real faith, the kind of faith that saves. We are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.
Suggested passage for personal or family reading: James 2:14-26. What is the relationship between faith and works in this passage? What does this teaching mean for your life?