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Here, we continue our study in the Epistle of James.
14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
The end of the second chapter of James' epistle contains a section concerning what true faith is. James begins by asking: "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?" The emphasis of the whole discourse is whether the man's "claim" of faith is true. To determine whether the "claim" is true, James looks at the man's "deeds", or, in this case, his lack of "deeds". Jesus speaks of a claimed faith in a similar way: "Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).
James asks of the man who has "no deeds": "Can such faith save him?" In other words, James is asking, "Is it possible to have a true saving faith, if there is no evidence of it in one's life?" James will go on to argue that such a faith is not a true saving faith. Jesus said essentially the same thing: "If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit" (John 15:5).
Pretended faith and pretended religion are useless. In fact, pretended faith is harmful. First, it is harmful to Christianity. The pretenders are seen by the world as representatives of the faith. When there is no fruit in their lives, the world imputes their hypocrisy upon the whole religion. "There is less dishonour brought to God by open opposition, than by profession used as a cover and excuse for profaneness."[Footnote #2] Second, the pretension can be harmful to the pretender himself. In his attempt to deceive the world, he may succeed in deceiving himself. He may think that the benefits of true faith are his and that he will join with the true believers in the kingdom of God. However, the Lord will say to him, as He did to the false professors in Matthew 7, "I never knew you. Away from me you evil doers" (Matt. 7:23). His pretended faith is harmful to him because it will keep him out of the kingdom of God. He will rest in his claimed faith, not seeking a true faith.
True faith will result in true works. Examine yourself in light of this. As Paul encourages: "Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves" (II Cor. 13:5). Does your life reflect your faith? Does your life faithfully represent Christianity? Could the world determine from the fruit of your life that you are a Christian? Now, if you find yourself falling short in this respect, the remedy is not to scurry around and try to do good works in order to prove your faith, for James is not implying that works without faith saves. The remedy is to turn to God and humbly ask Him to guide you, by His Spirit, into a true saving faith from which the good works will naturally spring.
James, in order to illustrate his point, gives an example where someone's words and actions clearly contradict each other. In the example, "a brother or sister" (i.e., a fellow Christian) is extremely needy, as shown by his lack of even daily food. Interestingly, James personalizes the example by saying "if one of you says..." In doing this, he is encouraging us to examine our lives to see if such hypocrisy exists.
The speaker in the example says to the needy brother or sister: "Go, I wish you well, keep warm and well fed" and then does nothing else. This directly applies to James' position about the uselessness of a merely claimed faith because the speaker acts as if his words, in themselves, will accomplish something. In the example, the absence of action proves the emptiness of the words. If the speaker really wished the brother or sister well, he would have done something to help the needy person.
James sums up his argument: "In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." A claimed faith with no works is analogous to the claimed concern in the example. The man in the example speaks well, and to speak well is important, but it is not enough, just as a mere claimed faith is not enough. The man in the example knew of the brother or sister's need, but did not act upon his knowledge. In the same way, one who claims to have faith proves by claiming that he knows about Christ and Christ's teachings, but he is condemned because he does not act upon his knowledge. The absence of works proves the emptiness of his faith.
18But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder. 20You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend. 24You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. 25In 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? 26As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
James begins this section by stating that it is much easier to prove that one has true faith if the faith is demonstrated by works: "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do". Those with proven faith, those who have demonstrated their faith by their works, are great assets to Christianity. Thank God that we have the Mother Theresas, the Corrie Ten Booms, the Billy Grahams, etc., to point to as representatives of the Christian faith. We can point to them because their faith is demonstrated.
James goes on to give three examples of faith. The first example shows a faith that believes that Jesus is the Son of God, and yet is not a saving faith: "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that". The demons have a faith that many today would consider a saving faith. As James stated, demons believe that there is one God. Demons also believe that Jesus is the Son of God (see Matt. 8:29). Demons also clearly believe that Jesus has the power to save men from hell; otherwise, they would not work so hard to keep men from Jesus.
So, demons not only intellectually acknowledge the existence of God, but also acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world. Now, intellectual acknowledgement is, as James says, "Good!" It is a necessary first step to true faith. However, true saving faith is more than intellectual acknowledgement. It involves basing one's life on the fact that Jesus died for our sins and is our Lord and Savior. Furthermore, to truly believe that Christ died for us is to acknowledge one's debt to Him through obedience. This will naturally result in doing the work of God.
Interestingly, the demons' faith in God does result in fruit in their lives, albeit, not the right kind of fruit, for they "shudder". True Christians should not "shudder" at the thought of God. Indeed, we should have a healthy fear of God, a respect for His commandments and a reverence for His name, but to truly know Him is to know His love for us. This love does not cause one to "shudder", unless one is still under the condemnation of God. However, as Paul points out, "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1).
It should be obvious that true faith results in a life that reflects that faith, so James tactfully says, "You foolish man". He then goes on to offer as examples two people whose actions demonstrated their faith.
The first of these examples is perhaps the greatest demonstration of faith in the Bible: Abraham's offering of Isaac. Abraham's offering of Isaac was a great example of obedience, but it was even more a demonstration of his faith. God asked Abraham to do something that, from a human point of view, defied logic, contradicted reason and did not make sense. Abraham, through faith, nevertheless consented. The reason that Abraham could make such a grand offering was because he believed, through faith, the promise of God that stated that he would have descendants through Isaac. The writer of Hebrews sums it up: "By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, `It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.' Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death" (Heb. 11:17-19). So, Abraham did not consider that he was sacrificing Isaac to death, because God had already made promises about Isaac's future that had yet to be fulfilled. Many fault God in this episode for asking Abraham to sacrifice his son; however, God knew that Abraham was not going to sacrifice Isaac to death, and, as stated, Abraham also knew that he was not going to sacrifice Isaac to death.
James goes on: "Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?" Certainly, all who read this episode in Genesis 22 cannot help but "consider" Abraham righteous for it. We consider him righteous because we see that, as James says, "his faith and his actions were working together". God also "considered" Abraham righteous for what he did, because God told him afterwards, "Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son" (Gen. 22:12). Also, certainly, Abraham himself was strengthened in his faith through this episode. When we pass the tests of God, we ourselves are strengthened in our faith as a result. When our faith "works together" with our actions, our faith strengthens our works and our works strengthen our faith. So, indeed, as James states, Abraham's "faith was made complete by what he did": his faith was proven to us, to God and to himself.
Abraham's actions were actually a fulfillment of the Bible's assertion that Abraham had faith. As James points out: "And the scripture was fulfilled that says, `Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness' ". The Bible could merely have stated that Abraham had faith, but we would not have known the extent of his faith unless we were shown his deeds. In fact, Abraham is considered a great man of faith, not because the Bible says that he had faith, but because his faith was demonstrated and fulfilled through his testing. Untested faith is unproven faith.
Now, God "credited" Abraham's faith "to him as righteousness" many years before Abraham's offering of Isaac. The episode being referred to was when "Abraham believed" the Lord, when He said: "Look up at the heavens and count the stars--if indeed you can count them. . . So shall your offspring be" (Gen. 15:5). So, the offering of Isaac was not the grounds of Abraham's justification, but the "fulfillment" of the faith attributed to him. James looks at the effect of his justification, which was the act that fulfilled the statement that Abraham had faith in the promise.
James goes on, saying: "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith" (that is, a claimed faith) "alone". Abraham's test specifically referred to his faith in the earlier promise. If Abraham truly believed that his offspring through Isaac would be as the stars in the sky, he would have no problem with offering Isaac to the Lord, since it was the Lord Himself who made the original promise.
Many see a discrepancy between what James says in this verse with some of Paul's teachings; namely, when Paul states: "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law" (Rom. 3:28). This supposed discrepancy can be resolved by studying the purpose and context of Paul's and James' statements. James is speaking of a "claimed faith" that is not borne out in the actions of the claimant's life. Paul is speaking of a "true faith", and stating that a true faith is sufficient in order to be justified. James' purpose is to describe what true faith is (a faith that results in action); Paul's purpose is to describe what true faith does (that is, justify). James defines faith; Paul defines justification. James in this passage is not battling Paul, as some would presume; rather, James is battling those who would abuse the doctrine taught by Paul. The differences between Paul's and James' statements are in large part due to their differing target audiences: Paul speaks to the Pharasaical Christians, who say that you must be circumcised, etc. in order to be justified; James speaks to so-called "carnal Christians", who use their claimed faith to excuse sin.
James' final example is Rahab, whose history is found in Joshua 2. James states: "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?" Rahab is also mentioned as an example of faith in Hebrews 11: "By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient" (Heb. 11:31).
Rahab presents an interesting contrast to Abraham. Abraham represents the high ground of faith, a man to be looked up to and emulated. On the other hand, Rahab was a prostitute and her act of faith itself was accompanied by a lie, a great contrast to Abraham's noble act. However, her behavior when the spies came, when her faith was tested, proved that she had faith in God: we would not have known that she had faith if she had not demonstrated it. One might say, "I could never be an Abraham", but certainly all could aspire to be a Rahab: a woman, a heathen and a prostitute, yet with a demonstrated faith in God.
Her actions displayed an enormous amount of faith. To hide the spies, she would have had to believe that the ragtag Israelites, wanderers in the desert, could conquer Jericho, a fortified, walled city. Also, her act was not trivial. It was a selfless, courageous act. She jeopardized her own life by harboring the spies. Her faith, like ours, was based on hearing about the Lord's work in the lives of His people. She spoke her faith, saying: "I know that the LORD has given this land to you. . . We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone's courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below" (Josh. 2:9-11).
So, though Rahab was a sinner, yet she was an example of faith. God does not expect the faithful to be sinless. He, by His Spirit, will work to that end in our lives, but the great people of God do not have to be (and certainly are not) sinless. In fact, God often chooses the worst of sinners to represent him: Matthew the tax-collector, Paul the murderer, Rahab the prostitute. In choosing us sinners to serve Him, God turns our old sins into glory for Him, as those around us witness our changed lives. "The scars and marks of old sins remain, not to our dishonour, but God's glory."[Footnote #3] Rahab, though a prostitute, went on to marry an Israelite and, in fact, is an ancestor of Jesus Christ (see Matt. 1:5).
James concludes this section concerning faith and works by summarizing: "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead". This is a picturesque analogy. A body without a Spirit is a dead carcase: useless and putrid. So, a dead faith is useless, even harmful. A dead faith shows no signs of life; a living faith is active, vibrant, exemplary, and glorifies God. Oh Lord, breathe Your breath of life into our faith!
In summary, the examples that James cited were chosen because they are clear evidences of faith. They were not works of charity, or works done with the purpose to display holiness, "but works the value of which consisted solely in their being proofs of faith: they were faith expressed in act, synonymous with faith itself."[Footnote #4] They were also chosen because they represent a broad spectrum of believers: male and female; man of God and prostitute; Jew and Gentile. Thus, James' teaching, that works will result from true faith, is a universal principle. Examine yourself. Is there fruit in your life as a result of your faith? Do your actions and your faith work together? If not, seek the Lord for guidance as to how you can make your faith complete.
So, Father, we ask that You would, first, strengthen our faith, then, indeed, guide us to put our faith into action. Help us, through our works, to be faithful examples to the world of Your love. Give us the desire and the means to carry out all that You would have us do in serving You in this world. In the name of Jesus, we ask these things, Amen.
2. Manton, A Commentary on James, p. 233.
3. Manton, A Commentary on James, pg. 268.
4. Jamieson, Fausset, Brown, A Commentary: Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old and New Testaments, Vol. III, Pt. 3, pg. 589.
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