An analytical answer by Don W. Stoner
We are told by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” -Ephesians 2:8,9 (all quotations will be taken from the KJV)
But we are also told by James:
“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?” -James 2:14
Here, as with many apparent contradictions in the Bible, the difficulty disappears when we critically examine the possible meanings of the terms (words) used. Once we know the different possible meanings of those terms, we can examine their usage, in Scriptural context, to determine which of the possible definitions was originally intended.
In the question of whether salvation comes by works or faith, we first need to get a clear understanding of what the term “faith” (and its synonym “belief”) really means. Looking up “faith” and “belief” in an unabridged dictionary, such as Webster’s, reveals that they both have about a half dozen possible definitions. Further, except for the modern legal usage of the term “faith,” the two words are virtually interchangeable.
Although the words, themselves, are interchangeable, their definitions are not. The first thing we need to do is get a clear understanding of what differences exist between the different definitions so we will not confuse them with each other. There are two different definitions which we need to understand particularly well.
First, the terms “faith” and “belief” can be used to mean: “To hold to be true, unwaveringly.” A non-biblical example of this kind of belief can be found in the story of Peter Pan. In order to save Tinkerbell, children hearing the story must convince themselves that fairies exist and shout, “I believe in fairies.” This sort of belief has been suggested as a model for what is required for salvation in the Biblical sense. For our discussion we will refer to this definition of belief as, “definition one.”
The other definition of “faith” and “belief” that we must consider is: “To trust in or rely on.” A non-biblical example of this definition would be “belief” in the U.S. Dollar. In this example, the question of whether or not Dollars exist is not an issue; a person’s level of trust in the Dollar is what matters. A person who “believes” in the Dollar, in this sense, will probably not be selling his Dollars to buy Swiss Francs or Japanese Yen. This sort of belief has also been suggested as a model for what is required for salvation. Here we will refer to this as “definition two.”
Now that we have a clear understanding of the differences between these two definitions for “faith” or “belief,” we are ready to examine the Scriptures. When we apply these two possible definitions to individual verses, the surrounding context can tell us which definition is correct. We will start with John 3:16. Correct understanding of this verse is very important because the verse is foundational to Christianity.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. “ -John 3:16
As we learn from the first three verses of John, chapter three, the speaker is Jesus and he is addressing a man named Nicodemus who came to Him at night. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must “believe” in the Son of God, the question of whether or not Jesus exists is never an issue. Nicodemus is standing right in front of Jesus and can verify that for himself. Instead, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he must trust what Jesus is saying about Himself. What is important is whether or not Nicodemus will rely on Jesus – not whether he believes Jesus exists. Belief in the sense of “definition two,” not “definition one,” is what Jesus requests here.
Next we will examine a verse from James: “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” –James 2:19
Here we are reminded that the question of God’s existence is not an issue to the devils. Their “belief ,“ in this sense, is unwavering. Here James is telling us that the kind of “faith” specified by “definition one,” although good, is no more than what the devils possess. It is not enough to usher in salvation. This is why James says:
“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?” –James 2:14
We can see from context that James is using “definition one” for his meaning for the term “faith.” This kind of “faith” cannot save anyone. James provides some more information in verse 18:
“Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” –James 2:18
Here James reminds us that the kind of “faith” which is required for salvation will produce actions. Returning to our non-biblical example, a man who is selling his Dollars to buy gold, proves, by his actions, that he does not “believe” (definition two) in U.S. Dollars as much as he believes in gold. James’ argument is that a man’s actions will tell us where his trust (belief – definition two) really resides. The kind of faith which the devils possess (definition one) can stand alone, apart from works, but the other kind cannot.
Finally, let’s examine Paul’s statement about faith in his letter to the Ephesians:
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” –Ephesians 2:8,9
Let’s suppose that I intend to give you a Dollar; I hold it out and offer it to you. Because you believe the Dollar has value, you reach out your arm and take it, making it yours. Your physical action of acceptance shows that you believe the Dollar has value; but that action is not enough work that you could claim to have earned the Dollar. It is still my gift to you. What Paul is telling us is that no matter how much work our faith (definition two) causes us to do, it will never be enough to earn the gift of salvation. That is still a gift that we can never claim to have earned.
In conclusion, are we saved by works? Certainly not. The works, which our faith (definition two) demands, could never pay for salvation. Are we saved by faith? Faith (definition one) will not save us; but faith (definition two) is the means God has chosen for delivering his free gift.
There are two different meanings for the terms “faith” and “belief.”
1. The sense implied by “belief in fairies” where the individual has never seen a fairy and must decide whether or not they exist.
2. The sense implied by “belief in the Dollar” where the question of existence is considered settled, but the question of trust remains.
In John 3:16, where Jesus addresses the need for “belief,” the question of existence is settled because Jesus is standing physically in front of his audience Nicodemus. This leaves the question of “trust” for Nicodemus to consider. What James, chapter two, is getting at is that settling the question of existence is insufficient to save a man. Even the devils have this kind of faith – and tremble (verse 19). Correctly settling the question of “trust” is also necessary for salvation.
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Eph. 2:8; Eph. 2:9; Jas. 2:14; Jas. 2:18; Jn. 3:16; Ephesians 2:9.