Faith Without Works Is Dead - James 2:14 - 26
James may well have written the words we read from his epistle to correct a common misinterpretation early Christians had about some of the apostle Paul’s teachings. Certain slogans and assumptions can become so pervasive that people believe them by sheer repetition. James may have hear Christians who assumed that Paul emphasized faith over works. They interpreted that to mean they did not have to engage in mission or acts of kindness because they had faith, the only thing they needed. James wanted to correct that misinterpretation.
People know that talk is cheap and that actions speak louder than words. People are suspicious of those who say one thing today, but act in another way tomorrow. James has quite a bit to say about ensuring that professions of faith are matched by accompanying action consistently.
The tendency to try earning God’s favor through keeping the law held much appeal to Christians from Jewish background. But Jesus, Paul, and others had shown that salvation could not be earned. Therefore, the place of obedience to God’s commands was perplexing. Was there a place for good works that did not fall back into the Jewish system of keeping the old covenant law to please God? This is the issue that James addressed; it is an issue that resonates yet today.
Useless Piety -
Useless Piety -
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
James’ style is often to ask questions and then bring us to his answer. Here he asks the same question in two ways. In the church today, the question might be asked this way: Is faith without works saving faith? This partially misses what James is asking, however, for an underlying question is this: Is faith without works faith at all?
In verse 15, rather than answer immediately, James gives an example that highlights the question, and this is not merely hypothetical. It is a real-world example his readers face or have faced. Imagine someone in the congregation lacks clothing or food. What should you do? Note: the phrase without clothes does not necessarily mean without any clothing whatsoever. Rather, it can imply insufficient clothing to stay warm in cold weather.
In verse 16, James invites us to consider empty sentiment. Rather than offering physical help, clothing, and/or food, the person in James’ scenario gives a blessing and tells the needy brothers and sisters to be on their way. The answer is, “God bless you and leave me alone.” Does this do any good? Does a blessing of peace make the destitute person warmer or less hungry? Such a a response is in keeping with the theory that a person of faith does not need good works. the answer is obvious then. If people who claim to have faith fail to help a needy brother or sister, then something is wrong with their faith.
Empty Profession -
Empty Profession -
So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.
Verse 17 renders James’ verdict on faith that lacks compassionate actions: it is dead. This is a strong statement, a condemning statement. It means there is no life, no validity to this claim to faith. Faith alone, divorced from actions, is hollow and empty. A lack of love for the needy is in conflict with a claim to love God, for God loves the poor and cares for those in need. This is not merely a Christian idea, but is taught in the Law of Moses.
What questions could we ask ourselves that would reveal dead or dying faith in our lives? To expose lack of action; to expose lack of compassion; to expose wrong priorities; to expose a wayward heart.
In verse 18, James shifts to the other end of the argument: the person who values good deeds over claims to faith. This person seems tired of those who tout their faith but have nothing to show for it. He might say, “You can talk about your faith all day, but if you have no works, you have nothing to show me. I’m not even going to talk about faith! Just look at my good works!
James comes back at this second position with a refusal to separate the two. He starts with faith and then moves to works, saying his claim to faith is more than words. It is demonstrated by his actions. he has backed up his talking with a life of caring about the poor, a life of feeding and clothing those in need. Faith and works are not in conflict. They are partners.
God’s track record of authority, power, expertise, etc., convinces us to trust him. That trust results in faith. Then we act according to that faith. Our behavior, the way we live, then becomes evidence of our faith - evidence for all to see.
How do we commit to doing good works as a visible example to others without slipping into legalism or pride? When others praise us; when others criticize our motives.
In verse 19, James moves to a topic at the heart of Jewish identity: the belief in one God. The Romans and the Greeks of James’ day believe in many gods and goddesses, but the Jews refuse to compromise in this area. The Christians follow this, also believing in a single God. But mere recognition that there is only one God is not enough. James uses an extreme example in pointing out that even the demons believe this.
Demons are not fooled by those who imagine many gods. The demons know better, and in their perverted demonic hearts it causes them to shudder, for they know they are on the wrong side. James know for a fact that demons work in direct opposition to God and his plans. In James’ narrower context, one-God faith must be accompanied by godly actions, a demonstration of one’s faith.
How can an analysis of sin serve as a diagnostic tool of a person’s relationship with God? Regarding sins of commission; regarding sins of omission.
Faithful Action -
Faithful Action -
Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
James has stated his case: claims of faith without the evidence of good deeds make for a dead, empty faith. Now he moves to prove his case by giving some examples that his Jewish-Christian readers will appreciate. James first example is that of the greatest of ancestors, namely Abraham and his willingness to obey the Lord’s demand that he sacrifice his son Isaac. This was a test of Abraham’s faith, a test he passed because he feared the Lord and withheld nothing from him.
When we read that Abraham was considered righteous for what he did, we should not understand this as equivalent to and therefore in conflict to the idea that we are justified by faith. James is using being considered righteous in the sense of “proven true.” Abraham’s actions were motivated by his deep convictions. Abraham believed that if he killed his son, God could somehow bring him back from the dead and therefore fulfill the promise to make Abraham’s descendants a great nation. Abraham’s trust in God made it possible for him to obey God even in the most challenging of circumstances we can imagine.
In verse 23, we see that even before the testing of Abraham’s faith with the Isaac episode, God recognized that man’s great faith. Abraham’s relationship with God was based on his willingness to do things because of his trust in the Lord. He was willing to travel to a foreign land in obedience to God’s direction. He was willing to entrust his nephew into the Lord’s hands when God destroyed the city of Sodom. He was willing to try one more time with his elderly wife when the Lord told him she would become pregnant and he would finally have his long-awaited son.
We must understand that James is not implying that only works are required to be considered righteous. James never minimizes or discounts the importance of faith. The overall point of verse 24 is that true faith will cause correct behavior. Good works are not the condition of saving fellowship with God, they are the result. Good works demonstrate true faith, and it is by this necessary combination that we are made righteous.
James’ final example is an analogy. A body without the spirit is the most basic understanding of death. The people of James’ day believe that a person’s last breath releases the spirit and therefore is the dividing line between life and death. When one’s spirit departs, all that is left is lifeless, decomposing flesh. James’ point, then, is that works enliven faith. Deeds of compassion and obedience to God turn words of allegiance into action of commitment.
What are some ways to resist becoming weary in helping others? In advance, before weariness sets in; recognizing “compassion fatigue” as it begins to take hold.
In our text today, James is fighting for the proper place of works in the life of the believer. Claims of faith need to be proven by the evidence of one’s life. Compassionate actions should be evident after we come to faith in Christ. Even so, works of the law and works of faith can look remarkably similar, so it might be helpful to visualize the difference. If we understand faith in Christ as the doorway to salvation, then we see the value of works in the contexts of both Paul and James. Before we walk through the doorway of faith in Christ, works will not save (Paul’s argument); after we walk through the doorway of faith in Christ, then works are the evidence of commitment to God and his ways (James’ argument). The difference is in the purpose: we can never be saved by good works, but we cannot be saved without them.
Help us, O God, to have a faith that reaches out to others in love and service. May faith produce gratitude in us so that we want to show our love for you in the lives of others. Prevent us from giving in the shallow understanding of our beliefs, and push us to grow. Grant us the strength and courage to get off the couch and to put away our discouragement, remorse, and apathy. Show us the people who need what we have to offer; in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.