Recently I was talking with a good friend about the role of works in our salvation. We both agreed that works are not the basis of our salvation in Christ, since it alone rests upon God’s grace apart from works (Eph 2:8-9). However, we also agreed that our final judgment or declaration of our moral standing before God will be in accordance with our works. That is to say, what we do now matters for eternity.
With this in mind, and because I’m getting a lot of traffic on a series of posts from a few years ago, I thought that I would combine the series into one post on that most controversial passage from James 2:14-26.
James’s primary concern here is to show that beliefs most often yield some kind of activity. Every action is grounded in a belief or disposition. In essence, we live from the inside out. Thus, our actions are the public expression of what we really believe and value. This principle is repeated in James 1 and 2. For instance, consider the following analysis.
|1:2-4, 12||the right attitude in trials||yields maturity, endurance, and the crown of life|
|1:9-11||material poverty or gain||yields humility or humiliation|
|1:13-15||temptation or desire||gives birth to sin|
|1:19-21||slowness in speech and anger||produces the righteous life God requires|
|1:22-25||merely listening to the word but failing to do it||results in spiritual indifference|
|1:26-27||a pure and undefiled religion||manifests in active concern for the helpless|
|2:1-13||showing equal concern for every person||demonstrates our obedience to the command to love your neighbor as yourself|
The main theme of James 2:14-26 is that genuine belief 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. Saying something is so does not make it so. Authentic faith is a faith that works.
Paul versus James
Both are saying the same thing but have different vantage points. Understanding justification as having a right moral standing before God, Paul’s perspective speaks primarily 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 either they do not need faith because their works are sufficient or those who downplay the role of faith because of their heritage. 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, the external output of an internal reality. 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). John Calvin says it well: “Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone” or “We are justified not without, and yet not by works.” Consider also the penetrating words of another John, “Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person” (1 John 2:4).
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 alone is insufficient and shamefully demonic. Is there really such a thing as spurious faith? Consider 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? (cf., also Mark 5:6-10)
- Third, a passive profession yields death. There are no fence-sitters.
(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) Just as the body minus the spirit is death so 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 believe that 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 emerges from 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, actions really do speak louder than words!