Faith Without Works is Dead
This passage is controversial for some people. Some claim James contradicts Paul on justification. However, when we look at the passage as a whole, and keep all the verses in context, we will see there is no contradiction.
James lays out this passage like a high school literature paper. It has an introduction, here in verse 14, several points and a conclusion.
James’ introduction is in the form of a rhetorical question. A rhetorical question is a figure of speech asked to make a point rather than to solicit an answer. James asked: “what good is it, my brothers, of someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” In other words, is faith without work saving faith? The assumed answer is “no”. James actually says this three times in the passage: 17, 20 and 26). Each time saying this kind of faith is dead. It does not save (14) or justify (24). Works here means actions done in obedience to God.
The passage before this one stressed obeying the royal law, avoiding partiality among members of the body based on artificial things, such as wealth and appearance. We obey the royal law by loving others as much as ourselves. James realized that his audience might argue “ we do not have to worry about that law or works because we have faith and are saved”. James counters that saving faith produces works. s
So, James drives home the point that saving faith results in a change. The believer no longer lives for himself, but for Christ and others. We can recognize a believer by his or her good works. Paul recognized this also. He wrote “For we are his (Christ’s) workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)
A Picture of “Faith” Without Works
James illustrated his point with another hypothetical. If a Christian brother or sister is hungry and poorly clothed, and you say, “go in peace, be warmed and filled”, but do nothing to help that person, what benefit is there? Your so called faith has not changed you enough to take care of that person, who is also a believer in Christ. Yet, people who call themselves Christian do this all the time. We have great excuses. He needs to get a job. She will only drink up the money. I am uncomfortable around that person. But saving faith reveals itself in good deeds, in mercy. So, in verse 17, James reiterated that faith that does not have works is dead.
This reminds me of the story of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. Those who helped others were the sheep and those who did not were the goats, symbolizing those who were destined to hell despite their claim to know Jesus.
Demonstrate Your Faith by Works
James used another rhetorical device in this verse. He interjects a hypothetical opponent. This was a common device in Greek argument and philosophy. It is done to rebut a potential argument. Here the opponent would say faith and works do not always go together; they could be separated. But James says we show our faith by our works. They cannot be separated. We prove our faith by what we do.
Rejecting “Easy Believe-ism”
This is a term used to describe those who claim that you can be saved by merely believing the facts about Jesus are true. They separate salvation and lordship, saying you can believe without receiving Jesus as your master, or Lord. But remember Romans 10:9-10: …if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” But Easy Believe-ism claims you can do the second part (believe God raised him from the dead) without the first part (confessing his Lordship) and be saved. That is how so many people in America can tell you they are Christians, they believe in Jesus, but their lives show no evidence of it.
James rebutted that idea in his own time. He said it is good that you believe God is one. (19) That is probably a reference to the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4 (Hear, O Israel: The LORD our god, the LORD is one.) And, of course, a lot of people today believe there is a God. They may even pray to this God. But they do not obey him or even believe he is who claims to be in the Bible.
But, guess what? Even demons do that. In fact, James says demons not only believe in God, they shudder at his presence in fear of him.
Let us look at a couple of examples. First, look at Luke 8:26-39. This is a story of Jesus’ interaction with a demon possessed man in Gadara. The man, never having seen Jesus, recognized him because the demons who possessed him did. They called him Jesus, son of the Most High God. They begged him not to torture them and not to send them back to the abyss.
The second example is in Acts 19:11-17. There a bunch of Jewish guys has seen Paul cast out demons in Jesus’ name. They decided it was a magic they could appropriate. They commanded demons to come out in the name of Jesus whom Paul proclaims. That got them beat up by an evil spirit. But, note that the evil spirit said “Jesus I know”.
Demons, and Stan himself, know who Jesus is. But they do not commit their lives to obey and follow him. And a lot of people who call themselves Christians are the same way. James said that is not saving faith.
Example of Abraham’s Obedience
This is where it gets tough. If you read this passage on its face without knowing the context of this passage and the passages about Abraham, it sounds like you must be justified by a combination of works and faith, the Roman Catholic position.
First, let us look at what the text says. James said Abraham was justified by works when he offered Isaac on the altar. His faith was active along with his works and completed by his works. His actions fulfilled the Scripture that said Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteous.
First, we must look at the story of Abraham’s faith. There are two parts to the story.
First, Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteousness. Genesis 15 tells the story of God making a covenant with Abraham (then known as Abram). Abraham was worried that he had no son to inherit his legacy. God told him he would have a son and, not only a son, but a great people would come from him. (Gen. 15:4) Abraham believed the Lord. The Lord counted Abraham’s faith to him as righteousness. In other words, the Lord declared Abraham righteous because Abraham believed the Lord’s promise. From that point on, Abraham was “saved”, he was declared righteous.
Later, God gave Abraham a son named Isaac. Abraham loved his son. God tested Abraham’s faith, and love, by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. This is recorded in Genesis 22. Abraham obeyed God. He tried to sacrifice his son, but God stayed his hand. God commended his obedience and love and promised to bless him greatly.
Abraham was already “saved” at this time. God had already counted him righteous because of his faith. Abraham’s obedience regarding Isaac did not save him; he was already saved. But he proved his obedience and love for God. In terms James would use, he demonstrated his faith by his works. That is the sense in which James used the word “justified’. He explained that in verse 22, saying his faith was completed by his works.
Paul, in Romans, explains this situation thoroughly. You can read it in Romans 4:1-12. He states plainly that Abraham was justified by faith. That is why some people claim Paul and James are in conflict on this point. But Paul argued from Genesis 15, and James from Genesis 22, after Abraham had already been declared righteous. he use of the word “justified” causes the confusion here. Paul uses the word to mean declared righteous by God. James is using it more in the sense of a demonstration that one has been justified (declared righteous by God).
One can also be helped here by consistent principles of interpretation. These are called “hermeneutics”. One principle is that we interpret scripture to be consistent. Since all scripture is breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16) and the men who wrote it were driven along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), Scripture must be consistent and not contradictory. Otherwise, God is inconsistent; he changes.
A second principle is that we interpret hard to understand passages in accordance with passages that are easy to understand.
Applying those principles, we know Paul and James did not contradict each other while being driven by the Holy Spirit to write scripture. We can interpret James’ teaching to be consistent with Paul’s.
I one other point to make on this issue. James’ own words at another time show he believed in salvation by faith. When Gentiles began to come to faith, some Jews were concerned. They wanted the Gentiles to become Jews first. They wanted them to obey the law in order to be justified. In Acts 15, James rejected that idea. He did not impose the law on the Gentiles. He only asked them to refrain from sexual immorality and things offered to pagan idols, things which would offend the Jews greatly. James accepted Peter’s word that God cleansed their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:9)
The Example of Rahab
James’ second example is Rahab, who hid the “messengers” or spies. This refers to a story in Joshua 2. When the Israelites were about to cross the Jordan in their conquest of Canaan, Joshua sent two men to Jericho to spice out the land. Rehab hid the men and saved them from the king of Jericho.
Rahab did this righteous deed because she believed in God. She declared that the LORD is God in heavens above and on the death beneath. She acted on her faith with works when she protected the spies. The writer of Hebrews 11 commended her faith, saying “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies”. She had faith and she acted on it. Her work showed her faith.
James concludes very simply by restating his premise: faith apart from works is dead. This kind of faith is no faith at all.
Martin Luther said:
O it is a living busy active might thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.
(Marting Luther, Preface to Romans)