1. James 2:14-26 Faith and Works 

James 2:14-26 Faith and Works

Some would say the most controversial matter James raised in his little letter to the Jews scattered throughout the Gentile world was that he pit faith against works. I do not believe that James viewed faith as separate from works at all. His teaching is that faith will always find outward expression in the things the believer says and does. The real controversy in this passage is that some people who want to be known as believers, claim to be exactly that, yet their motivations, values, attitudes, and behaviour make a lie of their words. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s read the verses which have disturbed so many.

James 2:14-26 “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe — and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”

That’s a fairly long section so I propose to consider it in sections this way: Verse 14 — the issue. Verses 15-17 — a practical illustration. Verse 18 — anticipating an argument. Verse 19 — an illustration from the underworld. Verse 20: the issue restated. Verse 21-24 — Abraham as an illustration. Verse 25 — Rahab as an illustration. Verse 26 — the issue restated again.

You can see just from organizing the ideas in this passage this way that James stated his thesis three different ways. It was obviously important to him, so lets consider what would be considered the central teaching of the letter. Here are the three statements:

Verse 14: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?”

Verse 20: “But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?”

Verse 26: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”

  Notice that the in the first two instances, James used questions to make a point. What he was doing was forcing his readers to state his argument for him in their own minds. Just formulating the words of an answer in their minds, even without speaking them, started them off with some level of agreement with him. Notice, too, that in the first instance, he called his readers “my brethren,” but the second time, he addressed them with the words “O foolish man.” This suggests to me that after his first declaration he knew he would have won over most of his readers, but he also would know there would be some holdouts. So he pours on the pressure by suggesting that by holding an opposing position, they were foolish. If he were merely arguing over human opinions, this might be nothing more than a debating technique, but James was stating revelation from God, so arguing against it is indeed foolish.

It is also worth noting his choice of words. Several Greek words are translated by the English word “foolish.” The word James used here is “kenos.” It means empty, vain, or devoid of truth. Usually we think of foolish as unwise or silly, but by calling those who disagreed with him “foolish,” James indicated their failure to comprehend the truth. These were people who, as we might say, “just didn’t get it.” He wasn’t accusing them of being ungodly or impious, rather he was reminding them that they hadn’t grasped his point yet.

The third time he stated his teaching about works an faith, he used a simple declarative sentence. He put it out there, with the assumption that after hearing his logic and illustrations they understood his premise that faith cannot be separated from works.

These verses show us what James wanted to teach his readers, but they are separated by other verses. Let’s revisit his introduction to the idea and, this time, pay particular attention to how he follows it up with some explanation.

James 2:14-17 “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

After challenging his readers with the idea that you can’t have faith without works, James offered a practical example. He pictured a destitute individual approaching someone, perhaps even a sibling or other close family member, with enough resources to share. The impoverished person was clearly in trouble. James went so far as to describe this unfortunate soul as naked, perhaps so the one to whom he came for help can see his or her malnourished body. The wealthy person felt something for the sad specimen of humanity who had sought his aid, which he verbally expressed with kind words along the line of “Move along in peace with my blessing. For you I wish warm clothes and a full stomach.” But that’s as far as it went. Nice words but no action. Kind sentiments but no help. The person departs in the same dire condition he or she was in at the beginning.

Then, James asked “What good is that?” Clearly, as far as he was concerned, it was no good at all. It was of no value. Nothing had changed for the destitute individual. A warm emotional response by itself is useless when the need is physical. In the same way, a carefully crafted systematic theological approach to life by itself is useless, given that God calls us to be the body of Christ — His hands and feet in the world.

We don’t know how old James was when he wrote this, but he obviously had a good grasp of the contrary streak that often crops up in human nature. Since he was writing a letter which would be read later, in another place, he had to anticipate the objections that some were bound to feel rising in their defensive little hearts. Listen to what he wrote:

James 2:18-20 “But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe — and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?”

James knew that some argumentative, I’m-going-to-challenge-everything-you-say person would disagree with him. This person would argue that faith and works were two separate entities, and each by itself could be sufficient without need of the other.

But the faithful saint wouldn’t give an inch. You can’t have one without the other if you are truly a child of God. Your faith will find expression in your actions; your actions will be shaped by your faith. It’s as simple as that. He challenged his detractor like this: Show me, if you can, your faith without your works. This is an impossibility. Real faith in God is bound to be reflected in the behaviour of the believer. If you have real faith, you will avoid sin, you will exhibit the fruit of the spirit in practical ways, you will engage in spiritual exercises which hold no appeal whatsoever for the unbeliever. James didn’t leave his challenger wondering about the truth, he told him that his own faith was evident in the things that he did, the way he acted.

Then he turned the challenge back. He acknowledged that his detractor was a Christian when he said, “you believe that there is one God. Good for you!” Now what is implied, but not stated because James was very spare in his use of ink, is that if faith, by itself, is all one needs to be saved, then everyone who believes in God is saved. This seems to make sense. It sounds logical. But in response to this incorrect assumption, James pointed to a category of beings that believes fervently in God, so much that they tremble in fear. He wa talking about demons. Clearly, they know about God, they had been in His presence in a way that we humans have not been, yet they do not repent, they do no works of righteousness, they remain fervently opposed to God, His purposes, and His perfection.

It was at this point that James called his detractor a foolish man — one who didn’t grasp his point. He asked “But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” In other words, “Are you willing to consider that faith by itself, without some evidence, is dead — useless to demonstrate real spiritual life.”

I can imagine James’ pen almost digging into the parchment in his passion here. He was frustrated. This is clear from the way he kept hammering away at this key point. Having tried logic, he turned to Old Testament examples. Remember, he was writing to Jews who were scattered throughout the known world at the time. They would have been familiar with both Abraham and Rahab — the two specific cases he pointed to.

James 2:21-26 “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”

First he pointed to an exemplary man — the father of the Jews. Abraham trusted God, but how do we know? Because someone told us? No. He acted in faith. He did what God asked him to do. He was even willing to sacrifice his Son. By this we see the way that faith and works fit together perfectly. Abraham was a man of faith, to be sure. The Scripture says that he believed God and this faith was reckoned to him for righteousness. He was even called a friend of God, but not just because of secret or hidden faith. He lived his faith out in the world for others to see, even when it cost him the dearest thing in his life.

Then James called an exemplary woman to the stand to testify to the truthfulness of his teaching. Rahab, a gentile, had faith in the God of the Jews. That was a good thing. But it was insufficient to save her. Only when she acted on behalf the Israelite spies, putting herself at risk by hiding them, and keeping them safe was her faith revealed. When it was, the Israelites promised to save her and her family when judgment fell on the city. Sure enough, they were the only ones saved. Saved by faith in action.

How about you, today? I hope you are not one of the foolish ones that James referred to, trying to compartmentalize life, keeping faith separate from the way you live.