St. Paul talked about having Christian faith in the scriptures:
“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)
Most Christians, including in the Protestant world, understand that we can do nothing to merit God’s Grace. Pardon of our sins and eternal life are not something we can earn, but something that God in His lovingkindness bestows on mankind in Christ. What then is to be done with St. James’ statement in his book in the New Testament? “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” (James 2:17)
St. James’ statement seems to contradict St. Paul’s. So much so, that Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant Reformation called the book of James “an epistle of straw”. He did not like the fact that works were relevant to anything in the Christians life. Thus, today, there is a major theological discussion about the nature of faith. It is “faith alone” (Sola Fide) or is it “faith and works” that are required for salvation?
The mistake that is made is that the term “works” is vague. When we say “saved by grace” or “saved by faith” it leaves the question of works unanswered. Here is what we mean.
If I say: “Here is a dollar, it is free and it not in payment of anything. All you need to do is to come to my house and get it”. The first sentence says that it is completely an act of grace on my part. The second sentence does not affect that point at all. “Not by works” does not mean that there is nothing to do. It simply means, there is nothing to do to earn the gift.
There is the story of the laziest man on the earth who got a prize of a $1000 for that achievement. When he was told about it, he would not get up to get it but said “put it in my pocket!”
When we are offered the free grace of God, there is nothing we can do to earn it but that does not mean that God has no requirements to “come and get it”. We receive the grace through our faith. Our faith puts us into the people of God, the Church. That comes with responsibilities. Without carrying out those responsibilities our faith is not real – it is in fact “dead”. It does not even go to God to receive the benefits of being part of God’s people.
Nothing that we do earns the gifts that God gives us. What we do however, brings us before God as faithful servants who have come to his house with a fervent desire and love to receive those gifts. Without those works, as St. James says, our faith is indeed “dead” and we are in no position to receive the free blessings of God.