Summary: The Reformers were right when they said, "Faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone." James compels us to example this essential truth.
A WORRISOME TRUTH
“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.
“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. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 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. 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.”
Many people know about God. University and college courses teaching about God offer credit for such studies. Long years ago the Apostle Paul wrote that, “[God’s] invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” [ROMANS 1:20]. Throughout the whole of creation, all people would say that they know there is a God. Moreover, almost all of them would claim to know about God—His nature and His character. However, knowing about God will never deliver an individual from condemnation. Only knowing God through Christ the Lord will suffice to deliver the lost soul from condemnation. Knowing God, an individual is born from above and into the Family of God. Bearing the image of the Lord, the child of God reflects in ever-greater measure the character of the Father.
James powerfully addresses this precise issue, imagining objections from people to whom he was writing. He had called for active faith in those who would read this letter; yet, he knew that some would object that they really believed, even if they didn’t do the things he demanded. Therefore, he confronted the tendency to dismiss the need for faith to be evident through how one lives. In order to bring out the force of James’ argument, I invite you to listen to Eugene Peterson’s masterful rendition of the New Testament into contemporary language.
“Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, ‘Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!’ and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?
“I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, ‘Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.’
“Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.
“Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That’s just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands?
“Wasn’t our ancestor Abraham ‘made right with God by works’ when he placed his son Isaac on the sacrificial altar? Isn’t it obvious that faith and works are yoked partners, that faith expresses itself in works? That the works are ‘works of faith?’ The full meaning of ‘believe’ in the Scripture sentence, ‘Abraham believed God and was set right with God,’ includes his action. It’s that mesh of believing and acting that got Abraham named ‘God’s friend.’ Is it not evident that a person is made right with God not by a barren faith but by faith fruitful in works?