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. — James 2:14-26
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.
Paul versus James
Both are saying the same thing but have different vantage points. Paul’s perspective speaks to where justification begins, whereas James’s perspective speaks to where justification ends. When Paul claims that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28) he is arguing against those (Jews) who claim they do not need faith because their works are sufficient. James, on the other hand, argues that we are “justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24) because works are the product of faith, or the culmination of faith. We are brought into a relationship with Jesus by faith alone (Paul) and our faith demonstrates its authenticity by our works (James). Therefore, Paul and James compliment rather than contradict one another.
Inactive faith cannot save nor can it justify (v. 14, 24). “Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone” or “We are justified not without, and yet not by works” (John Calvin).
Separating Faith from Works (2:18-26)
(Read v. 19) What is the significance of the “shuddering demons who believe in God?” Three things: First, James is trying to get us to see that beliefs have implications. Second, a mere verbal profession of faith is insufficient and shamefully demonic. [Incidentally, demons are ahead of most in society today since demons at least accept the fact that there is one God and that Jesus is His Son (cf., Mark 5:6-10).] Third, a passive profession yields death.
Sidebar: A Spurious Faith?
Read John 2:23-25, 6:60-66, and 8:31-59. What kind of belief/faith is John demonstrating? Read Acts 8:13-24. Based upon Peter’s response to Simon, is there any reason to conclude that Simon believed unto salvation?
(Read v. 22) James is not saying that we are saved by faith or by works. Nor is James saying we are justified by faith and by works. Rather, James is saying that we are justified by faith that manifests, or results in, or produces works. Works are the fulfillment of faith, just as follow-through is the fulfillment of a promise. Anyone can make promises, but keeping promises is what counts. This is James’s perspective and should be ours when presenting the true Gospel that saves.
(Read v. 26) Body – spirit = death. Beliefs cannot be separated from behavior. All behavior is grounded in belief. For example, if I show up on time to a meeting, it is because I believe that being on time is important. If you remain in school and finish your degree, then you’re showing that you believe getting a degree is valuable. In the same way that it’s unimaginable to have a painting without the paint, so too a person cannot have faith without works. Faith is to the paint as works are to the painting. The one gives rise to the other. Or consider: Just as the hand animates the utility, function, and purpose of a glove, so too works animate the utility, function, and purpose of faith.
At the end of the day, the logical connection between faith and works is, for James, the connection between heaven and hell. “Many will say to me on that day…” Actions really do speak louder than words!