(Please read James 2:14-26)
The Scripture passage which forms the basis of our lesson today is one of the most misunderstood passages in the Book of James. Some see a contradiction between Paul’s teaching and the teaching of James. They say that Paul was a champion of salvation by grace, and James was a champion of salvation by works. We note some of the contrast by comparing Romans 3:28 with James 2:24.
Martin Luther thought James contradicted Paul and so he called the Book of James a “letter of straw” and he relegated it to the appendix of his German translation of the Bible. But how does one get saved anyhow? Do you just believe in Jesus Christ (like some of the radio preachers declare day after day)—or, do you rest your hopes on the philosophy (“if I treat my neighbor right, God’s going to treat me right”)? Is a person saved by faith in Jesus Christ? Or is he saved by practicing good deeds? Which one of these alternatives most accurately describes God’s method of salvation?
An important factor to keep in mind as we study the second chapter of the Book of James, is that Paul and James are not intending to contrast two opposite methods of salvation—one by grace, and the other by works. What James is really contrasting (is not two methods of salvation), but two kinds of faith in the life of a professing Christian—the one genuine, and the other faulty. The situations faced by the two writers (Paul and James) are different:
- Paul had in mind those who denied the doctrine of salvation by faith. He is speaking primarily to non-Christians who say that faith in Jesus Christ is not necessary.
- James had in mind those who distorted the doctrine of salvation by faith. He is speaking primarily to Christians who say that one’s good deeds are not so important.
Paul and James are not soldiers in two different armies fighting against each other. Paul and James are soldiers of the same army fighting against enemies coming from opposite directions! James is not writing an attack upon faith. He is not saying that faith in Jesus Christ is not necessary to salvation (when he says that a person is justified by works), but James is writing a protest against the hypocrisy of pretending to have faith—without demonstrating it in works. James does not deny the necessity of faith, but he does insist that genuine faith must produce results!
1. Genuine Faith Is Not an Empty Claim (2:14-17)
In the verses that comprise this section of the chapter, James states his argument, and then after expanding upon the facts of the argument, he draws a logical conclusion. Verse 14 says, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?” Since the original Greek has the definite article, it is best to translate the last question: “Can that faith save him?”
If a person says, “I have faith”—but his actions do not prove it—that kind of faith (which produces no works) is not a saving faith. (James does not actually express an answer to the question posed in verse 14, but the Greek construction implies clearly that the answer is negative).
The proof of one’s salvation is to be found in the good works which true salvation produces. Titus 3:8 says, “That they . . . might be careful to maintain good works.” Colossians 1:10 instructs that we are to be fruitful “in every good work.” And in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 we are told that all Scripture is inspired of God that we may be “throughly furnished unto all good works.” James insists that mere faith (that is, faith alone) cannot save.
In verses 15-16 the thought is illustrated by a proposition that borders on the absurd. James says, “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” James overstates the situation to illustrate the drastic need for good deeds in the life of the believer.
There is a Christian obligation to care for the poor and needy, especially the poor and needy in the Church. (The words “brother” and “sister” here stand in clear contrast to the word “man” in verse 2). The word “naked” is more correctly translated “ill-clad” or “thinly clad.” His clothing is not warm enough for the winter. Verse 16 describes those who are needy, cold, and hungry. If a brother or sister needs food and clothing—pious prayers won’t help! Reading Scriptures to them won’t help them! Speaking kind words won’t feed them and make them warm! When the leaders of the Jerusalem church agreed that Paul should go to the Gentiles, the one instruction that was pressed upon him was that he should not forget the poor (Galatians 2:10). This stress upon giving practical help to others was one of the lovely marks of the early church, and it should characterize believers today.
The sham and mockery of mere words (verse 16) are revealed by the statement, “Notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body.” We should be interested in people’s souls (and their spiritual conversion), but we must also have a concern for their bodies. It is mere hypocrisy to say, “We’ll pray for you and surely God will supply your need.” Matthew 25:31-46 is not everything the New Testament says about judgment, but the passage does say that we will be judged by the way we respond to our opportunities to show a Christlike spirit toward people in physical need.
In verse 17 we are told that if no deeds are forthcoming, it is proof that the professed faith is dead. James says, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” The kind of faith which makes pious remarks about helping the poor, but never really gives a coat or a casserole, is a dead faith. Faith must be accompanied by obedience, otherwise it is mere talk, and is void of all reality. Only faith which works is active and genuine. Genuine faith is not a mere empty claim that one believes in Jesus Christ.
2. Genuine Faith Is More Than Accepting a Creed (2:18-19)
There is a kind of “faith” that is miserably defective. It assents to doctrines and stands for orthodoxy, but practical labors of love are missing. In verses 18-19, James brings in a hypothetical person for the sake of healthy argument, and shows how real genuine faith is more than merely believing certain orthodox teachings of the Bible.
Verse 18 says, “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works.” The imaginary person James speaks about has a creed. He believes in the unity of God (verse 19a). He does not believe in many gods—a god of thunder and rain and love and harvest. He is not an idolater—but his life has no actions which prove that his faith is alive and real.
To show faith (without kind deeds) is impossible. Faith is an invisible and intangible exercise. You can’t see it. I can’t say, “Here is my faith; look at it.” Faith can only be shown by works. James does not argue for the priority of works over faith. He does not say that Christianity consists merely of doing good deeds. But James says that there is no real valid and genuine Christian faith apart from works.
In verse 19, James is still speaking to the man who professes faith but produces no works. The Bible says, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” The belief that “God is one” is good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. The person whose belief is mere assent to a creed, has companions in his faith—the devils also believe in the oneness of God. However they shudder at the thought of judgment. Their belief in one God does not “justify” (acquit them of evil); it does not make them right before God—and thus they are not saved, and they tremble because of their doom. One can make a loud profession of faith in Jesus Christ. He can be orthodox in his beliefs; he can believe in the original sin; he can stand for the substitutionary blood atonement; he can believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ—and still not have a saving faith. Genuine faith is more than accepting a biblical creed.
3. Genuine Faith Produces an Obedient Life (2:20-26)
A person who thinks he can be saved by a mere faith (without corresponding good deeds), is a foolish person. Verse 20 says, “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” In question form, James repeats his basic premise, that faith without works is barren and lifeless. He says, “Are you really willing to be taught that a barren faith is ineffective and worthless?”
And then in verses 21-24, we are given a reference to the obedience of Abraham. James gives an example from the life of Abraham to show how important good works are. (Paul, in his writings, had cited an example from the life of Abraham to show how important faith is. See Romans 4:1-25). Paul was referring to Abraham’s experience as recorded in Genesis 15. God took Abraham out one night and showed him the stars, and promised that his seed would be like the stars in number. And Abraham believed God. James refers to Abraham’s experience as recorded in Genesis 22. It is the moving account of how God (40 years later) asked Abraham to offer his only son (the son in whom the fulfillment of God’s promises depended) as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah. And Abraham obeyed God. James 2:21 says that Abraham’s faith was proved to be genuine by his outward act of obedience. The word “justify” (in verse 21) means “to vindicate” or “to prove.”
Verse 22 says, “Surely you can see that faith was at work in Abraham’s actions.” (“Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?”). Abraham had a strong faith. He believed God, to the point that he was sure Isaac would return home with him again from the place of sacrifice. Abraham said to his servants, “I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and we will come again to you” (Genesis 22:5, literal translation). The word “come” (in Genesis 22:5) is plural in the Hebrew. Not only would Abraham return, but so would Isaac. Thus the faith which Abraham had exhibited under the night-sky before God (40 years earlier), was now declared publicly before men.
The clause “And by works was faith made perfect” (James 2:22) does not mean that Abraham’s faith needed improving or correcting. There was nothing wrong with his faith, but when it expressed itself in obedience, then it was brought to completion. And just so, our faith, if it is a genuine faith—will be an action-producing faith.
Verse 23 (in our lesson) says, “And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the friend of God.” The words quoted here are a reference to Abraham’s earlier experience in Genesis 15. But—it was only after Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac forty years later (described in Genesis 22)—that the full meaning of the words “Abraham believed God” was brought out. The moment we make a faith-commitment to Jesus Christ, we become a new creature—but it is the life that we live henceforth, that proves the reality of our faith. And so in verse 24, James invites us to draw the obvious conclusion for ourselves: “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”
Only an obedient, fruit-bearing faith, is a saving faith. The world cannot see an abstract intangible faith, but it can see the fruits (the works) of faith.
Genesis 15 proves the necessity of faith.
Genesis 22 shows the necessity of works.
Paul teaches that works must spring from faith; James teaches that faith must be demonstrated by works. Genuine faith produces an obedient life. One who has a genuine faith will not dispute or resist any of the teachings of God’s Word.
James 2:25 tells about the experience of Rahab: “Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?” Abraham was the respected father of the Hebrew people. Rahab was a Gentile, a woman, and a prostitute. The Lord justifies the small and the despised, as well as the great and the honorable.
James says that Rahab’s experience teaches the same lesson as that of Abraham. The account telling about Rahab (who was a resident of Jericho), is found in Joshua 2. Rahab somehow and in some way came to believe in the God of the Israelites (Joshua 2:9-11), and she (like Abraham) was justified by faith. She put out a scarlet cord just like she had been told to do. Also, she concealed the Hebrew spies, and later sent them safely on their way. This was an act of obedient faith. She had given outward evidence of her faith. And so Rahab the harlot was justified by works. (James does not give approval to Rahab’s former life. It is her living faith—as seen against the background of her previous immorality—that he commends).
Verse 26 sums up the entire discussion: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” Faith which does not produce works is comparable to a corpse. Just as a corpse may look very natural, so faith may give the appearance of reality, even though it is a dead faith.
A dead body is good for nothing. Unless it is soon buried, it will spread stench and disease. Even so, a mere profession of faith in Jesus Christ (if it doesn’t produce good works) is dead also. Just as the body (without the animating spirit) is dead, so faith (without good works) is dead. The spirit and the body (when united) produce life. There is no earthly life apart from their unity. A human body doesn’t live by itself; a human soul doesn’t live by itself. So it is with faith and works.
Two men crossing a river in a boat were discussing the matter of faith and works. The man holding the oars, said, “Let’s call the one `Faith’ and the other `Works.’ Observe that if I pull the oar of Faith, the boat goes round and round. Notice that the same is true with the oar of Works. But when both are used together, we forge ahead to the destination we have in mind.”
The lesson in James 2:14-26 is at least three-fold: 1) Genuine faith is not an empty claim—not merely mouthing words about helping the hungry. 2) Genuine faith is more than accepting a creed—more than believing certain correct doctrines. 3) Genuine faith produces an obedient life—when God speaks on an issue there is no disputing and resisting His mandates.
Faith is the root of salvation; good works are the fruit of salvation. Titus 3:8 says, “These things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men.” Good works include commitments such as the following:
- I will commune with God at frequent intervals.
- I will seek to be patient under all circumstances.
- I will refuse to be discouraged by hard places.
- I will strive to manifest a forgiving spirit to those who seek my hurt.
- I will seek to help those who are less fortunate than I am.
- I will study the Word of God at some time each day.
James assumes that a person is justified before God by faith—but not by “faith alone.” Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves, is not alone.