14 What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 18 But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. James 2:14-26 (NASB)
IntroductionJames addressed the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem with these sermons/teachings. An editor then compiled into one epistle near the end of the revolt against Rome or right after it. James taught the Jerusalem Christians during the mid-40s AD when famines occurred and the people of Jerusalem suffered from lack of food and money. Wealthy Jews sent food aid to the Jews of Jerusalem, but the Christians of Jerusalem received little of the aid. Because of this, the Jewish Christians would be tempted not to help another person with the meager amount they possessed. They would be tempted to recant their faith in Jesus Christ so they could receive aid from the wealthy Jews. With these things in mind, it makes sense James spoke to his people in Jerusalem about faith – what is it, what it is not, and what God expects from a person of faith.
In James 2:14-26, James spoke about faith – what it is and how people show their faith. In verses fourteen, seventeen, twenty, and twenty-six, James defined true faith as bearing fruit – actions of love and kindness to other people and to God. He succinctly stated “faith without works is dead.” (vs. 26) What did James mean by this statement? What did he mean when he said, “Faith without works was useless?” (vs. 20)
What is Faith?James began this section of his speech saying in verse fourteen, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” Did he counter Paul’s theology of justification by faith? Through this study, we will learn James did not disagree with Paul’s theology of justification/righteousness. He spoke about the results of true faith. A true follower of Christ will produce fruits resulting in right actions and words. In James 1:22, James said, “But prove yourselves doers of the word and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” James believed and taught as did Jesus that belief in God and His Son produced righteous actions – a life lived out as a servant of God who enacted the two greatest commandments Jesus taught (Matthew 22:37-40).
Faith - Mental Assent Only?With verse fifteen, James began unpacking what he meant by works of the faithful. A believer in God and Jesus Christ cared about the poor. James specifically referred to a brother or sister - fellow believers - who could not meet their own daily needs. He asked, “What use is it to people needing food, clothes, or shelter to just receive words from a believer?” Of what use is the peace blessed on a person (vs. 16) if he or she does not have daily physical needs met? Jesus spoke of this same thing in Matthew 25:34-40 when he told of when the Father judged people at His return. He said God would bless the people who clothed, fed, gave drink, and gave shelter to “the least of these brothers of mine.” John the Baptist spoke of helping the poor in Luke 3:11. John asked a question related to this topic in 1 John 3:17. He said, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need, but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” Each of these men taught children of God to put into actions his or her belief in Jesus Christ. They told fellow Christians to show God’s love in practical ways providing for the daily needs of others. To James, a faith with no actions shows the person does not have a genuine faith. True faith derived from the love God through Jesus Christ instilled in a believer always manifests itself with righteous actions. James emphasized this point with verse seventeen, by saying again, “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” True faith and conversion shows itself in the actions of the person. If no righteous actions show, then the person’s faith is destitute of power (is dead). That person may not be saved from their sins because true faith produces good fruit/works in a person growing toward Christlikeness. Even people other than ministers are to show their faith in loving actions. They are to grow toward Christlikeness along with ministers called by God.
Faith – More than Mental AssentJames asserted rightly that faith is more than a mental assent of God. A person may challenge you about your faith. That one might challenge that your faith cannot be seen if it has no works; whereas his or hers can because of his or her works. A person’s faith cannot be seen and justified by other people without it being put into action in real life. True faith must show right fruit/actions - give evidence or proof of its existence. A person can boast and say he or she is a Christian, but if no outward manifestation shows by actions, that person’s faith is of no value. Paul said this same thing in Galatians 5:6. He said, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Actions of love show/express the faith a person claims and asserts. Jesus said this as well in Matthew 7:16. He said the fruit of a person’s belief will show the person he or she is. In the Matthew passage, Jesus spoke about false prophets and then he taught, “By their fruits you will recognize them.” This can apply to people who claim to be Christians. Their fruits – actions and words – will enable others to recognize them as followers of Christ or not. James acknowledged even demons recognize and believe the Lord God is the God of heaven and earth (vs. 19). He said they shudder in fear because of this knowledge knowing they are not good, but evil. The point James made in these verses is anyone can acknowledge God as God, but only those who produce acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior , God as almighty God, and bear righteous fruit – who do right and just deeds – are Christians. He repeated verses fourteen and seventeen again for emphasis in this section in verse twenty. He said in this verse, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” Faith is more than mental assent.
Faith - ExamplesOnce again, James gave examples of true faith. In verses twenty-one through twenty-five, he spoke about Abraham and Rahab. Both people received no teaching about God and never saw Jesus Christ, but their faith in God justified them in God eyes. Their later actions justified them as true believers in the eyes of other people.
Let us look at Abraham. When God promised him descendants who numbered more than the stars in heaven, Abraham expressed awe. He believed the LORD God. We read this in Genesis 15:6, “Then he (Abram) believed the LORD, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Righteousness in the Old Testament comes from the Hebrew word tsedaqah and means righteousness as ethically right, righteousness/justification/salvation of God. This righteousness reflects God and has the quality of being holy or right as God is holy and right. The New Testament word translated as “righteousness,” which James used in verse twenty-three, comes from the Greek word dikaiosune. It means righteous, virtue, purity, and rightness and correctness of thinking, feeling, and acting. It has a judicial feel of being made right. It comes from right thinking, feeling, and acting. This righteousness is not the righteousness called tsedaqah of being holy and right as God is holy and right. The Old Testament word speaks of the being and the New Testament word speaks of the judicial use - doing and living. So when James said in verse twenty-one, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?” justification for him came secondarily after being made righteous by God. This second justification came because he lived out his faith, by being obedient, due to his love for God. Abraham offered the only sacrifice he had to give God, his son, Isaac. He showed true faith when he lived out his faith with loving actions toward God and others (i.e. Lot at Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction).
When faith works with actions, the result is faith being perfected. “Perfected” comes from the Greek word teleioo and means to make perfect and complete, to add what is wanting to make a thing full/perfect/complete. A person’s faith is complete when every action, word, and thought of the person reflects his or her faith. According to the Bible, this will occur when we are in the kingdom of God. This process is called sanctification. When Abraham put Isaac upon the altar and offered him as the sacrifice, he showed his love of God. His faith true showed him to be a friend of God (2 Chronicles 20:7, Isaiah 41:8). Is our faith so pure and active in our lives that God calls us His friend?
James emphasized again his teaching about faith resulting in right works. He stated in verse twenty-four, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” A person shows him or herself to be righteous by his or her actions that come from his or her faith. That is the meaning of “justified” for James in the New Testament. It is a justification before the eyes of other people because of one’s actions, thoughts, and words.
With verse twenty-five, James reminded his hearers and later readers of a woman from Jericho named Rahab. When the Israelite spies of the exodus entered the Promised Land to see the land, cities, and people, they encountered Rahab. She welcomed the spies to Jericho and kept them safe in and through her home on the city’s walls. Rahab declared the LORD God as the God of heaven and earth because of what she had heard about the God of the Israelites. Her faith in the Israelites’ God and their promise to keep her and her family safe led to her assisting the spies to leave Jericho safely (Joshua 2:9-14, 6:22-25; Hebrews 11:31). Rahab acted upon her faith in the LORD God (the God of the Israelites) by trusting His people to keep her safe and by providing them a safe exit from Jericho. Her actions testified to the spies of her faith in God and His people. Rahab’s actions proved her faith, just as Abraham’s action to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to God proved his faith. God justified - made righteous and holy - Abraham and Rahab when each believed in God as the God of heaven and earth. They both were justified - proved their faith - when they acted upon it, Abraham towards God and Rahab towards God’s people.
What is Faith?This lesson is so important that James repeated it four times within thirteen verses. As a finale, he stated it again for the final thought like he stated it in the first verse of this teaching. James wrapped his teaching with the thematic statement. He said, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” Just as faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior saves you, lack of faith leads to death, separation from God. How does God know who has true faith? He looks at a person’s heart. Is that person’s heart cleansed - made right and pure? Does that person’s heart have His intentions, which shows in the person’s actions, thoughts, and words? How can other people know if a person is a child of God other than by his or her fruit – his or her actions and words? Humans cannot judge a person’s heart, but they can see some of a person’s heart by his or her actions and words. We learn from James in this passage a person is justified by faith in God by God. That person is justified in eyes of humans by the works and words in that person’s life.
RecapJames stated faith is not truly faith that justifies a person unless it flows with the love of Christ as actions and words in the world as love for God and humankind. He gave examples of this kind of life through Abraham and Rahab lives. James did not say works can justify a person in God’s eyes. God looks for faith in a person’s heart as justification. Works perfect the faith of a person. They attest to the inner faith the person has in Jesus Christ. Faith and works must go hand-in-hand.
Relevance and ConclusionFor people today considering this passage, we each must consider first if we have ever had a true faith experience with God. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord? If you have and are living a life of love towards other people because of the love Christ put in you through the Holy Spirit, you can know you are a child of God.
The other question that must be asked: If you are doing loving works in the world, are you doing them out of faith in God? Have you left faith behind when you do this work for God? Do you need to stop and take time to be with God - be empowered by Him, receive His further command, and get His blessing for the continuance of the work? As God’s children and even more so for Christian service workers, it is easy to hear God say do something then get busy doing it. We are working for the Lord so it must be right, right? Yet often when we turn around and see we are no longer working with God, but alone and under our own power. Good works may not be the best works. Under the command, power, and daily guidance by the Lord, your good works will be the best works. Then you will be doing what God wants you to do that day.
Where do you fall in this spectrum? Are you doing good works, but not as a child of God? That will not save you. Are you doing good works God told you to do, but in your own power? Or, are you doing the best works under the blessing, power, and daily guidance of the Lord?
Each of us must go before the Lord now and determine where we stand with God.
Will you take that challenge?