Passage – James 2:14-26
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 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? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have 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 will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 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. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 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? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Have you ever read a book, reached the end, and concluded, “It didn’t work”? Maybe it was a book on dieting, parenting, or time management. With each page you turned, the content became clearer and clearer. Your optimism grew. But then, unfortunately, understanding alone did not yield the outcome the book seemingly promised. You felt let down, betrayed, and bamboozled. The book failed!
If so, your relationship with that book parallels the readers of James letter relationship with their Christian faith. They understood their faith well. But that understanding was incomplete – in James’ words “dead” (v. 17, 26) and “useless” (v. 20) – because it lacked something. What we learn, in this passage, is essential to saving faith and is also essential to any other lasting change we want to make.
Avoiding Dead Faith (v. 14-17)
Remember, James has just been talking about the sin of partiality (2:1-13) that tempts these believers to give more attention to wealthy people than caring for the disadvantaged, orphans and widows (1:26-27). That is the context for James’ exploration of the relationship between faith and works.
James portrays faith by itself as warm words and fond aspirations, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” (v. 16). These are true and kind statements. The gospel does give peace. That is accurate. We should want the poor to be warm and filled. That is nice. But James says this “faith by itself” is “dead” (v. 17).
James’ point echoes what Paul said Colossians 1:24, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church (emphasis added).” Paul and James are saying action (i.e., works) is necessary to deliver the good news of what Jesus did if truth (i.e., faith) is going to have its intended effect.
James is confronting the Christian tendency to assume that “believing the right things” (cognition) and “having good intentions” (affections) are the sum total of being a Christian. James says this approach to Christianity is dead (v. 17, 26) and useless (v. 20).
In the application of works James called for was clear: care for the poor. No one originally reading James’ letter had abundance. They were refugees. When we are in need, it is tempting to prioritize our needs over concern for others. James is clearly saying: when we quit caring for the poor, we are no longer following the way of Christ by “loving your neighbor as yourself” (2:8).
This passage compels us to care for the poor, but the faith-works principle should has broader application. Where in your life do you think right understanding and good intentions are sufficient? Where does this mentality tempt you to think obedience is unnecessary? Maybe it’s your personal finances, parenting, emotional regulation, competitive work environment, or time management.
Whenever we buy this lie, the power of our Christian faith dies. Knowing the truth (belief) and liking the truth (emotion) are not a replacement for living the truth (actions). Reflect on this in light of James’ first readers. They left their homes so as not to forsake their faith and still they needed to hear these words. We see that even past sacrifices (works) for the truth (faith) are no replacement for current obedience to the truth.Knowing the truth (belief) and liking the truth (emotion) are not a replacement for living the truth (actions). Click To Tweet
Lovingly, James is reminding us, “Our excuses are not our friends.”
Both-And, Not Either-Or (v. 18-19)
Notice the logic that James introduces to this discussion. You can tell he’s had many of these conversations. When something is uncomfortable, we tend to dismiss it as a matter of style or preference. “I’m glad you like asparagus, but I’m not really a vegetable person,” or, “I’m glad you like to journal, but personal reflection has never been my thing.”
James is not invalidating this style of thinking. It’s fine for there to be outdoorsy and indoorsy Christians, introverted and extroverted Christians. Those are matters of preference. But James is clearly saying the church cannot be dividing into faith-people and works-people.
One of the real challenges in life and the church is to identify which things can be either-or (preference) and which things must be both-and (essential to faith). If everything is both-and, we become legalistic and try to impose uniformity between believers. If everything is either-or, we become permissive, and words like “Christian” become meaningless.
When we consider the cultural context, we gain an insight into why James’ readers would have been tempted to think faith by itself was adequate. These readers were Jewish Christians in a polytheistic culture. Before they became Christians, these people believed in the one true God even before they came to know that Jesus was the way to God (John 14:6).
By contrast, the dominant belief in their current culture was that there were many gods. Religion was about pleasing the god who oversaw your need. Was your marriage bad? You needed to please the goddess Hera. Were your crops failing? You better get on the good side of the god Demeter. Did you want to have a child? You needed to make an offering to Artemis.
Pride over getting monotheism right, when everyone around them was busy pleasing a myriad of gods, led them to think, “If we are this theologically ahead of everyone around us, how upset could God be?” This is why James warns them that even the demons in Hell are monotheist (v 19). James was humbling their point of spiritual pride that blinded them to their sin.
This should force us to ask: Where do we feel superior to the culture around us? How does our pride blind us to compromises we’re making? It is often our rightness that blinds us to our wrongness. Remember, the believers James was writing to were strong believers who highly valued their faith. Whatever temptations they faced we are not above those temptations.It is often our rightness that blinds us to our wrongness. Click To Tweet
Learning from Old Testament Examples (v. 20-26)
James then uses two Old Testament examples to reinforce his point. The first example is Abraham, someone these Jewish believers would have revered. Abraham could have, probably would have, said, “I believe God could raise my son from the dead.” But if his response were merely an answer to a hypothetical question, there would be no way to know if it was the equivalent of saying, “I believe I could have been an astronaut if had I applied myself a little more in high school.”
Put yourself in Abraham’s shoes. Abraham had made great sacrifices for his faith, moving far away from his hometown (Gen. 12:1). He did this because of a promise from God; to make of him a great nation (Gen. 12:3). Abraham’s story paralleled the story of these refugee believers in many ways. Isaac was the son through whom this promise would be kept.
Belief became faith when Abraham was willing to make difficult choices that evidenced his beliefs (Gen. 22). As a necessary sidenote, God intervened and did not allow Abraham to follow through on what would have been an immoral action. There are many questions that emerge for us around this request from God. But for our purposes in studying James 2, we can rest in seeing that God did not allow the sacrifice to take place.
The second example is Rahab (Josh. 2), someone these believers would have thought was more like their oppressors. Rahab was a citizen of Jericho, a pagan people blocking God’s people from returning to the Promised Land. More than this, she was a prostitute. Prostitution was part of the ritual worship practices in places to which these believers were dispersed.
Yet Rahab also displayed her faith by works. When the Jewish spies came to Jericho, because of her fear of Yahweh, Rahab chose to help God’s people over helping her people. This was a clear sign that she was not adding Yahweh to the list of gods her people believed in but was declaring Yahweh the one true God over her life.
At the same time James was trying to move these believer’s faith towards being expressed in works, he was also tearing down their cultural pride that was a barrier to this change. He softened them with the culturally sympathetic example of Abraham and then challenged them with the example of someone who would have evoked their prideful sense of superiority, Rahab.
In this, we see the pastoral approach James took. He made his point – faith without works is dead. He supported it theologically – even the demons have right belief without a response of trust in God. He illustrated his point in ways that would be welcomed – Abraham. Then, he illustrated his point in a way that cut to the heart of where his friends needed to change – Rahab.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to see the pace at which James would have traversed this ground if he were talking instead of writing a letter. Would it have taken a few minutes, an hour, or several conversations? We don’t know. Likely, it would have been different with different people in these house churches.
But we do get to see an intentional progression that implies a desire to be lovingly patient. James did not skip to the most abrupt point. Even though the story of Rahab addressed their faith without works and the pride that undergirded it, James did not start with what would be hardest to hear. In our helping relationships, we need to be comparably sequential; starting where our friend is most receptive and moving towards where they most need to change, even if that is a topic where they are likely to be resistant.
In this, we see “tender courage” in James. He knows his friends are suffering. He has mentioned this multiple times already in his letter. He also knows his friends are sinning. The natural consequences of this sin will disrupt their life and create separation from God’s comforting presence. So, James has the courage to address this area of their life in a patiently progressive way.
Let’s revisit where we started, that book you read and agreed with but concluded “it didn’t work.” That is how these early believers would have felt about their Bible. They read it. They liked it. But it didn’t seem to be working; their life was still hard and getting worse.
James is writing to tell them why. Pause. Think about all the ways that first sentence of this paragraph can be ministered in unhelpful ways. The most helpful thing we can glean from this reflection on James 2 is to understand what James was and was not saying.
James was not saying, “You were persecuted and faced financial-social oppression in your new cities because you expressed faith without works.” Persecution and oppression were suffering. Whatever imbalance in faith and works these believers were guilty of did not create the major problems in their life. James was not turning the moral table on them. He was not saying their suffering was their fault.
James was saying, “Amid this hardship you are neglecting to express your faith in works by loving your neighbor as yourself, and this is creating division between you and your follow believers, as well as creating a sense of distance between you and God. Your sin is adding to your loneliness amid your suffering.” We’ll see this theme emerge again in James 4. James wasn’t saying their sin is why their life was hard; he was saying their sin was making their hard times harder.
In effect, this passage is portraying God like a parent trying to care for a child with a sharp cut. The child is hurting, but in their pain, is pulling away from the parent and refusing to cooperate. James asks, “Do you trust God?” The reader says, “Yes.” Metaphorically, James replies, “If you don’t let God see the cut, then your actions refute your words. Your words are right and could lead to care, but you’ll have to bring those dead, useless words to life by acting on them to receive the comfort you desire. God wants to give it. You must actively trust him to receive it.”
We honor this passage best by reflecting on two question: Where in our life are we the hurt child, who is beginning to rebel and pull away because of our suffering? And, in those situations, what would it look like for us, by faith, to extend that area of pain to God for his comfort and care?
- What is your best “it didn’t work” example of understanding alone being insufficient?
- When have you been on the receiving end of “warm words and fond aspirations” that were not followed up by actions? How did this impact your response to the right beliefs summarized in those warm words?
- What aspects of the Christian faith are you most prone to leave at “warm words and fond aspirations” without following through with actions? Who is impacted by these choices?
- As you compare yourself to the culture around you, what are the areas of belief and morality that tempt you towards pride (like monotheism did for James’ readers)?
- What is a situation where you need to display “tender courage” in your counsel of a friend or family member? What is the progression of growth for them? What would the markers indicate your friend is ready to take the next step in that progression?
- How would you answer the final question, “Where in your life are you the hurt child, who is beginning to rebel and pull away because of suffering? And, in those situations, what would it look like for you, by faith, to extend that area of pain to God for his comfort and care?”
* * * This article is part of a series entitled A Counseling Commentary on James.
* * * If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in my series A Counseling Commentary on Philippians.