James 2:14-26

The Nature of True Faith

Faith lies at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.  And so it is important for us to consider whether or not we have the right kind of faith.  How do I know if the faith that I possess is the faith that God requires? This is the question that James sets out to answer for us in this passage.  He presents 3 kinds of faith: A Dead Faith (v.14-18), A Demonic Faith (v.19-20), and A Dynamic Faith (v.21-26).

#1 A Dead Faith

The first “faith” we see here is what James calls a dead (v.17) faith.   A dead faith is a lonely faith, lacking any fruit.  What this faith is lacking in actual substance, it makes up for in empty words.  See how James describes it: What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? (v.14)  He does not say “if anyone has faith,”  but rather “if anyone says he has faith.” In other words, he is not pitting faith against works. He is addressing someone who claims to have faith but does not have any works that flow from that faith.  Many are unnecessarily confused by this entire passage because they have failed to understand this single point.  James is not attempting to contrast faith with works, as if one route to heaven was through faith and another was through works.  No, James is comparing real faith with false faith.  This false faith is a dead faith because it is all talk.

He gives the example of a brother or sister who is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food (v.15).  Someone sees his person and says “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” but doesn’t do anything to help like providing things needed for the body (v.16).  What good is this?  Will words alone help this brother?  Certainly not!  James says in the same way words alone are unable to save your soul: faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (v.17).  Real faith is not demonstrated by words alone.

James insists that faith and works must go together.  He addresses the person who tries to separate them, who says, “You have faith and I have works (v.18). James asks this person to do what cannot be done: show me your faith apart from  your works (v.18). This is an impossibility.  Like the neighborhood boy who is always claiming he could hit a homerun with one hand tied behind his back but never goes near a baseball field.  This is why James says I will show you my faith by my works. When real faith is present, it will make itself known. How?  Through works!  Through action!

In Mark 2, some men come to Jesus carrying a paralyzed man.  Because of the crowd around Jesus, they had to climb on top of a house and lower their paralyzed friend through a hole they created.  What happened next is remarkable.  We are told in Mark 2:5, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.'” What did Jesus see?  How did he “see” their faith?  He saw their works!  He knew real faith was present because of what they did.

#2 A Demonic Faith

So words alone do not demonstrate real faith.  But what if someone has good theology?  They are doctrinally sharp.  Is this a sign of real faith?  What if they have a genuine emotional connection to that theology?  What if when they think about who God is, there is an involuntary emotional response?  To use the word of the old African spiritual, they “tremble, tremble, tremble.”  Does this give evidence of real faith?  Not quite says James.  You believe that God is one; you do well.  Even the demons believe–and shudder! (v.19)

Demons are doctrinally sharp.  They have more knowledge of God than could fill all of our theology textbooks. Remember it was the demons in the Gospel accounts who recognized immediately the true identity of Jesus.  This is the only group who consistently made a true confession of Christ in the these accounts.  At one point Jesus’ own family believed he was crazy.  The disciples seem to always be in a state of confusion.  The crowds were fickle.  But the demons?  They always got it right!  Jesus comes into a village and they bow and convulse before him often crying out something like, “I know who you are, Jesus, the Holy One of God!”

And not only are the demons doctrinally sharp, there is an emotional connection with this knowledge.  They shudder, or as the King James Version translates the verse, they tremble.  This is a true emotional response.  There is nothing counterfeit or fake here.  And yet they do not have real faith.

#3 A Dynamic Faith

James uses two examples from the Old Testament to make his case for what true faith really looks like.  The first is Abraham, who was justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar (v.21).  He continues, You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works (v.22). Abraham’s faith was not alone.  His faith, was manifested through his works.  This fulfilled Scripture that said, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (v.23) Understanding the timeline here is important.  The Old Testament Scripture that James quotes is Genesis 15:6.  The context for this verse is the covenant that God made with Abraham promising to give him offspring as numerous as the stars in the heavens.  Abraham’s response was to believe God, hence this verse in Genesis 15:6 that he believed and God reckoned him righteous.  This is the same verse that Paul quotes in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 to make the case that Abraham was justified by faith alone apart from works.

At least 30 years after God reckoned Abraham righteous on account of his faith, God called him to give up his son Isaac (the very one through whom God’s promise would be fulfilled).  Abraham obeyed and as a result James says Abraham was justified by works.  He goes on to say You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (v.24).  Now remember the timeline!  At least 30 years before this act of faith with Isaac, Abraham was declared to be righteous by God on account of his faith.  Abraham already had saving faith.  How do we know?  Genesis 15:6, which James quoted, tells us!  And how was that faith manifested?  Abraham’s faith was manifested through his works, one of which was being prepared to offer up Isaac. One of the sayings of the Reformation was this: “We are saved by faith alone but saving faith is never alone.”  This is was James is saying here.

Someone might point out that this seems, on the surface anyway, to directly contradict what Paul says in Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  Again we must remember the context.  This is the key to understanding this difficult passage.  Remember that James is contrasting real faith with false faith.  Real faith is accompanied by works.  Paul, on the other hand, is not contrasting real and false faith but rather faith and works.  This is the context for Romans 4 and Galatians 3.  Both James and Paul would agree that we are saved by faith and have nothing to add to our salvation.  Paul makes this clear.  James makes this clear.

In Ephesians 2:8-10 Paul puts these two ideas together.  He tells us that it is by “grace you have been saved though faith” and he specifically says that it is “not a result of works,” but he goes on to tell us that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.”  Works will flow from genuine faith.   Paul and James agree.

The second example James gives is Rahab who was justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way (v.25).  You can read the full account in Joshua 2, but the same principle at work for Abraham is at work here.  Rahab’s faith was manifested through her actions, therefore she is said to be justified by works.

James concludes, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is head” (v.26).  Dynamic faith, the faith that saves, is a living faith.  A living faith is a working faith.  Salvation, indeed, is by faith alone but saving faith is never alone.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does James teach us about the relationship between faith and works?
  2. Explain the illustration found in verses 15 and 16.  What point is James trying to communicate here about the role of works?
  3. What is the danger of dead faith?
  4. In what way do the demons have “faith”?  What does this tell us about the relationship between a correct knowledge of God and real faith?
  5. Why do you think the demons “shudder”?  Why is an emotional response  insufficient to prove we have real faith?
  6. In what way did Abraham’s works demonstrate he had real faith?
  7.  In verse 21 James says that Abraham was “justified by works” and in verse 23 he quotes Genesis 15:6 which says Abraham was counted righteous (i.e. “justified”) on account of his faith (“Abraham believed God”).  How do you reconcile these two statements?
  8. Read verse 24.  How should we understand this verse in light of the rest of the context of this passage?  Is there really a contraction between Paul (i.e. Romans 3:28) and James here?
  9. In what way did Rahab’s works demonstrate she had real faith?
  10. What is one thing God might be calling you to do as a result of studying this passage?

 

 

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