James 2:14-26 Easy-to-Read Version (ERV)
14 My brothers and sisters, if a person claims to have faith but does nothing, that faith is worth nothing. Faith like that cannot save anyone.15 Suppose a brother or sister in Christ comes to you in need of clothes or something to eat. 16 And you say to them, “God be with you! I hope you stay warm and get plenty to eat,” but you don’t give them the things they need. If you don’t help them, your words are worthless. 17 It is the same with faith. If it is just faith and nothing more—if it doesn’t do anything—it is dead.
18 But someone might argue, “Some people have faith, and others have good works.” My answer would be that you can’t show me your faith if you don’t do anything. But I will show you my faith by the good I do.19 You believe there is one God. That’s good, but even the demons believe that! And they shake with fear.
20 You fool! Faith that does nothing is worth nothing. Do you want me to prove this to you? 21 Our father Abraham was made right with God by what he did. He offered his son Isaac to God on the altar. 22 So you see that Abraham’s faith and what he did worked together. His faith was made perfect by what he did. 23 This shows the full meaning of the Scriptures that say, “Abraham believed God, and because of this faith he was accepted as one who is right with God.”[a] Abraham was called “God’s friend.”[b] 24 So you see that people are made right with God by what they do. They cannot be made right by faith alone.
25 Another example is Rahab. She was a prostitute, but she was made right with God by something she did. She helped those who were spying for God’s people. She welcomed them into her home and helped them escape by a different road.[c]
26 A person’s body that does not have a spirit is dead. It is the same with faith—faith that does nothing is dead!
James brings up this second view of faith because he is dealing with a possible heckler. In verse 18 James imagines someone responding to what he’s just been saying. “You have faith, I have deeds”.
Are faith and deeds two spiritual gifts? Some people teach others to have the gift of hospitality, others lead, others have faith, and others have deeds. 3 But James says faith and deeds are not individual gifts of God, no; they are both indispensable marks of the Christian. You need both. One without the other is useless before God. You can’t think that by doing good things you will be right with God.
But neither can you think that believing the right things about God and it never affecting how you live will make you right with God. True, saving, useful faith leads to actions.
To prove this James gives the example of the demons. Demons are not atheists. They believe in one God. Yet, the force of what James says about them lies not in the fact that they have an intellectual belief which doesn’t save them, but that they believe something and do something about it. They believe there is one God and they shudder – because they know they are not right with God. Their faith leads to action. James is saying – the faith demons have is more real than the faith expressed by the person in verse 18. Real belief leads to real action. If you really believe something, you do something about it.
Like most churches, we have a statement of faith. Yet we shouldn’t confuse that with what we as individuals really believe. In some ways, it would be better if we called it a statement of what we should believe or a statement of what the Bible teaches. What we really believe will be revealed by how we live. That’s James’ point. It is possible to be the most accurate theologian but to be far from God. How terrible to live your life knowing something is true, but never acting on it, and then get to the end of your life and realise that the gospel is true, but that you never acted on it.
SAVING FAITH (Vs 20-26)
So after pointing out what true faith does not look like, James goes on to show what true faith does look like. The big difference between the examples he goes on to mention compared to the examples he has just quoted is that they are examples of faith which leads to actions. See verse 20 – James is still addressing his imaginary opponent he’s arguing with. “You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless”? and verse 26 “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead”.
You may be a bit uneasy at this point, especially if you know your Bible. You may be thinking – this is a strange language. Doesn’t Paul say that it is “by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – NOT by works, so that no-one can boast”. Doesn’t he also say “no-one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law…the righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe”. Yes, he does. Is James contradicting Paul here? Was Martin Luther, the great reformer who was passionate to point out that salvation was by faith alone, right to reject James at this point?
We need to see that James and Paul both agree. But they express things differently because they are writing to a different audience with different struggles. Paul wrote to people who were trying to get to God on their own, who were attempting to earn 4 their way to God – like we all do before we become Christians, so he stresses that a right relationship with God is God’s gift – only God can give it, we can’t earn it. Keeping the law, doing good things won’t get us there. James wholeheartedly agrees with that. Nowhere does James say that we earn our salvation.
But as we’ve seen in his letter, James is writing to people who called themselves Christians, who said they trusted Jesus, but whose lives were not changed. There was no evidence of the faith they said they had. In fact, these people did not appear to have the kind of faith that Paul taught about, because as you read through Paul’s letters true faith shows itself in godliness, in presenting your body as living sacrifices to God, in fighting sin, in loving one another. The faith Paul talks about is not the dead faith or the useless faith James criticises. Paul never just talks about faith as an intellectual belief. James is simply saying – where is the evidence of the faith you claim to possess? If there is no evidence, there is a question mark about the faith.
To show what true faith looks like James points to two individuals in the Old Testament to show that this is what true faith has always looked like. The first individual is probably the most important, and famous character in the whole Old Testament – Abraham. Described as the “man of faith”, he’s constantly held up through the Bible as the great example of what it means to have faith, to trust God. In Genesis 15 we are told that “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (quoted by James in verse 23). That’s important because Abraham was saved in the same way as New Testament believers. We can’t dismiss Abrahams experience as being different because he was in the Old Testament.
James’ big point about Abraham is about how that faith was shown. 7 chapters later in Genesis Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. The son he had waited for, for many years. The son he had been promised by God even though he and his wife were really old. His trust, his reliance, his belief in God was shown by the fact he was prepared to do what God asked.
It showed it proved the fact he trusted God. This is really a living example of what we saw in chapter 1 – a trial that showed and grew the faith Abraham had. He did not just have faith alone – by which James means a head belief alone. No, what Abraham believed made an impact on the whole of his life.
A while ago I was a leader on a camp for the teenagers in our church, and for one of the activities we went to an adventure playground and had a go on a wire slide. You climbed up a ladder and were attached by one of the workers at the centre to the wire in a harness, then jumped off and were taken along the wire to the other end.
Good fun – but you really had to trust the person attaching you to the wire. Is was especially strange when the guy at the top persuaded me to go across this slide backwards, he attached me and I just had to jump off! I had to trust him, but if I trusted him then I would act. I couldn’t claim to trust him and then not act – if I refused to jump, what would I be saying about him and his abilities and how safe he was?
We can’t kid ourselves we trust God – that we believe he is king, he is wise, he is loving, he is God and then not do what he says.
The second example of this true faith is Rahab. Rahab was not an Israelite, but she hid the Israelite spies from her people when they were sent into the Promised Land by Joshua to explore it. Her faith was shown by identifying with Gods people, by standing out from those around her, by putting herself in danger. She is a clear example of true faith in action – imagine if the spies had comes to her door and she had said “yes, I believe in your God too, but I can’t do anything to help you”. It would be nonsense! If she lived in exactly the same way as her neighbours there would be no evidence she trusted God.
As James closes this section he addresses those who are complacent about their faith head on in verse 26. If you are very loud about what you say you believe, and yet there is no action to back it up, then you are like a corpse. A body without life.
I recognise this is a very challenging passage. And if we are at all alive to God we can have very tender consciences and feel very convicted by what James is saying. If we are feeling like that we should be encouraged – the mark of those who are complacent about faith is that they don’t care, that they argue back like the person does in verse 18.
The question is for a lot of us – yes we have faith, but we know we want more faith. Yes we obey, but not as much as we want to or should. And the encouragement is that Abraham was not perfect. Rahab had a questionable profession. Double-mindedness is a constant struggle for everyone in the Christian life. And this faith grows and God makes it more mature through our life.
But it grows by our acting on what we believe. 1:21 – humbling accepting the word planted in you. As we obey God our faith will get stronger, as God proves to us how much he can be trusted.
There are important lessons in this passage for the way we present the gospel to people. The reason we sometimes struggle with what James says here is that the way the gospel was presented to us is not how it is presented in the Bible. Today we are asked to “ask Jesus into your heart”, and things like that. Requests which are very passive.
Things which imply that having faith is just about thinking nice thoughts about God. But when you read the Bible, yes it is always, always stressed that becoming a Christian is God’s work, there is nothing you can do – but the challenge is to repent and believe. They are both very active things. Turn from sin, trust God. Know Jesus as Saviour and Lord – and you can’t do that without living it out in your life. That’s what true faith is about.
May 25, 2018 Kelleigh Wooderson