Faith that Works: James 2


Today’s reading: James 1-5.

“Why do Paul and James differ in their beliefs?”

James and Paul may seem to face each other in an argument that can’t be resolved, but I prefer the conclusion that they are standing back-to-back fighting two different enemies. For Paul, the enemy was trusting in the works of the law. For James, it was trusting in a fruitless faith that was actually dead. Both men were interested in faith that works.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a 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. James 2:14-17

More than good intentions. James condemns the person who wishes others well but does nothing concrete to help them. His conclusion? It’s no good. In the same way faith that produces no fruit is really no faith.

More than mental assent. Faith is more than acknowledging the existence of God. After all, even Satan does that. Faith is submitting to the rule and authority of God, believing that he holds your future in his hands. As Manley Beasley said in yesterday’s devotional, faith must have an emotional component (I want God to be Lord of my life) and a volitional component (I choose to be obedient to God’s will) as well as the intellectual component (I believe there is a God).

Faith and actions work together. James pointed out that works complement faith. Abraham was credited for his faith in God’s promise, but his faith resulted in obedience to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. Paul used this same passage to show that God declared Abraham righteous because of his faith before it ever resulted in works, but it was the kind of faith that led to action.

Works reveal faith. Works complement faith, but they also validate faith by revealing its reality. James mentions the example of Rahab, a pagan prostitute who became part of God’s family because of a faith in Jehovah that led to direct action on behalf of God’s people.

What kind of works? This is the strength of James’ letter. He spells out in practical terms how Christians should demonstrate their faith.

  • by persevering under trials
  • by resisting the temptation to sin
  • by obeying God’s word
  • by helping the disadvantaged
  • by showing no favoritism
  • by controlling their tongue
  • by praying for each other

A tree has been planted out into the ground. Now the source of life to that tree is at the root, whether it hath apples on it or not; the apples would not give it life, but the whole of the life of the tree will come from its root. But if that tree stands in the orchard, and when the springtime comes there is no bud, and when the summer comes there is no leafing, and no fruit-bearing, but the next year, and the next, it stands there without bud or blossom, or leaf or fruit, you would say it is dead, and you are correct; it is dead. It is not that the leaves could have made it live, but that the absence of the leaves is a proof that it is dead. So, too, is it with the professor. If he hath life, that life must give fruits; if not fruits, works; if his faith has a root, but if there be no works, then depend upon it the inference that he is spiritually dead is certainly a correct one. When the telegraph cable flashed no message across to America, when they tried to telegraph again and again, but the only result following was dead earth, they felt persuaded that there was a fracture, and well they might; and when there is nothing produced in the life by the supposed grace which we have, and nothing is telegraphed to the world but “dead earth,” we may rest assured that the link of connection between the soul and Christ does not exist. – Charles Spurgeon


10 thoughts on “Faith that Works: James 2

  1. I like to simplify some of what James says down to logic. One of the principles of logic is that if you have a sentence of the form:

    “If P is true, then Q is true”

    then that’s logically equivalent to saying

    “If Q is not true, then P is not true.”

    For instance, “If I put on a coat, then I am warm,” is equivalent to saying, “If I’m not warm, then I didn’t put on a coat.” (Several other permutations of the same sentence are not equivalent, so this is an important thing.) Of course, flipping the sentence around doesn’t change the “cause-and-effect” part – it’s the coat that causes me to be warm, not vice-versa – but it does mean that if you show that I’m not warm, you’ve proved I can’t really be wearing a coat.

    What it seems to me is that James is saying (and Spurgeon is paraphrasing), “If you have real faith, then you will have works.” By the rule above, that’s equivalent to saying, “If you don’t have works, then you don’t have real faith.” Again, that doesn’t say anything about what is cause and what’s effect – but it does mean that a man without works can’t have real faith.

    There’s probably a good medical metaphor there, too – maybe “if you have itchy spots, then you have chickenpox?” The spots reveal the chickenpox; they don’t cause it, but if you can’t point out the itch, you probably don’t have the bug, either. (There’s probably a better example out there; I don’t know whether this one is medically true or not.) You say you have chickenpox without spots? Fine – show me your pox without spots, and I’ll show you my pox by my spots.

  2. “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” James 2: 24

    This is in fact the only time the phrase “faith alone” occurs in scripture, where James uses it to completely reject the heresy of Sola Fide. So the question then becomes, how can one reconcile the teaching of Paul with the teaching of James. And the simple construct is to understand that this is not an either/or proposition, but both/and.

    “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Romans 4:2-3

    “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?” James 2:21

    Paul and James even use the same example to make their point, Genesis 22. So then the true doctrine of justification cannot be Sola Fide, but rather must be a joining of both ideas. The understanding is also often further complicated by a misunderstand of Paul’s use of the term “works”. In many instances this refers to “works of the law” whereby salvation cannot be found from simply following Mosaic Law, not to “good works” discussed in James.

    So in essence, faith and works are two sides of the same coin.

    Luther went so far as to add the word “alone” after “faith” in his translation of Romans 3:28. His retort when questioned about this was chilling:

    “If your Papist annoys you with the word (alone), tell him straightway, Dr. Martin Luther will have it so: Papist and ass are one and the same thing. Whoever will not have my translation, let him give it the go-by: the devil’s thanks to him who censures it without my will and knowledge. Luther will have it so, and he is a doctor above all the doctors in Popedom.” (Letter to Wenceslaus Link in 1530)

    He also desired to be rid of James altogether:

    “That epistle of James gives us much trouble, for the papists embrace it alone and leave out all the rest. Up to this point I have been accustomed just to deal with and interpret it according to the sense of the rest of Scriptures. For you will judge that none of it must be set forth contrary to manifest Holy Scripture. Accordingly, if they will not admit my interpretations, then I shall make rubble also of it. I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove.”

    Elsewhere, he called it an “epistle of straw”.

    Dave Armstrong puts it succinctly:

    St. James is emphasizing the works element of salvation, and St. Paul, the faith element. But neither denies the other element (see in Paul, e.g., Rom. 2:5-13; 1 Cor. 3:8-9; Eph. 2:10; Titus 3:8). Neither James nor Paul compartmentalizes works and faith into distinct theological constructs of “sanctification” and “justification.” Rather, what is seen here is an organic unity, precisely as in the Catholic view.

    • I agree there is a unity between faith and works. As I read your reply it brought to mind that just as James warned against the life of faith without works, Jesus warned against men who had works but no faith. Men who said, “did we not do this and that in your name” but to whom Jesus said, “depart from me; I never knew you.”

      • Yes, I referenced that in a previous post. Faith alone is not enough, works alone is not enough, there is a thing which is the combination of the two which seems to be what he is after:

        “A broken and contrite heart, O Lord, thou wilt not despise.”

      • An alternate interpretation here, as noted above, is that there’s no such thing as “faith alone” – that true faith, given time to act, necessarily produces works. So can you enter heaven on faith alone? Well, no – but because faith alone is a logical impossibility. You can’t enter heaven with faith alone any more than you can enter with a square circle.

        The point of contention here, I think, is: suppose we have a person possessed of a sincere faith in Christ. (Let’s suppose we know this absolutely, for the sake of this argument, as God would know it.) Will that person have works? Well, yes, opportunity permitting – true faith cannot but produce works. That’s not in question. But could that person still lose his soul – could it be that, at the end, his works will be judged insufficient to accompany his faith? It seems to me that the answer to that question is where our philosophies practically divide.

        (My answer is: no, he could not – because of course his works are insufficient. Our righteousness is as filthy rags, and anyone who breaks the law at the least point sins against the whole of it. What good deed compares to murdering God? What human could hope to balance even a fraction of those scales?

        But it’s by grace we’re saved, not by works, so that no man can boast.)

  3. Of course the question of faith and works is one of justification, not salvation.

    But don’t forget, there is a sin unto death. The saved can indeed renounce their salvation.

  4. Pingback: Bible Daily Devotional – Faith that Works: James 2 | ChristianBlessings

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