Since professed faith is dead without accompanying works, Christians must go beyond offering encouragement to brothers in immediate physical need by fulfilling their professed faith through obedient works of mercy and generosity.
The Debatable Question (v 14) – “I see dead people!” Bruce Willis’s character in the movie The Sixth Sense is a guy who doesn’t know he’s dead. He’s a ghost who sees everything in the physical world the same as he always had, except now the coexisting spirit realm is unveiled to his eyes. It takes a little boy to convince him of the truth that should be obvious—he’s dead. James sees a similar scenario in the Church of the first century: professing Christians saying all the right things, appearing pious and spiritual, and believing they are spiritually alive when they are actually dead. It should be obvious to everyone that they are spiritually dead, but it’s not. In this passage James puts forward this question for debate: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” What do you think? Perhaps you’re confident you know the right answer. Maybe you’re squirming in your seats, wondering whether I’m going to tear down the Reformation doctrine of Sola Fide (Faith Alone). Or you might be scared to death because you’re not sure what kind of faith you have. James is addressing all of you. Although everyone comes here this morning with different thoughts, with a different story, I am certain that all of you struggle to move from belief to practice, from faith to works. In the presence of Christians with immediate physical needs, all of us often falsely assume that words of blessing and prayer are all God requires of us. James wants to change your mind, and more importantly change your life.
A. Pathos Argument: Faith Without Works Ignores the Feeling Heart (vv 15-18)
1. A Hypothetical Scenario (vv 15-17)
In this scenario, a Christian brother offers a prayer and a blessing to his poor brother. He is theologically correct (“The Lord will provide!”) and is pious. But according to James, such “faith” is completely useless!
To give a simple example, there is a story of a young boy on an errand for his mother to buy eggs. On the way home he trips and falls, breaking the eggs on the sidewalk. Many passersby stop to encourage and comfort the boy, offering caring words. But one man hands the boy a dollar and asks the others, “How much do you care?”
The Christian ought, after praying and blessing his poor brother, to go to his own closet and pantry to provide for the poor brother in need. This is true faith. This is true religion. This is a living faith. By extension, all such faith unaccompanied by action is useless and dead.
2. A Hypothetical Objector (v 18)
The objector attempts to separate faith and works by claiming they are separate gifts of God. “You have the gift of faith. I have the gift of works.”
On the face of it, this objection sounds plausible. The Holy Spirit doles out different gifts to each Christian (1 Cor 12:4, 8-11). We recognize generalized tendencies in the evangelical world when we see that Baptists have the gift of evangelism; Non-denominational folks have the gift of seeker-friendly worship; Presbyterians have the gift of doing everything decently and in order; and Charismatics seem to think they have all the gifts, even the razzle-dazzle ones! But on closer inspection, the faith and works question is not a spiritual gifts question at all. More accurately is the contemporary question of lordship salvation (carnal Christians accept Jesus as Savior but not Lord; spiritual Christian accept Jesus as Savior and Lord).
James replies that faith and works cannot be separated, and that a faith without works is the same as no faith at all. Every true Christian will show his faith by his works. Works give evidence to faith. The imaginary opponent wants to contrast faith and works. James corrects him by showing that the true contrast is between a faith without works and a faith with works. In others words, faith works! In this case, faith works itself out in deeds of compassion and service when faced with an immediate need.
B. Logos Argument: Faith Without Works Ignores the Thinking Mind (v 19)
1. Confessions of Faith are Necessary
No one denies this except unfaithful do-gooders. Many people are adept at being good neighbors, good citizens, good parents, good friends. Right now you’re probably picturing a person you know who fits this description. These kinds of folk can take WWJD and replace Jesus’ name with any other nice or heroic person (George Washington, Gandhi, Mother Teresa). But we know from Scripture that do-gooders are actually sinners like the rest of us (Rom 3:10-12). Without faith in Christ to take away the punishment for their sins, they stand condemned before God (Jn 3:16-18). Faith in God and his Son Jesus is necessary to be justified, and confession of that faith is required because Jesus is the only Savior of sinners! (Rom 10:9; cf. Mk 12:28-31; 1 Cor 8:6; 1 Tim 2:5). The only door into the kingdom of God for sinners is repentance and faith in Jesus Christ alone to gain forgiveness and salvation. “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Cor 9:15)
2. Confessions of Faith are Not Sufficient
The imaginary opponent replies (by implication) with a confession of faith. The ultimate OT form of confession is “I believe that God is one” (Deut 6:4). The NT form of this confession is “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9). We are tempted to believe that confession of the one true God is enough. But James proves using logic that it is not.
Recently I attended the 2010 General Assembly of the PCA. Pastors Tim Keller and Ligon Duncan teamed to give a seminar on why the different parties in the PCA (doctrinalists, pietists, and culturalists) should learn to get along and stay together. They convincingly argued that a balanced Christian has orthodoxy (right thinking), orthopraxis (right behavior), and orthopathos (right feelings). We need each other because all of us tend to lean heavily in one direction to the neglect of the others. God wants the Church to be balanced, but he also wants every believer to be balanced. You must have faith and works, and joy of the Spirit in both!
James’s point is that right doctrine (orthodoxy) is not enough since even the demons believe and act in concert with their belief—they shudder (because they are going to hell). The one who claims only to have faith should not be haughty in his confession, but should shudder as well! We may believe and confess that Jesus is Lord, but if we do not obey him our belief and words are in vain (John 14:15, 23-24).
C. Ethos Argument: Faith Without Works Ignores the Authoritative Scripture (vv 20-25)
1. Exhibit A: Abraham (vv 20-24)
God declared Abraham righteous (justified) when he put his faith in God (Gen 15:6), but God’s goal for Abraham’s faith was obedience (Jas 2:22; cf. Eph 2:8-10). Another way of looking at the example of Abraham is that God viewed his sacrificial obedience as revealing the true faith that Abraham already possessed, not as adding something that Abraham’s faith lacked. When Abraham first believed, he was justified, but later his faith and actions were working together—proving to God that his faith had been real from the beginning.
2. Clarifying Justification: Paul, James, and Jesus
Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.
James speaks of faith and justification in the same way Luther did when he wrote in the preface to his commentary on Romans:
O it is a living, busy active mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.
Paul and James speak of faith and justification in complimentary, not contradictory ways. They speak differently because they are responding to different errors in the church. Paul is combating the encroaching legalism and Jewish identity markers in the church; James is combating confessional but dead faith—a “faith” without accompanying works. Both understand “works” to include anything done (good or bad). “The difference between them consists in the sequence of works and faith: Paul denies faith+works–>justification, but James insists that by its very nature faith–>justification+works. Another way of conceiving the difference is this: for Paul justification usually means to declare righteous, whereas for James it means to vindicate. Why does James use language that grates on our ears—“Did he just say Abraham was justified by works?!?” Because he is trying to be provocative, to wake us from our dogmatic, “faith is enough” slumbers. He gives us shock treatment because complacent professing Christians often need it.
I offer a word of advice for doctrinal-minded folks (myself included!) who prefer James use terminology more like Paul and the Westminster Confession, and become very uncomfortable with definitions of justification that don’t precisely match the catechism (but cf. Westminster Larger Catechism questions 70-73). The word justification is a Shibboleth in Reformed circles, and rightfully so because it is a vitally important concept to get correct. But we must be careful to include both primary and secondary meanings for justification in Scripture. Even Jesus used the words faith and justification sometimes like Paul (Lk 18:14) and other times like James (Mt 12:37). It is ironic that in the Christian church, the writings of Paul and James tend to be emphasized one over the other, and usually fans of Paul most need to hear James, while fans of James most need to hear Paul. Doctrinalists (those primarily concerned with right doctrine) desperately need to hear James’s plea that faith without acts of mercy, obedience, and piety are dead. Pietists (those primarily concerned with right living/doing) desperately need to hear Paul’s plea that works contribute nothing to being declared righteous by God. You need to honestly understand who you tend to gravitate toward (Paul or James), and consciously work toward understanding and living the message of the one you tend to neglect, because only Paul and James together reflect the message of Jesus.
3. Exhibit B: Rahab (v 25)
Rahab’s example shows that although she had heard about the God of Israel and believed in that God, she acted on that faith when she hid the spies and protected them. She is considered the prototype (the prime example) of a pagan converting to the worship of the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Notice her faith was not complete until she acted in faith. If Abraham was considered the paragon of righteousness in the OT, Rahab’s reputation was the opposite—a Canaanite prostitute. Yet James (to wake us up) uses her example to prove his argument that faith is justified by works. Most of us aspire to a faith like Abraham’s, not Rahab’s. But that is because we are prone to wrong ideas about faith. Even though Rahab was a sinner, notice how she acted on her profession of faith in God at the right time—when the need arose. She did what needed to be done to save the spies, and thereby proved her potentially doubtful confession of faith. Her faith was vindicated by what she did.
The Unavoidable Conclusion (v 26) – Please don’t make this mistake so many of us easily fall into when reading this passage. “Yes, I know that faith without works is dead, and I’m sure glad I understand it a little better now. I’m so proud that my theology lines up with what the Bible teaches about faith, works, and justification.” No, no, no! If that is all you’ve learned then you’ve stopped short of the lesson. James is urging you to act on your professed faith in God, especially in sacrificial mercy and generosity toward your brother in need. Don’t just believe the right things. You’ll end up trembling in God’s presence like the demons! Fulfill your right beliefs. Make perfect your confession of faith by adorning it with good works. Prove to God and your Christian brothers and sisters that you truly love God. Obey his commandments, love your neighbor, find someone in immediate need and open your closet, your pantry, your wallet, even your home to help them. Do whatever is necessary. Yes, share the gospel, offer words of encouragement, and pray that God would restore where locusts have devoured. But don’t stop short of being the helping hands of Jesus.
Remember Jesus’ words of comfort to those whose faith yields works (Mt 25:36-40), and his words of warning to those who false faith yields nothing (Mt 25:41-43):
36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
I earnestly pray that you would not be fooled in thinking you’re alive if you’re actually dead. I pray Jesus would not look at his church and say, “I see dead people.” Examine your faith and your works. James crystallized this passage into a Christian proverb: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.” Remember it well—it is your guide to living faith, a faith that God truly justifies.