How do faith and works relate?
Digging through James 2:18-26 in Home Group tonight we plowed into a hard word: “completed.” This word turned up as we studied the relation of faith and works. James 2:22 says about Abraham that “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (ESV). Now the first part makes sense to me. Faith and works are “active” alongside each other. James isn’t encouraging dead faith, or pharisaic works. He’s talking about a co-active works-faith combination. Neither of these are fully alive without each other. Both of these are active in the sense of being intentional, living, and dynamic. But the second part of vs. 22 seems a little weird. How do works “complete” faith?
The Greek word here is a form of teleioo which is in the same family with telos (“end,” or “goal”). The word can also be translated as “made perfect,” “made complete,” or “finished.” This term points out a rightful satisfaction; where one thing is lacking and unfinished, teleioo describes that finishing. Teleioo is where a thing has finally become all that it was meant to be. James uses the term to clarify how faith is incomplete on its own, it’s not it’s full self, unless there is a kind of work that spring from it to “finish the job.”
To make his point James offers Abraham as an example. James says in 2:21 that Abraham’s work, offering up Isaac, served towards justifying Abraham. Somehow, Abraham was “declared righteous before God” because of both faith and works. It’s critically important to remember that Abraham didn’t offer Isaac as a sacrifice until Genesis 22, many years after God talked with Abraham earlier Genesis 15. But two verses later in James 2:23, the author refers to that passage from seven chapters earlier, in Genesis 15:6. In James 2:23 he quotes Genesis 15:6 saying, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” But why did James go backwards?
Long before Abraham ever walked that fearsome road up the mountain to sacrifice his miracle child Abraham had already been credited with righteousness, literally “justified” before God. God sees Abraham and sees a forgiven and holy man. Abraham isn’t holy by his own works. But he is holy, because God has taken holiness and cloaked Abraham with it. But there came a time when that faith–from a decade earlier–was tested through a living, active, and utterly devastating work. He must offer his son to God as a literal human sacrifice. Fortunately God stops Abraham’s hand but the expression was complete. Abraham passed the test. Abraham’s works did not replace his faith, or earn his salvation, or anything like that. Abraham’s work completed his faith.
Abraham’s faith was a deposit that cashed out as good works. We too can start that deposit of faith, trusting God, and God grants us a credit of righteousness. But there are all sorts of chintzy knockoffs “faiths” that God discards. These don’t save people. God distinguishes “genuine” faith from the kind of “dead” inactive faith before He credits anything to a person. After all, “even the demons ‘believe’, and shudder” (James 2:19). Yet in all this talk about works, faith really does save people and faith really justifies people as righteous in God’s eyes. Faith gives people access to heaven. But the kind of faith that really works, the kind of faith that counts as the genuine article to where God looks at it and says, “You are genuine, I’m crediting you with righteousness,” that kind of faith is perfected with works. It’s natural completion is in works. It’s normal and suitable satisfaction is in works.
Faith by itself is an incomplete story, a cliffhanger. If people stop reading the book, or turn off the movie, or interrupt the storyteller before getting to the chapter about “works” they don’t have that full story of faith. That incomplete faith is inactive and dead, the same kind of dead faith that demons have when they believe that Jesus is Lord but remain unchanged because they don’t believe in Lord Jesus (James 2:19). The faith story remains incomplete until works bring completion. Works satisfy the hungry hope of faith. Works vindicate our faith.
When James says “works complete faith”, I think he’s saying that where faith leaves ya hangin works bring relief.