There is much discussion in the world of children’s ministry these days over the issue of values based curriculum. I believe that discussion is an important one to have, and in the end it comes down to how values are taught rather than if they are taught which will determine whether or not a curriculum has the right focus. The whole argument though, is much older than just the current discussion. The argument stems from a misunderstanding of good works that dates back to the time of the New Testament writers (and frankly, well back into Old Testament times).
Ephesians 2:8-9 clearly explains how we are saved:
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 ESV)
We are saved by grace alone, and there is nothing that we do, no good work that we can perform, which merits that grace. It is given to us solely as the discretion of Our God and out of His loving kindness.
However, James (the brother of Jesus) is quick to remind us:
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.
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? (James 2:14-20 ESV)
Come again? We are saved by faith alone and not by works, right? Absolutely! But, faith without works is dead? You betcha! How can that be? This must be one of those internal contradictions in the Bible that you hear so much about, right? No way. The Bible is inerrant and has no contradictions.
The fact of the matter is, absent a right understanding of good works in the context of salvations, we can become hopelessly confused about exactly how we should live our lives, and why. So, let’s take a few minutes to explore this issue.
The Bible is clear that we are saved by faith alone. In that regard it is unique among world religions all of which have some form of works system in order to gain right standing before their god. In all other religions you must act a certain way, or do certain things, or commit more good acts than bas acts in order to earn the favor of their deity. Christianity stands alone as a belief system which bases salvation on faith alone without any semblance of works.
So, what was James talking about? What does he mean when he says that faith without works is dead? Simply this – after placing our faith in Christ (by grace), an appreciation of all that God has done for us will lead us to desire to live our lives in a way which is pleasing to God. It is worth noting that, once again, it is by God’s grace that we are given the power to do this.
I recently came across a quote from John MacArthur which sets this out better than anything else I have seen. He write in “A 15-Year Retrospective on the Lordship Controversy:”
But, as the Reformers said, while faith alone justifies, the faith that justifies is never alone. Genuine faith inevitably produces good works. The works are the fruit, not the root, of faith.
Distinguishing between whether our works are roots (something we believe will earn us favor with God) or fruit (something done in obedience based on all that God has done for us) is critical to having a fruitful walk with God. Over the next few installments of this series, we will look at a variety of Christian practices or disciplines and try to discern whether we are doing those good works as fruit or root.