What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless. Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that people are justified by what they do and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
This is the first of three posts on the intersection of faith and works.
James’s primary concern here is to show that our beliefs necessarily yield some kind of fruit. Every action is grounded in a belief. In essence, we live from the inside out. Thus, our actions are the public expression of what we really believe and value. For instance, James speaks about a right attitude in trials that yields maturity, endurance, and the crown of life (1:2-4, 12); material poverty or gain that yields humility or humiliation (1:9-11); temptation that gives birth to sin (1:13-15); slowness in speech and anger that produces the righteous life God requires (1:19-21); merely listening to the word but failing to do it results in spiritual indifference (1:22-25); a “pure and undefiled religion” that manifests in active concern for the helpless (1:26-27); showing equal concern for every person demonstrates our obedience to the command to love your neighbor as yourself (2:1-13). The main theme of James 2:14-26 is that genuine belief necessarily produces a certain kind of behavior. God wants us to understand that “actions speak louder than words.”
Consider this paraphrase: “What good is it if someone says they have fire but no heat? Can that fire warm him? Just as a light bulb is useless if it does not give off light, so too fire, if it yields no heat, is worthless.”
For James it is unimaginable to claim to have a faith that saves but no tangible evidence to accompany the claim. The assertion becomes empty without substance. Authentic faith is a faith that works.
Part 2, scheduled tomorrow, considers alleged disparities between James and Paul’s teaching.