In the early portion of his epistle, James emphasized the importance of having a proper attitude in order to be blessed by the Lord; that is, one must be willing to hear what God has to say and then be willing to do it. If one truly hears and obeys God's word, he will practice the principles of Christianity set forth in this epistle and elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., controlling the tongue, providing for those in need, remaining pure, avoiding partiality on the basis of physical characteristics and material differences, etc.).
In 2:14-26, James deals further with the importance of hearing and doing God's will, though here he stresses the fact that believing is insufficient without accompanying action. Before we examine this section of text in God's inspired word, let it be understood that this passage has been a battleground of controversy for centuries. The verses themselves are not difficult to comprehend, but some so-called scholars have come to this passage with all kinds of false ideas in their heads, and instead of removing their bogus notions and simply accepting God's word, they choose instead to ignore the plain truth of what James teaches here. Martin Luther is a tragic example of this. He was a leader of the Reformation Movement in the early 16th century. Luther believed that salvation was based on faith alone, and he never could harmonize his theory with the book of James. So, what did he do? Did he abandon his theory? No, he kept his theory and essentially disregarded the epistle James wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit! Luther labeled this book an "epistle of straw," and put it in the appendix of his New Testament translation. He thought that James contradicted Paul on the subject of faith and works (cf. Eph. 2:8,9). Actually, as will be explained a little later, Paul and James did not contradict each other. They were both inspired penmen who wrote what God wanted to be written. Though their words may appear to be in conflict on the surface, a careful investigation of both texts will show that there is no contradiction present. If there was a contradiction, then the Bible would be false and relegating James' epistle to an appendix would not change that fact. In fact, if there were a contradiction, then the Bible would not be God's word, and studying it would be a waste of time--period! However, let me affirm with as much confidence as a mortal can have: Bible study is not a waste of time! The Scriptures are unquestionably the very words of deity, and those who study them, believe them, and put them into practice will be richly blessed. Let us beware of falling into the trap that Martin Luther did. Let us remember that when we study the Bible we must have an open mind--quick to hear God's truth, slow to speak out against it, and slow to be angered by it (James 1:19,20). We cannot rightly come to this passage in James (or any text in God's great book) with our minds set in stone. If we do, we will not learn God's will. We will merely twist and distort His words until they say what we want them to (cf. II Pet. 3:16).
With those thoughts in mind, let us proceed to consider what the Holy Spirit has said through James concerning the relationship of faith and works.
"What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?" James begins this section with some questions. The implied answer to these questions harmonizes marvelously with his theme: True religion must show itself in a proper response. The one who only hears and believes God's word is not going to be saved; it is the one who hears, believes, and obeys who will be saved!
James wants his readers to consider if faith without works will do a person any good. Could a person be saved by faith alone? The context makes it clear that James is not asking whether a person is saved by faith; he is asking whether a person is saved by faith alone! There is a big difference between the two! The New Testament makes it clear that salvation is by faith. Romans 5:1 - "Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." Acts 10:43 declares that "whoever believes in Him will have remission of sins." And, of course, John 3:16 - "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." It is affirmed by all that salvation is by faith, but that is not the question James is asking. The question is: Is salvation by faith alone (i.e., faith without works)? The answer is no, which his illustration in the following verses makes clear.
"If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,' but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." There are always going to be those who are in need of food and clothing. It is our responsibility to help others as we have opportunity. As Galatians 6:10 teaches - "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith." If I see someone with insufficient clothing in the middle of the winter, I should do my best to help him or her. It would do absolutely no good for me to say: "Have a good day, and stay warm!" Or, if I see someone who is in need of food, what good would it do for me to tell him: "You look hungry; why don't you go feed yourself?" If I said either of these things without actually helping the person, then my words are worthless. They would not benefit the needy one at all! No one has been physically warmed by the reception of good wishes, and there is not a stomach that has ever been filled by the verbal greeting of another. To speak and not do is useless. Likewise, faith without works is dead--and that is James' point! Our works must demonstrate our faith. Our confidence (or faith) in God is demonstrated by our willingness to do what He asks. If we claim to believe in the Lord, yet refuse to do what He commands, then our faith is vain! It is fruitless and dead!
Living faith is that faith which trusts God enough to follow His instructions, whatever they may be. Dead faith is without value. No one can truly say that he believes in Jesus Christ unless he is willing to do the things that the Lord has commanded. In Luke 6:46, Jesus Himself asked - "But why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' and not do the things which I say?" Listen to some of the other passages that prove this point clearly: Matthew 7:21 - "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven." Hebrews 5:9 - Jesus is "the author of eternal life to all who obey Him." I Peter 1:22 - We have purified our souls "by obeying the truth." Galatians 5:6 - "For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love." James is saying that merely professing to be a Christian is meaningless without performance. Just saying, "I believe," is worthless if you do not practice what you believe! Man is saved by faith when he shows his loving obedience to God.
"But someone will say, 'You have faith, and I have works.' Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works." Here James anticipates an objection. Perhaps some had been saying in the first century: "Different men may choose to exhibit their religion in different ways--one by faith and another by deeds." James here challenges anyone who would make a statement like that; he asks them to show him their faith without works! Ponder that for a moment, and you will conclude that such is not even possible. There is no proof that a man has faith at all unless some fruit is borne of it in his life. If one claims to have faith in God and His word, and yet he lives immorally, then he proves that his faith is not real. However, if one claims to have faith and then proceeds to develop Christian character by his obedience to the word of God, then he is proving the truthfulness of the claim he has made. Obedience is the only way to prove that one has a living faith.
"You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe--and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?" One who believes that salvation is by faith alone should be asked this question: Are the demons saved because of their faith? Absolutely not! They have faith in God to the extent that they know He exists, but their faith is a dead faith. It does not include works of obedience, and that is why the faith of demons is useless. It is the same with humans. Merely proclaiming faith in God does not save, contrary to what many denominations will tell you! If you are not practicing those things that God commands of you, then you should be trembling in fear like the demons because your existence after this life will not be pleasant! Faith without works is dead and James underscores that point in 2:20. He then proceeds to give another example to prove his point--Abraham.
"Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?" James says that Abraham was justified by faith working together with his works; his faith was made complete (or "perfect") by his works! Notice when James says that Abraham was justified--it was when he offered Isaac on the altar (cf. Gen. 22; 15:6).
"And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.' And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only." Abraham had faith in God long before that time, but his faith was mature and complete when he had the confidence in God to take a knife and prepare to kill his son simply because God told him to! Abraham's faith and works together produced His justification before God. The irresistible conclusion is simple: Justification is by works of obedience, and not by faith alone!
"Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?" James' point here is the same although he uses a different person to illustrate it. Rahab is just the opposite of Abraham in many ways, yet according to James, the principle is still true--we need faith and works to be justified. This is true whether you are a descendant of Abraham or a Gentile. It is true if you are a man or a woman. It is true if you have lived a moral lifestyle or if you have been living in sexual immorality (as Rahab had been as a prostitute). Anyone can be justified by faith through works of obedience!
Rahab came to have faith in God based on what she had heard, but that belief alone would not have saved her when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. What saved her were her actions toward God's people. She helped them and in so doing, she proved her faith. She was justified by works when she helped the spies escape (cf. Josh. 2).
"For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also." James concludes this section by providing one more illustration: Faith without works is as lifeless as a body without a spirit. James is comparing two things, and he says that both of them are dead. A body without a spirit is dead physically, and a Christian without works of obedience is dead spiritually, regardless of how much faith that one may claim to have!
As I mentioned in the beginning of this lesson, this passage has caused a lot of controversy over the years because some believe that James contradicted what Paul wrote elsewhere. Let us consider this matter briefly. Listen to what Paul wrote in several places - "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law" (Rom. 3:28). "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast" (Eph. 2:8,9). So, Paul is saying that man is not saved by works; yet James has been saying that man is saved by works. Isn't that a contradiction? The answer is no, because Paul and James are talking about works in two distinct ways. This point is very clear when you study their statements in context.
Paul, in his epistles to the Romans and Ephesians, emphasized the fact that no one could earn their salvation; no one could work their way into heaven by doing a certain number of good works or by doing the works of the law of Moses. This is certainly the case because he says in Ephesians 2:9 that salvation is "not of works lest anyone should boast." Paul was telling Christians that they should not brag about their good works because good works would not earn them a place in heaven. Salvation is truly by God's grace through man's faith. But, James would have us to understand that there are works of obedience that must be done to prove our faith, even though the performing of such does not earn us eternal life.
Consider the case of Noah to better understand these two principles. All would agree that Noah did not earn his salvation by building an ark. God, through His grace, told Noah to build an ark, but just because Noah obeyed does not mean that he earned or deserved his salvation! He simply heard, believed, and obeyed! His salvation was made possible by the grace of God, for without it, he would have drowned like everyone else. But, had he not listened to God, then the grace of God alone would not have saved him. If Noah had refused to build the ark, then he would have perished. Building the ark, which was a work of obedience, was how Noah proved his faith. He believed and did what God told him to do. He was saved by grace, by faith, and by his works!
In principle, our salvation today is not any different. We too must hear God's word, believe, and obey. In the New Testament, Paul declares that we cannot earn or work our way to heaven; works of merit will not save us. However, James wants us to understand that we must practice works of obedience if we expect to be justified. God extends His grace to all mankind, but man must accept that grace by a living, active, obedient faith in order for it to do him any good! God's grace alone will not save us. Our faith alone will not save us. We need His grace and we need to show our faith by our obedience if we are going to be saved. Paul and James do not disagree on the subject of grace, faith, and works. They are merely emphasizing different points in their writings. In one sense, works do not save us, but in a different sense, they do.
Let us summarize these powerful verses before closing: Faith, apart from works, is dead. In order for faith to bless us, it must always be accompanied by obedience to God's commands. Salvation is not a matter of faith or works but faith and works! We cannot be saved by faith alone, and we cannot be saved by works alone. Both are important, and the relationship between the two is one of balance. The kind of faith that God wants is a living, active faith, and such cannot be disconnected from the works of obedience that God expects every human being to render to Him.
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.