Part 5 of 6
4- James 2:14-26
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 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? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 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.”You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 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. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 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? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (Jas. 2:14-26)
So here we come to the passage many Christians use to justify the notion that you need to show your Christian faith to be genuine by living a life of doing more and becoming more for Jesus. And even then, you can’t be quite sure when you have done enough. Some have wrongly said that Paul preached Grace and James (the writer in this passage) preached “works,” and so our job as Christians is to balance the two in our lives. The legalist and religious love to use this passage to pressure and frighten people into all kinds of Christian activities and pursuits.
Yet, here again, a passage like this can appear to say a lot of things and be used to further a lot of agendas if a proper understanding of the context is not gained. Often times, we read into scripture our own experiences instead of allowing scripture to define them.
There are very important contextual and linguistic issues that greatly affect a proper understanding of this passage, they are the following…
a) James is writing to an exclusively Jewish audience
b) James makes a clear description of what “dead” faith looks like, and it’s not about a Christian’s performance.
c) James never says that a person is the one who produces or is responsible for producing “works.”
See, James is not talking about a genuine Christian’s performance, but rather, what he or she possesses and where it comes from.
Let’s break it down. First, what separated the Jews from the surrounding nations was their monotheistic belief in one God. So there were many Jews who thought that they were saved or justified simply because they grew up around a belief system rooted in the belief in the God of Abraham. They believed in one God in terms of a religious, intellectual conclusion. Thus, the Jews that James is addressing were unbelieving believers. They had a mental grasp of Yahweh and perhaps even Jesus, but not a trust in God for their salvation and lives. This is not faith, nor true belief. Thus, James points out this is not “saving” faith, nor is it any better than what the demons conclude.
Now here’s the kicker. Since it is not genuine faith, God is not working in and through their lives. The Holy Spirit is not in them, so fruits are not being produced by the Holy Spirit. They didn’t possess true faith in Christ, and thus, they won’t possess any works of God in and through them that give external evidence to genuine faith. Faith is what releases God to work in and through our lives. No faith, no works.
See, the “works” James is referring to are never described as works that a person is producing, rather they are works that the person possesses as God wills and acts according to His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13), because of their faith. In fact, James reasserts that it was in fact Abraham’s “faith” that was the foundation from which righteousness and works emerged in his life.
People who hold to the Gospel of God’s Grace do not believe that “works” will not be present in a genuine Christian’s life. Rather, they assert that these “works” come from a foundation of Grace through faith. They are the sole result of God working in and through us because of faith, not us performing, striving, and trying from a foundation of effort. Big, huge difference.
This passage in the book of James does not topple the foundation of Grace through faith, it affirms it. James is simply saying, if you have true faith, you will see works. Not because you produce them through your religious striving, trying, and efforts, but because your faith releases God to work in and through you. You will “possess” works, not perform them by your striving, trying, and effort. That’s why for James, faith and works are inseparable, if you possess one, you will possess the other, not by your efforts, but by Christ working in and through you.
It doesn’t matter which appears to the eye first, works or faith, they both point to the same thing; not the person, but Jesus working in and through the person through their faith. The foundation is always faith, no matter which appears on the screen first.
In fact, when we try to produce works ourselves for any purpose, especially justifying ourselves and our merit, we are becoming the very evil, religiously-spirited person Jesus admonished. Because of the Gospel, we don’t have to become better or do better, we get to be better and do better. All because of Jesus. This is the foundation shift the New Covenant brings. Everything now is by Grace through faith, where in the Old Covenant everything was by condition through personal obedience (performance). There can be no mixture or balance of the two (Old and New Covenants), and certainly this is not the pursuit for which James is calling.
What James is stating by his description of “works” in this passage is not a condition of salvation or an appeal to become a performance driven Christian, never! Rather, it is a beautiful description of “works” being a manifestation of salvation, and those works being not from our efforts, but through God willing and acting in our lives.