Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Faith Without Works Is Dead (James 2:14-26)


When I planned out this study, I intended to write three essays about the latter half of James 2. However, as I have studied the text, as I have read commentaries, and as I have prayed for wisdom, I have come to realize that by separating this passage into several parts I would be removing context, adding unnecessary length to my writing, and increasing the chance of somebody being confused about the meaning of this passage. Most importantly, I realize that this passage has to do with one of the core doctrines of Christianity, and the last thing that I want to do is confuse somebody about something as important as how we are saved. Before we examine the passage, I want to briefly explain how we are saved, so that we can protect ourselves from misunderstanding what James is writing about.

There are many discussions amongst the members of the Church, but there are a set of beliefs that are non-negotiable. There are disagreements, then there are beliefs that can decide whether or not a person goes to Heaven. Anybody who rejects the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith is not a Christian. Paul makes this doctrine very clear in Ephesians 2, where he writes the following:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. [Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV]

We are saved by the grace of God, through faith. Our salvation is a gift from God, not a result of anything that we do. We are saved by grace, through faith. Sola gratia, sola fide.

James talks about the way our faith should produce works, and James is correct. After all, the Bible is the divinely-inspired Word of God, free from error. How do we make sense of Ephesians 2:8-9 when James 2:24 appears to contradict it? In the words of Gregory Koukl, “Never read a Bible verse.”

That does not mean that we should not read our Bibles, it means that we should not read verses out of context. James 2:24, when read by itself, appears to challenge what Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9, but when we look at the context of James 2:24, the meaning becomes clear. Let us examine the context together, one part at a time. We will begin with verses 14 through 17.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed 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? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. [James 2:14-17, ESV]

In verse 14, James asks two questions: (1) “What good is faith that does not have works”, and (2) “Can that faith save?” These questions are rhetorical, used by James to explain the mark of genuine faith. The word “works” is used to describe good deeds (which is how the NLT handles this passage).

When I was a teenager, I said that I was a Christian. I was not lying, and I do believe that I was a Christian, but if I look at how I behaved, what I thought, and what I spoke, I can clearly see how weak my faith was. I believed in God, I believed that Jesus Christ died for my sins, I believed that He rose from the dead three days later, and I believed in Heaven or Hell. Despite my adherence to the core doctrines of Christianity, my faith was incredibly shallow. We can lose our salvation, and I believe that there were points in my teenage years where I may have lost mine. I have never even considered renouncing my faith, but by having such a weak faith to begin with, I was very easily led astray by the sin that surrounded me. When I think back to the way I was as a teenager, I can answer James’ questions, but not in the way that I would like to answer them. What good was my faith when it did not produce works? Well, my faith did not affect my life as faith ought to, so my faith must not have served much good at all. Could that faith save? Honestly, I was not sure. I had so much anxiety about where I would go after I die. Some days were better, I would feel like I was doing what I needed to do in order to live as a Christian, and that I would go to Heaven if I happened to die at that time. Other days were filled with guilt, with shame, and with the weight of my past sins weighing on my heart. Surely I would not go to Heaven if I died on a day when I was not honoring God as I should have been.

The reality is that I believed with my mouth, but not with my heart. I could say whatever I wanted (I often did), but I lacked the type of faith that would save me from spending an eternity in Hell. I do not believe that I was saved throughout my teenage years, nor do I believe that I was unsaved throughout my teenage years. I think that I went between being saved and unsaved, due to my faith being so weak.

If I compare the way I was before to the way I am now, I see a faith that is far greater than any faith that I had before. I look at my life, I look at the way I behave, I look at the ministry that God has blessed me with, I look at the peace and joy that I have, and I can see that I have a faith that is alive and well. That does not mean that I live a perfect life. I sin, and I sin often. However, when I sin, I am aware of my sin, I repent, and I make a genuine effort to become more Christlike. My faith was given new life, just like I was given new life. I have a settled assurance in my spirit about where I will go when I die. I know that, if I happened to expire today, I would go and be with the Lord. I am not anxious, I am not scared, and I am not worried. I have peace, I trust that I will be taken care of by God, and if God calls me home today, I know that I shall reach paradise unhindered. The faith that I have is the type of faith that saves, and that faith is proven by the works that it produces.

If our faith does not produce good works, then our faith is dead. True faith produces good fruit, it drives us to repent from our sinful ways, it drives us to seek God, and it makes us more like Christ. A dead faith is present in speech, but absent in the heart.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. [James 2:18, ESV]

Verse 18 provides us with James’ response to the person who tries to separate faith from works. “Works” is not something that some have, while others do not. Our faith produces works, and our faith is proven by the works that it produces. In response to the person who says that he has the gift of works, while others have the gift of faith, James replies, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

How could somebody show that they have faith if they do not have works? How could I have shown that I had faith as a teenager when I did not seek God, when I did not read my Bible, when I did not pray as often as I should have, and when I did not put God’s will above my own? Just as I could not have shown that my faith was alive when I was a teenager, nobody can show their faith without there being some kind of works. Those works (good deeds) are the way that our faith is verified. Without good works, we cannot show our faith. Conversely, by having good works, we can show others that we have genuine faith.

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder!

Verse 19 gives us another excellent point in favor of what James writes about faith. You believe in God? That is good, but that does not do you any good. After all, demons believe that God exists, but what good does their belief in God serve them? The devil has a very good understanding of Scripture, but what does that do for him? Knowledge is pointless without wisdom to apply it, and faith is useless without works to show it.

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.

Verses 20 through 23 provide us with a very good example of the way faith is shown by good works. The story that James is referring to comes from Genesis 22, where Abraham is tested by God. God tells Abraham to take his son, Isaac, go up to the top of a mountain, and sacrifice him. God knew how much Abraham loved his son, but Abraham did what God told him to do.

Well, Abraham was about to do what he had been told to do, but just before Abraham killed his son, God told him to stop what he was doing. God told Abraham that he could see that Abraham truly feared the Lord, and that he would be blessed for having faith in God. Abraham had such a strong faith in God that he was willing to sacrifice his only son, just because God told him to do so.

I would love to explain the way that this story points toward Jesus Christ, but that is a topic that is deserving of its own essay. Read Genesis 22:1-18 and pay close attention to what God says to Abraham.

Romans 4 talks about the way Abraham trusted in God, believed that He would do what He had promised to do, and how his faith was counted to him as righteousness. In Romans 4, Paul makes the same case that James makes in James 2:

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. [Romans 4:9-11, ESV]

In short, Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteousness before he was circumcised, with the circumcision being the sign of his faith, rather than his faith being counted to him as righteousness when he was circumcised. Abraham had faith, his faith was active along with his works, and his faith was completed by his works.

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

James 2 concludes with another example of how faith is shown by works. This example comes from Joshua 2, where we read about Rahab protecting spies that Joshua sent to Jericho. Men came to capture the spies that Joshua had sent, but the spies were kept safe by Rahab. Rahab had faith in God, and her faith was completed when she hid the spies.

…and said to the men, “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. Now, then, please swear to me by the Lord that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” [Joshua 2:9-13, ESV]

In conclusion, belief in God is not enough to be saved. There are many people who believe in God, but do not have faith. We are saved by grace, through faith, not through belief. Merely acknowledging that God exists is not enough to save us from judgement. After all, even the demons believe in God.

In order to be saved, we must have faith. That faith is not just a belief that God exists, that faith is belief in God, in His character, in His faithfulness, in His mercy, in His grace, and in His ability to save. Our faith is shown to be genuine by the works that it produces. If our faith does not produce good works, then our faith is dead. The stronger the faith, the greater the works.

I pray that I have helped others come to understand what James is writing about in James 2:14-26. This essay took me a lot longer to write than I had anticipated, and I have spent more time preparing to write this essay than I have spent preparing for any of my other essays.

We are saved by grace, through faith.

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