"But hang on a minute! I thought Christianity was different because people aren't climbing up." Right! "I thought it was all about grace." Right! "I thought it was all about faith and not about works." Wrong!
James isn't saying we're saved by our works. Or at least he's not saying we're saved by faithless works. The kind of works that James is talking about are the works of faith. The thing to realise is that faith isn't just a mental decision or intellectual ascent to something. What James is trying to say is that faith does stuff! Faith acts! Faith works! You can't separate them because wherever real faith is, you'll also see the works. And it follows that if there's no good works, there's a big question over whether there's any real live faith there. Faith in Jesus should change lives, defend the cause of the weak, welcome the marginalised, feed the hungry, give to the poor, save the lost!
Faith works! This is so important. People get into all sorts of tangles with this passage and we need to avoid two main mistakes...
- Workless faith - This is what James bangs on about very strongly. Academic faith that makes no difference in real life. It's a waste of time. It's no real faith at all. It's dead. All biblical theology should be applied biblical theology; otherwise we're not doing it right! People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care!
- Faithless works - This is the other danger. This is where Christianity becomes like all the other religions and worldviews because it starts doing what everyone else is doing - climbing up. Doing stuff to try and earn God's love. It never works! We'll never be good enough for God in our own strength. That's why we need grace, forgiveness and a fresh start. God loves us as we are but he loves us too much to leave us that way.