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.

James 2:14-26

Introduction
One of the themes of James is to show that beliefs yield some kind of activity. Generally speaking, because our lives are not a mere thought experiment, our actions do emerge from our beliefs. In other words, we live our lives from the inside out. Actions are the public expression of what we really believe and value.

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.

For James it is inconceivable to claim a faith that sets us right with God but shows no tangible evidence to accompany the claim. Asserting a belief in something with little or no substance that coheres with that belief is empty. Authentic faith is a faith that works.

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). As N. T. Wright once said, “We are justified by faith but also in accordance with our works.”

Separating Faith from Works (2:18-26)
What is the significance of the “shuddering demons who believe in God?” Three things.

First, James is saying what is obvious at first-reading, namely, 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?

Third, a passive profession of faith alone yields only 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 it is keeping promises that counts. This is James’s perspective and should be ours when presenting the true Gospel that saves.

Just as a body is dead without the animating spirit that gives it life, beliefs are dead without the corresponding behaviors that emerge from them. Virtually all behavior is grounded in a 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. This is James’s perspective.

At the end of the day, it is not a question of faith or works nor a question of faith and works. It is a faith that works!


Excursus: Paul versus James
Some may find that James’s message of being justified by works is contradictory to Paul’s message of being justified by faith alone. However, 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 continues. 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 and/or arguing against 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.

2 Comments

  1. I like this a lot, Paul. I feel we as human beings often say things to make ourselves appear to be good, but those things really aren’t in our hearts, thus just a putting on a face. It makes me think of something I read yesterday regarding guarding our thoughts – tangent from your topic, but just as important:
    “It all starts in our thought life. We have to guard our thoughts by guarding what we allow to influence our thoughts. We can’t just watch any old thing on TV. We can’t just listen to any old conversation. We have to make sure that what we allow into our minds is pleasing to the Lord because what we allow into our minds will eventually filter into our hearts. If we are going to ascend, we have to have higher thoughts; we have to have a higher way of living.”

  2. How very nice to hear from you, Diana! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I could not agree more. We do indeed live from the inside out….most of the time 😉

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