The text from James 2:14-21 is historically speaking a very interesting text. It has been used and indeed abused by many to substantiate various theological positions to the extent that it is often hard to read it just for what it says and what it means. However, to properly treat the text, we must do exactly that – we must determine what it actually teaches in terms of doctrine, what it actually instructs a person to do, and what the implication of these together is for the Christian as an individual and the church as a whole. Indeed, it is my contention that if we can ignore all the historical bickering, we will find a text which is both straightforward in meaning, and valuable in application.
The NIV titles the passage “Faith and Deeds”, however I disagree. It is not about deeds, or works, at all – but about faith. In this passage, James sets out faith in quite considerable detail; but his focus is not upon what constitutes faith before God, but upon what constitutes faith as it is observable by man.
He opens with a question which is to shape the rest of the passage, asking in verse 14 “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?”
Now, having claimed the passage is not about works, it is only fair to acknowledge that it does refer to works; yet, James’ point here is to set out that in those who have a true faith; a faith that can save, there are also works as evidence of that faith.
To explain how this works, James will distinguish two types of faith; a living faith, and a dead faith. We implicitly understand much of his point from these words alone. We know well that that which is living does, and that which is dead does not. Indeed, we will even admit that nothing which is dead can save. James will substantiate his argument by bringing forth three examples:
- The first example is that of a hypothetical Christian, and it is as well it is hypothetical as it does not reflect well on the person involved! He starts in verse 15:
15 If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food,
16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?
Well, it takes no great level of theological investigation to understand this point! It clearly doesn’t take faith in Christ to understand one should provide food and clothes for his own brother. If then we understand that much without theology, how much more is it clear with theology? The man pictured instead of doing what he ought, makes a mockery of the word of God; he offers a prayer or a blessing so that he can make God an excuse for his hatred. Clearly, his view of God is deficient, and from the placement of the argument, we see James intends us to conclude that this man does not really have a true and living faith He says with his lips that he has faith, with his heart he has none. Indeed, the very scripture which declares If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:10) goes on to add and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead before promising you shall be saved. This is no more than James sets out here: the man confesses with his lips but evidentally believes not with his heart.
- The second example is that of Abraham (James 2:21-23), a man revered by Christians as the father of faith, and of whom we have clear testimony to the fact he was saved by his faith (e.g. Romans 4:9; Galatians 3:9; Hebrews 11:8,17).
Note carefully here, that James does not say that Abraham was “saved by works and not by faith alone” but rather that he talks about his faith being justified – and this agrees very well with the narrative, for if we recall what happened, first Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and then some years later he offered Isaac as a sacrifice. Until the time that the sacrifice was offered, his contemporaries (and indeed the reader today), have nothing more than the word of his trust to go on. His claim to faith is justified by the action which agrees with it, and bears evidence to it.
- The third example is found in verse 25:
And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? (James 2:25)
At first, it seems that Rahab offers nothing more than the example of Abraham, indeed, she confessed a faith to the spies at first, saying “The LORD your God is he who is God in heaven above and on earth beneath” (Joshua 2:11), and then she acted to save the spies from being captured – by which act we know the former claim to faith was true.
However, there is something more – for note carefully the description chosen by James. He writes “And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified”, which most clearly rules her out from a claim of righteousness by works. Indeed, her lifestyle testifies clearly that the works which testify to a living faith NOT those which mean a man lives a blameless and holy life before God, but rather works consistent with faith, that testify to faith, by which we know a claim to faith is more than mere words.
The argument of James is a very powerful one, it is the argument that we know that a man is justified because of the works that come from his faith. In verse 24 James summarises, saying “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone”. Notice what he does not say. He does not say that “God sees that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone”. God sees that a man is justified by his faith alone, sees thoughts; heart – desires, faith. God alone. But for us, James shows, that we must rather see the faith of a man by the works he does in agreement with that which he claims.
What does it mean?
I started by saying that we would try to apply the passage; and that’s exactly what we’ll do. However, it is a passage which does cause some practical difficulties. It is difficult in particular for us when we ask if there are those who claim to have faith but have not works amongst those who we love and worship in our own communities. This gets brought into sharp focus when we ask ourselves how it is we decide (practically speaking) that a Christian has a true faith.
In some places, a sinners prayer is used. Once said, the new Christian is treated forevermore as a brother, or a sister, and it is assumed that on the last day he will be saved from the wrath of God by that very faith.
In other places, there is a rite of confirmation in which there is a public claim of faith, and witnesses. Once that has been completed, the person is judged to be one who truly does have faith, and is treated forevermore as one who will be most surely saved on the last day.
Yet, do we stop to ask if these practices agree with this passage from James? Should we be so sure of the salvation of those who merely claim to have faith? Well, James shows us that we are to look at their works as evidence of faith. When he imagines an objector who says (James 2:18) “You have faith and I have works” he even goes so far as saying, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith”. So, he suggests, it is appropriate to look for works that bear evidence in those who claim to have faith.
Now, there is much to be said for acting in Christian charity and taking the claim to faith as willingly as we can, so as not to discourage or disappoint those new in their faith; however, when it comes to pastoral questions – what to teach and what to preach – we do need to bear in mind what James says and think a little about how many members really do have a living faith.
Now, one thing which unites almost all denominations is a complaint of nominal Christianity, or Christians who are only Christians on a Sunday. It is a common complaint that there are many glad to offer prayers for the poor and needy, but yet refuse to help those even in their midst. Indeed almost ubiquitously, when an appeal is made for help, whether an appeal for help in outreach, or mission, or a teaching ministry, or indeed any other role, it is often the same few familiar faces who respond.
If we do consider and find such patterns, then perhaps we should in such a case pay closer attention to those words of James. If whilst these brothers and sisters say they have faith, yet if their faith has not works, then we are counselled by Scripture that they may well have but a dead faith. So far as we can see – their faith, which is dead, cannot save them. We may indeed be very pleasantly surprised by them on the last day; but until then, we must follow the guide of Scripture. As James says in verse 26; “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26).
The counsel of James is that those who claim to have faith but are without works are yet in their trespasses and sins, and the wrath of God remains on them. It matters not how many times they come to church, or how frequently they pray. They will not be saved on the last day.
It is a chilling thought isn’t it? So what, then, can we do? What then is the answer?
Well; If a congregation lacks those works which testify to faith, maybe we should preach to them all the more of the need to do good works, of the need to feed the hungry, to care for those in need, to build up one another in knowledge, in love and the word of God, exhorting one another to good deeds.
We could do that. However, I don’t know about you – but I’ve never yet met a Christian who does not know that he has to do these things. … I have never yet met a Christian who does not know these things well, but I have met those who know them but do them not.
I do not think the problem arises from a lack of knowledge of these things, and indeed – even if we were to find a way to induce them to taking part in works, I do not think it would solve the problem. The idea that we can solve the problem of those who say they have faith, but have not works, by introducing works is like that of the foolish farmer who finding his trees dead, sets out to the market, purchases apples and then painstakingly ties them to his trees. Calling his brothers to come, he declares “behold, my brothers, my trees which were once dead are now alive, and lo, they bear fruit!”
Of course, it is easy for us to understand such a declaration is futile on the part of the farmer! Although it is true to say that a living tree bears fruit; yet it is also true to say that the fruit that a living tree bears comes from the life of the tree. It is not a fruit which is forced upon the tree, but a fruit which the tree brings forth out of its own stock of goodness and the life which is within it.
And so, too it is with faith; as James tells us, “for as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” Just as a tree without life is dead, so too the tree apart from fruit is dead. Our real problem is not the lack of fruit, or works; but it is the death of the tree, or indeed the dead faith.
So, if we cannot profitably exhort them to good works, what can we do about the problem?
Our aim then is to bring that which is dead to life : It is to bring those who have a dead faith into a living faith. Gospel is the power to salvation for all who believe. Faith, we read, comes not through works, but through hearing; and hearing by the Word of God. If we are serious about bringing faith to those who have but dead faith; if we truly care about saving from the very fires of hell – about the salvation of those who we call brothers and sisters – if we do want them to be saved on the last day and find their faith has not been in vain; then we surely we must all the more clearly, all the more powerfully, and all the more frequently and without relent preach the Gospel.
We must teach them day in and day out, or at least week in and week out, just what Christ did for them in dying for them on the cross.
We must declare to those who are yet of dead faith, that Christ died for them, in their death, that in him they might have life. We must proclaim to those who are still in their trespasses and sins that Christ died for sinners that they might be saved; that Christ took their sins upon himself dying in their place.
And, when we are done preaching the Gospel, we need to preach it again. It is not given to man to write off those he calls brothers and sisters as beyond salvation; it is not given to us to give up, but rather to declare life to those who need it.