Do our good works really please God?
The book of James often leaves us in a place of cognitive dissonance.
We know from Scripture (and experience) that all of us continue to sin, even as believers (1 John 1:8-9). We know that even our "good works," if examined closely, are mixed with unbelief and impurity. We know that, because of the indwelling sin that remains in us (Gal 5; Rom 7), we are unable to perfectly keep the commandments of God, and in fact break them every day in our thoughts, words, and deeds (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q&A 82).
How then can James teach that believers are both obligated and able to obey all of the commandments of God. "But be doers of the word, and not hearers only..." (1:25). How can James imply, as he does in 2:8-13, that believers are able to fulfill the whole law?
By way of an answer, we should observe that in many places, Scripture describes individuals as righteous or blameless. For example, Job is described as "blameless and upright" (Job 1). Luke records that both Zechariah and Elizabeth were "righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statues of the Lord" (Luke 1:6). Certainly, this does not mean that these saints were sinless, that they kept all of God's commandments all of the time. Yet, God can describe them as "blameless" with respect to his commandments. This fact helps us to understand the commands in James. James is under no illusion, and neither should we be, that any man can perfectly keep all of the commandments of God (see 3:2). Yet, as Christians we can obey the law in such a way as to be righteous and blameless in God's sight. How is this possible?
The Westminster Confession of Faith gives a masterful answer in the chapter on "Good Works"
WCF 16:6: "Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God's sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weakensses and imperfections."
In other words, because of God's grace to us in Christ, God is pleased and accepts our efforts at obedience, even though these efforts are not perfect. This is good news! Because of God's acceptance of us in Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit which now resides in us, we can indeed "work out our salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God who works in us both to will and to act according to his good pleasure." We can indeed do the good works that God has prepared beforehand for us. It is possible to be described by God as "blameless." May that be our aim, that we might glorify our Father who is in heaven.