This is partly a response to the latest post in Peter Enns' blog (which shows his talent for inflammatory post titles to draw you in), "Why I Don't Believe In God Anymore". He asserts that our word "believe" has become inadequate, concerned with orthodoxy and creeds over real relationship, and that "trust" is closer to how the Bible says we are to believe. Trust, it turns out, is much more difficult and scary than belief.
I think Enns hits the nail on the head. My church uses the phrase "intellectual assent" to describe this kind of empty, powerless belief: you know and wholeheartedly believe the doctrine of the trinity, the doctrine of the atonement, the doctrine of supra, infra, or sub-lapsarianism, but that's all. Your faith is agreement with doctrine, but nothing more. It does't change how you live; there is no trust involved, only easy, safe belief.
This is exactly the difference that James repeatedly addresses in his letter. He says that doing the word should come naturally from hearing it: "But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves." (1:22) And he unpacks this more in 2:14-26:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.James makes clear his case that Christianity is not just a set of "beliefs"; it must lead to good works to be true, otherwise it is "dead". He uses "faith" to mean these beliefs and "works" for the change that they must result in.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
What, then do we do with Paul, who writes, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9)? For just as much as James argues that faith and works are inseparable, Paul tells us that they are incompatible:
- For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:28)
- Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. (Romans 9:32)
- Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? (Galatians 3:2)
In short, Paul and James are addressing different issues and drawing two different distinctions. The "faith" Paul espouses is the same thing as James' "faith that leads to works" package. The "works" Paul is referring to constitute legalism, trying to self-righteously justify oneself to God by following the law instead of trusting. If, like I might have six months ago, you ask, "Well, then why doesn't the text say that?", James is not Paul.
Another image my pastor (semi) frequently uses is that of riding a bicycle on an icy road, trying not to fall to either side. On one side is legalism, and on the other is licentiousness, or (to use the theological term) antinomianism. The tension between Paul and James is similar. The center of the road is this faith-as-trust-that-leads-to-good-works. One ditch is legalism, "justification by works", trying to work your way up to what God offers to feel all good and self-righteous. The other ditch is the empty, "dead" faith James warns against that passes all the creedal litmus tests with flying colors but doesn't live any differently. If we are only concerned with avoiding one extreme (as Christians who overly focus on Paul may be and as sola fide states), we will swerve towards the other.