Expanded upon from my sermon on Sunday:
The relationship between grace and works is a subject of continuous controversy within Christianity. One of the primary divisions between Protestantism and Catholicism is this question. The Reformers insisted on sola gratia, salvation by grace alone, while the Catholics believe that our works are a necessary part of our justification before God. Within the Protestant camp, there was further division. The Reformed, following especially John Calvin and the threefold use of the Law, believed that good works are a necessary result of our justification, while they are no part of the grounds for our justification. The Lutherans believed that this placed undue weight on works, and insisted that the only function of the Law was to condemn us and drive us to Christ (with, naturally, some variation within their own ranks in how they expressed this). This partially explains why Luther questioned the canonicity of the book of James, with its heavy emphasis on the importance of good works.
Finally, there have been and continue to be some in the Reformed faith who believe that the Reformers went too far in insisting on sola gratia, and that it is untrue to Scripture to say that works are no part of our justification.
But James never tells us that works are the grounds of our justification, in the way that Paul uses the word justification. The statement “faith without works is dead” corresponds to Jesus’ frequent use of the fruit tree as metaphor for the moral life of the righteous and wicked. The righteous produce good fruit, and the wicked produce bad fruit. But the fruit is not what makes the tree one kind of tree or another. The tree already was what it was. The fruit is the necessary result of what the tree is. Tying apples to an orange tree will not turn it into an apple tree. And tying fruit to a dead tree will not make it alive. James is talking about what the necessary results of a true faith will be, and how that faith is demonstrated in good works.
The traditional Reformed doctrine regarding this relationship, then, is that good works are the necessary result of our faith, but are not the grounds of that faith or of our justification before God. And the result of this is that while exhortations to good works are traditionally part of the Reformed ministry, such exhortations should not be seen as exhorting people to do good works, but rather how to do them, and how to do more of them, and how to do them in ways that are more true to God’s word. For telling a man to do good works is like telling a man to breathe. If the man’s alive, he’s already breathing. And if he’s not alive, he can’t hear you. Likewise, if a man has faith, he’s doing good works, according to James. And if he has no faith, he lacks the capacity to understand the word of God anyway (1 Cor 2:14).
The key then, is always faith. If a man’s works are lacking, and all of ours are, then the answer to that is not to tie more works onto a dead tree. It is to have more faith. Belief in Christ and in the Gospel will produce the results that Scripture says will always be the result of a true and robust faith in Jesus Christ.