When God speaks to us, He often nudges us from the left and then from the right, in order to get our feet walking in a razor-sharp line of truth. Narrow is the way that leads to life. Over the years, some have said the writings of Paul and James create such a clash that there must have been disunity between the men. Whether there was friction or not, this view can easily fail to see the Holy Spirit’s role, how He actively seeks to sharpen us to an extremely precise understanding of salvation and of His ways. Do we not sharpen a blade on both of its sides? So does the Lord sharpen us with different angles of His truth.
Paul states that salvation is God’s gift to us which comes “through faith,” and is “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). James declares that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24). In what universe can both of these be true? First, we must see that James is not suggesting “works” as something separate from faith. He even references Abraham, the “father of faith,” how he willingly offered up his only son on the altar. He notes that Abraham’s faith was “working with” his actions and “was perfected” by his actions (2:22). Paul saw a righteousness freely given by grace through faith, though he had sought it by works; James saw that same righteousness, freely given to us by faith but evidenced by works, which inevitably flow from sincere faith.
So, we must ask, what is our attitude toward works? So much can be discerned about the condition of our souls if we are allowing sin to continue unchecked in even one area of our lives. As James states, some may never become angry or murderous in their hearts, but they are loose in their affections and given to lust (2:11). Others may have it all together in the area of adultery but are guilty of partiality, choosing to respect the wealthy while disregarding poor folks. In the eyes of Christ, both individuals are active and willful transgressors of His law. Though they have their act cleaned up in one area, they have let sin have mastery over them in another. Both are living contrary to the law of love.
This is not to be confused with a believer’s struggle against sin. A sincere believer who loves the Lord Jesus may struggle, especially as a new Christian, with sin patterns. But it will grieve and deeply trouble them, and their struggle will be against the sin, rather than making peace with it. If they submit to discipleship, confession, and transparency with other believers, Jesus will give them the victory; it is only a matter of time. Why will Jesus give them victory? Because victory is what they truly desire, and it will be a precious gift received with joy.
Clearly, it is not the absence of any sin whatsoever that defines true saving faith. It is the issue of repentance. It is not a matter of one specific sin or the other. It is what our continued sin reveals about our attitude toward God. Is there anything I am aware of in my conduct that the Bible calls sin, but which does not bother me? If so, I need to earnestly repent. My actions reveal that Jesus has not been precious to me. Jesus is not the heartbeat of my life. I am not treating Jesus as a treasure hidden in a field, for whom I sell all I have just to buy that field. Every unrepentant sin, from murder to partiality in the church, reveals a heart that is no longer seeking to please God but self. We may call many things “faith,” but as James shows us, a faith that does not change my life is not a faith that will save me on the last day (2:14).
If you see in your life a desire to please God, you ought to treasure it and thank Jesus for it! If you see a trajectory over the past year of loving Jesus more, of being even a little more like Him, praise God for it and pray it will increase. If you are sometimes falling, yet you have a repentant heart, thank the Holy Spirit, and ask Him for an increase. Ask Him for the victory. Don’t let go of Him until He blesses you with it! Above all, choose mercy toward others (2:13). May our own weakness toward temptation humble us into judging others mercifully.
The Rock Church