First (and always first), the text:
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.
One of the themes of James is to show that beliefs yield some kind of activity. Generally speaking, 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. For instance, consider the following analysis.
|the right attitude in trials||yields maturity, endurance, and the crown of life||1:2-4, 12|
|material poverty or gain||yields humility or humiliation||1:9-11|
|temptation or desire||gives birth to sin||1:13-15|
|slowness in speech and anger||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||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 Big Idea
The main point of James 2:14-26 is that genuine belief produces a certain kind of behavior. Actions really do 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 inconceivable to claim a faith that sets us right with God but shows no tangible evidence to accompany the claim. The assertion of belief becomes empty with little or no substance that coheres with belief. Saying something is so does not make it so. Authentic faith is a faith that works.
Excursus: Paul versus James
Both are saying the same thing but have different vantage points. 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 from an internal reality. It is by faith alone that we are brought into a relationship with Jesus (Paul), whereas our works display the authenticity of our faith commitment (James). Therefore, Paul and James complement 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)
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. Is there such a thing as 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?[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.
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.
The body minus the spirit is 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 for James, it is not a question of faith or works, but a faith that works!