READ : James 2:14-26
Perhaps James’ most famous statement and the one for which some have criticized him is this: “Faith without works is dead.” Let’s try to understand what he means.
I once read a great line by a biblical scholar who said that whenever a New Testament writer wanted to make a point about religion, he would write, “Look at Abraham.” That’s certainly true of two of the New Testament writers. However, when we look at what they said about Abraham, we have a bit of a problem.
Listen to what the apostle Paul writes in Romans 3. He’s talking about justification by faith, that bedrock principle that we’re made right with God purely and simply through faith. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Incidentally, that’s a verse that Martin Luther, when he translated it into German, inserted the word “alone” into. “For we hold that one is justified by faith alone apart from works of the law.” And that’s where we get the great Protestant phrase, “justification by faith alone.”
Paul goes on, “for what does the scripture say? Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. To the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness.”
Now listen to what James says in chapter 2 of his letter:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? . . . Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”— and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (vv. 14:24)
Wow! How do you reconcile that? They both quote the same verse. It’s Genesis 15:6. “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” And Paul says, “See, look at Abraham. He was justified by faith.” And James says, “See, look at Abraham. He was justified by works and not by faith alone.” So, there it is, a seeming contradiction? I don’t really think so. Let me try to convince you of the same thing.
What was happening in James’ church is that Christians were falling into a trap that I like to call “easy believism.” It’s that attitude that all I have to really do to be saved is to agree with what they tell me to believe. I just repeat certain code phrases or say a prayer that someone leads me through, and that’s all it takes. I’m in. End of problem. But James is attacking in no uncertain terms this understanding of what faith really is. Many of the Christians in the churches to whom he is writing have forgotten, if they ever knew, what real faith is. They were living with a kind of counterfeit, and a counterfeit faith produces counterfeit Christians.
That’s why James attacks the issue of faith so hard here in this which is probably the most famous passage in all of his book. He’s trying to get his readers to see that the faith they’re so proud of is really a sham. And he wants instead to focus their attention on what real faith is like.
It’s easy for us when we read this passage to think that James’ focus is on good works and that therefore he’s in conflict, or contradiction, with the apostle Paul. But James isn’t really talking about good works here. He’s talking about good faith, and in what he says he would get no disagreement from any other of the New Testament writers. The only contradiction here between James and Paul is verbal or surface in nature. So let’s observe first of all the kind of faith that James is attacking here. Counterfeit faith is faith that has profession without practice. It’s all words and no action. Listen to verses 15 and 16: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed [he writes] and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”
Once again, in chapter 2 we’re in the setting of an imagined worship service, just as we looked at last week in the opening verses of this chapter where the problem James addresses was favoritism or showing partiality to the wealthy and the important. Here’s he’s thinking of that same situation where a poor person has come into the worship.
In the early church, those worship services would have included prayers and hymns. There would have been a sermon, probably the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and then after communion, the congregation would be dismissed with a blessing. It was all proper and correct, this worship. Faith was confessed and professed. Christ’s saving death was proclaimed and also remembered at the table. God’s grace was celebrated. But then, in the middle of the congregation, here’s this terrible disconnect between what people were saying, singing, and praying and what they were actually doing with the poor and the needy in their very midst. What’s worse is that this relationship of indifference, of lack of caring, was tinged with sanctimonious hypocrisy. So the believers, the wealthy believers, are saying to that poor person: “Well, God bless you, brother. Go your way. I hope you’re warm, and I hope you have food to eat,” and then turning away and doing nothing. “Have a nice day.” Well, that rings hollow, doesn’t it, in the absence of any tangible action to help make it happen for those in need.
So these are pseudo-believers. And the fact that they refuse to act out their confession of faith has terrible significance. It makes their worship not only meaningless but absolutely abhorrent in God’s eyes. This kind of behavior that James envisions turns worship into a self-centered exercise, and the gospel is emptied of its power to change people, to create genuine love. No wonder James is so upset by this kind of faith. It truly is no good. In fact, he says, it’s dead. Faith that consists only in the profession of empty words may help people to observe the forms of Christianity but it doesn’t make them real Christians.
Next, James attacks a kind of faith that is all doctrine and no obedience. James writes of these Christians in verse 19: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? ”
And then he goes on to make that point about Abraham. So, to put it in technical terms, orthodoxy (or right teaching) without orthopraxy (right practice, right living, right obedience) is useless. True faith, according to James, is not merely holding a correct set of beliefs or assenting to a creed (there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, that’s good—the statements of the creed are all true) but orthodoxy is not worth a whole lot all by itself. As James reminds us, even the devils in hell know all the correct doctrines. They acknowledge the truth of the creed, if they’re forced to. There are no atheists in hell. Everyone there knows the truth. The problem is, they just don’t act on it. So orthodoxy alone is not enough.
James’ point is that you can’t separate your beliefs from your actions. You can’t drive a wedge between faith and behavior. Some people want to. “You’re big on works,” they say, as he quotes them. “Okay. You go do the good works. I’m not interested in that, but I’ll have faith; I’ll believe.” But these things that God has joined together cannot be separated.
So if that’s the kind of faith James is attacking, what is it that he wants us to see? What’s the kind of faith that he urges us to have? First of all, of course, as by now it’s become obvious, it is faith that is active, faith that is put into practice, into action. This is what he writes in verse 18: “I will show you my faith by my works.” The truth is, as everyone deep down knows, it’s our actions that indicate our truest beliefs. You know the old saying, “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you say.”
Secondly, the kind of faith James wants us to see is where our actions work together with our faith. “You see,” he writes, “that faith was active along with Abraham’s works.” That’s the lesson that he draws from the story of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son Isaac. Faith and works go together. Faith gives meaning to actions, but actions are what make faith real. That’s the point of the two words that James uses to describe faith without actions. He calls it “useless, empty, barren, good for nothing.” And dead. Faith without works is dead. You know, a body without a spirit isn’t a half a person; it’s a whole corpse. And that’s what faith without actions is like. It’s like the battery in a ten-year-old car that sat outside all night when it’s twenty below zero. It’s dead. It’s like the most useless thing you can think of. A flat spare tire, snow skiis in Florida—good for nothing.
And thirdly, James say, our actions complete our faith. You see that Abraham’s faith was active along with his works, and his faith was completed by his works. So in the light of this great and important biblical teaching, let’s ask ourselves some basic questions. What do my actions say about my faith? How would my faith look if it were measured by this test? We may claim to believe in Christ but the only evidence that this claim is real is if we do what Christ commands. You know, you can’t be prosecuted for what you think. At least not yet. Only for what you do. So what have you done in the last week that shows your real faith? We had all better start thinking about answering those questions or we might wake up some day to find that our faith was dead and we are too.