As I mentioned last week during the first sermon in our series entitled “All Day, every day: exploring the book of James, that a famous theologian and pastor, during the reformation, quipped that the book of James was an “epistle of straw”. This theologian and pastor goes by the name of Martin Luther. Now Luther, like all of us, was a person of his time, for better or worse. And his quip, which is definitely not accurate, was due to how the book of James was being used. The book of James was, at the time, being used to promote the idea that salvation could be bought and purchased by our good works. But is that actually what the book of James teaches? Can you work your way into a right relationship with God? Can you do enough good deeds that will earn your salvation? I believe part of reason that Martin Luther quipped about the book of James begin an “epistle of straw” is because others in his day were using the text that we will look at today to promote something that isn’t actually in the text, but also setting up what might seem like a contradiction between Paul’s teaching of salvation through faith alone and what James is writing in the text that we will be looking at today, which is James 2:14-26.
James 2:14-26 says this, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”
So do these verses in James contradict Paul’s statement in Ephesians 2:8-9 which says, “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith(—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Let’s unpack this text in James further to see if there is indeed a contraction in the Scriptures.
The first thing we see in James 2 is this question, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” To answer this question lets go back to who the audience is in the book of James. We shared last week that the main audience for this work, or the people that James was writing to, were Jewish Christians who had come to believe that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah. This knowing the audience of the book of James is super important not only in the entire book of James, but especially in these verses that we are looking at. James is making it pretty clear that it is impossible that someone would have a genuine saving faith that isn’t accompanied by works. His audience of Jewish Christians discovered the glory of salvation by faith. They knew the exhilaration of freedom from a works-based righteousness. But instead of swinging to the middle, they swung all the way to the other side and other extreme by thinking that works didn’t matter at all. If we truly believe something we will follow through and act upon it. All too often today when we say the word faith or the word believe we limit it to a western understanding instead of a hebraic understanding. A western understanding of the words faith or believe tends to be limited only to the mind and knowing. The Hebraic is more holistic which means faith and belief transcend the knowing and the mind and into all areas of life. Not that it meant that it naturally happened that faith bled naturally into lives. James was very concerned about a problem which was already arising in the early church and which is with us to this day- and it is addressed as “people who do the word not people who merely hear the word.”
We all (Western, Hebraic, Eastern) struggle with taking faith and moving it from a cerebral context to an enfleshed lived out reality. But true belief, true faith alone saves, but the faith that saves isn’t alone. True belief and true faith will be accompanied by our getting our hands dirty for the kingdom. True faith and true belief won’t be just limited to the head. It will of course include the head, but will work it’s way to the heart and out from the heart to the hands and feet. Orthodoxy (right belief) needs to lead to orthopraxy (right action) or I believe it isn’t orthodoxy.
The question then that James asks, if faith isn’t accompanied by action it isn’t even saving faith, leads to this illustration. James puts it this way, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” There obviously is no point in saying to someone without clothes or food to be “warm and well fed”. Words won’t do anything to help. the world must be translated into action. One of the actions/works that James expects from followers of Jesus to be doing is caring for the poor. You know the saying, “It’s the thought that counts”? Obviously, it isn’t the thought that counts, or even the words that come out of the mouth. It is the action that is attached to the faith that makes the difference. Without a radical change of life, that type of faith is then worthless or even dead, and will not rescue someone from sin and death. If we fail in the most simplest of good works, towards a brother or sister in need, demonstrates that we don’t have a living faith and that type of faith can’t save us. Because it is dead.
Faith is dead, James says, unless it its connected with action. He says “Show me your faith without deeds.” Obviously he is saying that this is not even a possibility to do so. Because to James, to show your faith, means to live in such a way that the faith becomes tangible in the real world. It becomes an embodied faith. And so you in the end are showing your faith. We show our faith by our deeds he then goes on to say.
Now this is again where we see clearly who he is audience is. In verse 19 we read, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” James goes back to the Shema from the Old Testament, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” James is saying that saying that God is one doesn’t get you very far if the faith in the one God doesn’t make a difference in and through your life. Even the demons know that God is one, and it doesn’t do them any good at all. They have knowledge and belief that God is one, but it isn’t saving knowledge, saving belief or saving faith. Clearly what James means here by faith is not what Paul and others developed as a full, Jesus-shaped meaning, it is a throwback to the ancient Jewish meaning- the confession that God is one. But this doesn’t mean that Paul and James are in conflict about what faith is. James is saying that faith needs to be translated into Jesus-shaped action, if it is to make any significant difference and it is at this point that the two come together where we find Paul, in his finest letter about faith and works offering this statement, “what matters is faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6)
To connect with his audience, and to again show them the fact that faith works its way out of the believer and into the world, James uses two famous characters from the Old Testament. Both of those individuals would have been known widely by these Jewish Christians, and especially one of them would be held in seriously high regard while the other, who would seemingly not fit, ended up in the lineage of the Messiah himself.
The first Old Testament character that James brings to his audience’s attention is Abraham. He says, “Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.” James is alluding to 2 key passages that show that even Father Abraham not only believed and had faith, but that his faith led him into putting his faith into action. The first allusion that James is making is to Genesis 15 where Abraham believes God’s promise to give him an enormous family. Genesis 15:5-6 says, “He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring[ be.” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” The second allusion to Genesis is from Genesis 22 which is the story of Abraham taking his son Isaac up on Mount Moriah. Abraham faced a stern test and commanded to sacrifice Isaac, his son by Sarah, the one through whom the promises of Genesis 15 were to be fulfilled. Obviously Genesis 22 is a troubling and dark story but Abraham “passes the test” The faith he had at the beginning in Genesis 15 was translated into action in Genesis 22. He believed what God had promised and he was prepared to put that faith into action. That is what counted with Abraham and that is what counts with us.
The second Old Testament character that James alludes to is the pagan prostitute Rahab, who appears in so many ways an unlikely candidate for the Hall of Faith and an example of faith that we should follow. She lived in Jericho and she protected 2 spies from Israel from being found and captured. She hid them on the roof while some soldiers from Jericho were looking for them, and she told the soldiers that they had already went through the gate of the town. (You can read more of her story in Joshua 2). She translated her belief, that Israel’s God was the one true God (Joshua 2:11-“the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.”), into action- even though it was extremely risky and could have been life-threatening to her if she would have been found out.
In closing, I want you to notice something regarding the last verse in this chapter. James 2:24 says, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” James corresponds faith with the body and works with the spirit. So often if we would rewrite it we would correspond the body with deeds and faith with the Spirit but James does it the other way around. He is saying that the two (faith and works) are both vitally important, and one needs the other to live. And so do we. We need faith and we need to show our faith by being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. We need a faith that matters, a faith that justifies, and a faith that saves…..and that kind of saving, redeeming, and reconciling faith is the kind of faith that lives out the calling of Genesis 12:1-3 (God’s calling upon his people to be a blessing) and Matthew 25 (the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats)
So let’s unpack together what it really looks like to live out this type of saving faith. And let’s really ask each other the hard question that this passage and the entire book of James is really asking each of us, “Is our faith the real thing?” Are we living out our faith all day, every day?
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions etc... do you have regarding the relationship between faith and works?
2. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?