The word of the day is “by.” The controversy over faith and works since the Reformation era of the Western Church makes many uncertain about how faith relates to good works. Today’s reading of James 2:14-26 argues that “good works” are necessary to faith. The apostle writes, “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (vs. 18). In the Orthodox view, the phrase “by my works” suggests an answer to the question of faith’s relationship to good works. However, a discussion of this phrase shows that faith is not only essential to good works. But it determines the difference between works and good works (vs. 18).
The Source of Good Works
The word translated as “by” in Greek is “ek,” that is, “out of.” We can easily overlook this two-letter preposition. The short word has to do with the state of affairs or condition out of which a result comes (Strong’s #1537). In Greek, it implies that the condition and its outcome are closely related. Thus, it can mean “from,” denoting the origin of something. Or it can mean “by” or the method of doing something. Accordingly, good works are not only necessary to faith, but conversely, faith is the source from which good works come. Likewise, good deeds are the method, that is, the means by which faith is exhibited.
This analysis suggests that the difference between “works” and “good works” depends on the origin of the deed and what it exhibits. Consider your gift to a charity. What is the source of your act? Is it the desire to win the admiration of others? Is it to ease your conscience about the plight of the poor? Is it because your friend asked you for a contribution and you could not say “no”? In each case, your “work” does not come from faith, nor does it demonstrate faith. On the other hand, if you give to the poor because of your love of neighbor in trust that God will supply your needs and the needs of others through you (2 Cor. 9:8), your “good work” shows your faith.
The Test of Works: Motivation
These examples raise the important matter of motivation. St. Maximos the Confessor stated, “Many human activities, good in themselves, are not good because of the motive for which they are done.” Maximos says that many “good works,” from fasting to acts of charity, are “by nature good.” But, he goes on, “If they are done for the sake of self-esteem [vain-glory, self-glorification], they are not good.” (St. Maximos the Confessor, “400 Texts on Love” quoted in OSB “Works in St. Paul’s Writing,” 1602).
God, says Maximos, “searches out our purpose, to see whether we do it for Him or some other motive” (Maximos, “400 Texts on Love,” 36). With respect to “works,” therefore, faith has the role of motivating, inspiring, and directing what we do for the love of God and our neighbor. And this motivation makes a deed “good work.”
With our discussion in mind, we might say that “works” done to earn one’s justification before God are not “good works” at all. Would you agree or disagree?