Faith and Works – James 2:14-26

The New International Greek Testament Commentary says, “A ‘faith’ which is purely doctrinal and does not result in pious action (i.e. charity) is a dead sham, totally useless for salvation. True faith reveals itself in pious deeds of love, as the examples of Abraham and Rahab show.”[1] This is one of the most intriguing passages in all the Word of God. Here we find the issue concerning the relation of faith and good works. A careful examination of this passage is needed in order to fully understand what the Christian faith is all about.

Two attention grabbing questions (v. 14). In verse 14, James captures his reader’s attention by asking two very interesting questions. The first question is simply put, “What good is it to have faith but not have works?” I like the way James teaches by asking questions. A good teacher or preacher will teach in such a way as to make his audience think for themselves. This is exactly what James is doing here as he grabs the attention of his reader’s. The question as to the legitimacy of faith without works is certainly a warranted question. All through the New Testament we find how the Gospel of Jesus Christ has life transforming power. A life that has been truly transformed by the Gospel should in turn affect how one not only behaves but also how he or she serves. The second question is much more straight forward and even surprising: “Can faith without works save you?” For many of us, this question alone puts James on the verge of blaspheme. The scripture is very clear that we are saved by grace through faith. No good deed will get you to heaven. You can never be good enough to get heaven. Salvation is by grace through faith alone. So, why would James raise such a question? There are certain statements that are so universally held among Christians that to deny them is to brand oneself as a non-Christian. ‘Jesus is Lord’ is one such statement. ‘Salvation is by grace through faith’ is another. And now James, the half-brother of Jesus himself, has the audacity to question whether faith saves! James certainly has our attention![2]

A hypothetical situation (v. 15-16). Often times we will hear of someone going through a hard time and we will tell them that we are praying for them. This, I believe is certainly a good gesture, if we are in fact really praying for them. However, is prayer enough? Prayer can certainly bring encouragement, but how good is prayer without action? James points out that if someone comes to you with a need and all you do is pat them on the back and say a prayer, what benefit is that to the one who is suffering? If someone is hungry, it does not accomplish anything unless we give them food. If someone is homeless, it does not accomplish anything unless we give them shelter.

A Conclusion (v. 17). In his argument concerning faith and works, James comes to the conclusion that faith without works is dead. “Mere words are worthless if they do not lead to action, and, therefore, faith is useless if it is nothing more than a matter of words!” One may say, ‘did not Paul clearly teach us that works are needed for salvation?’ He certainly did and that is certainly true. Kent Hughes helpfully explains, “Paul’s teaching about faith and works focuses on the time before conversion, and James’s focus is after conversion.” We do not have a works faith, but we believe that faith works. We might say that good works cannot produce salvation, but salvation most certainly produces good works. John Calvin says, ‘It is faith alone that justifies, but faith that justifies can never be alone’. We must understand that good works is the evidence of true faith. You cannot say that you are truly born-again and yet not practice good works. Good works is a natural outflow of a life that has been transformed by the Gospel. Therefore, faith without works is dead.

The Challenge (v. 18-20). James presents a challenge to anyone who believes that you can have faith without works. If you can truly be a Christian and not practice good works, then prove it. However, you will find that it cannot be done. If you do not practice good works, then there is no basis or proof that your life has truly been changed by the power of the Gospel. James says that he would show his faith by his works. In other words, the greatest evidence of a changed life is one that loves God and loves people and is displayed by acts of love toward others. It is one thing to believe in God, it is a completely different thing to be changed in such a way that you automatically live a life of good works.

Two concluding illustrations (v. 21-26). In the conclusion of James’ argument concerning faith and works, we find two illustrations or examples from the Old Testament. The first example is that of Abraham. Abraham lived before the Mosaic law was ever written. The Bible is very clear that Abraham’s salvation came through the same means as ours: justification. Abraham was justified by the grace of God. His justification was not based on the works that he performed. He was justified because he believed in God. By placing his faith in God, Abraham was imputed with the righteousness of God. In other words, instead of remaining in the bondage and condemnation of sin, Abraham was set free and his sin was replaced with the righteousness of God. Instead of his sin being held against him, he now has the righteousness of God covering Him. All of this happened simply by faith. However, if you look closely you will find that the reason we can come to such conclusions is that Abraham’s life was changed in such a way that he lived in obedience to God by practicing good works. Good works is not what saved Abraham but it certainly was a result of his salvation. The second example that James gives is that of Rahab. In verse 15 we find that Rahab’s faith was also proven by her care for the men who came to spy out the land that God had promised to them. She believed in the God of Israel and it was shown by her care for the people of God.

In conclusion, James mentions in verse 26 that ‘as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.’ We need to understand that if you have been truly saved, your life will change. Your salvation will be evidenced by the practice of good works.

 

[1] Davids, P. H. (1982). The Epistle of James: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 119). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[2] Ellsworth, R. (2009). Opening up James (p. 90). Leominster: Day One Publications.

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