14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe -- and shudder.
20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
- This next passage is well-known to all Christians, and in it James stresses that a saving faith is a working faith. Unfortunately many exegetes, including Martin Luther (16th century), have misunderstood James’ words and supposed they contradicted the teaching of Paul on grace and works. At one point Luther called James an “epistle of straw” not worthy of a place in the NT. (Luther also excluded Jude, Hebrews and Revelation.) Notice James’ emphasis on social action and practical charity.
- A Christian who has no interest in helping the disadvantaged is no Christian at all, for Jesus was the one who saw the crowds and had compassion on them and healed their sick (Matthew 14:14). He was the one who taught that only those who had reached out to the poor, the sick, the hungry and the imprisoned would be welcomed into the kingdom of his Father (Matthew 25:31-46).
- “Nice” non-Christians often contrast the good done by unbelievers with the apathy of most denominations. It’s true: such faith—tepid, lifeless, vague—is just as bad as unbelief. Don’t many unbelievers make some efforts to change the world? James recognizes the common allegation against Christians and shames us with it.
- Mere belief is not enough. Read Titus 1:15, and ask yourself whether these people believe or not. Then read Titus 1:16, and get ready for the shock. You see, technically, anyone who isn’t a true follower of Christ is an “unbeliever.” Our terminology ought to reflect that fact.
- True faith must be integrated with deeds. Someone who wants to dispute this, defending himself from the truth, is not worthy of Jesus. And when people like this, unwilling to change, “get saved,” it brings reproach on Christ. All day long the name of God is blasphemed, thanks to the lukewarmness of false Christians. Their faith is dead, not alive.
- This is the verse that many people simply cannot believe is in the Bible! James isn’t actually talking about the point of initial salvation, but rather, the lifestyle of the saved person. There is only one standard; it does not become more difficult once we are baptized into Christ. We are saved by a living faith, and we will stay saved by a living faith. The heirs of Luther declare we are saved by faith alone, but true living faith is never alone. It is always accompanied by a heart that obeys.
- James takes the example of the harlot Rahab, familiar to his audience (see Joshua 2). Even a prostitute puts the inactive religious person to shame! Echoes of Jesus’ ministry: prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of the Pharisees.
- James leaves us with a pithy illustration. Deeds are what animate faith, just as the spirit is what makes the body alive. Jesus spoke often of deeds, seldom of intentions (Matthew 7:21-23).
- The needy person who is "naked" is probably not completely unclothed. Read the explanation.
- What an amazing juxtaposition: a man (Abraham) and a woman (Rahab); a person of good repute and a person of ill repute. And yet both were justified. This colorfully illustrates Jesus' ministry to "sinners and saints" alike.
- Even in Revelation, where decades after his resurrection he gave sermons to the churches of Asia, Jesus constantly focuses on deeds (Revelation 2:2, 19; 3.1, 8, 15). “Show me a faith that is alone—without deeds,” James would say, “and I will show you a faith that is as useless as it is dead.” So is your faith dead or alive? Even if you don’t know, God does; and through James he helps us not only to see clearly, but also to get back on track!
- Note: the material for our study of James has been adapted from James, Peter, John, Jude (IPI, 2006). For a complete study of the seven general letters (the epistles from James to Jude), please get a copy of the book.
- What deeds in your life show that your faith is alive and well?
- Do you have any tendency to excuse yourself because—after all—salvation is by grace?
- What deeds of faith are most needed in your life right now?