Summary: This difficult chapter of the Bible is not hard to understand if you ask a simple question. James says we are justified by our works, not just by faith. But justified BEFORE WHOM?
James 2:1-5, 8-10, 14-26
Rev. Charles F. Degner
1My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 2Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here’s a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," 4have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
8If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself,"[a] you are doing right. 9But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.
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.
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.
This is not an easy portion of Scripture, and I want you all to put on your thinking caps with me today. When I am finished, if I haven’t explained this to you properly, then you will have to tell me and meet with me so I can explain it better. But if we struggle, we are in good company, because even Luther struggled with these verses.
It is important for you to understand this chapter in the Bible because someday a nice looking Mormon missionary will come to you, as one did once to me, and argue that you are saved not just by faith alone but by your good works, too. And he will open your Bible to James 2 and say, “See, it says right here.” “24You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” And if you remember the passages you learned in confirmation class, you will come back and say, “But Paul says Romans 8:28: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”
How can this be? How can one scripture say that we are justified by faith alone and another scripture say that we are justified by faith and our works? Scripture cannot contradict itself, so how can we understand this correctly? It is really very simple. The word justified means to be declared righteous or innocent. Before God, we are justified by faith. God can look into our hearts and see that we believe in Jesus, and he declares us righteous by faith. But you can’t look into my heart and see my faith, can you? So how will you know if I am a righteous person, a believer? How will I be a justified person in your sight? You can’t see my faith. All you can see is what I do, my works. So in your eyes, I am justified by my works and not by my faith.
This is what solves our puzzle between Paul and James. Paul talks about your relationship with God and says you are justified by faith alone. James talks about your relationship with your brother, and in that relationship you are justified by your works, because your brother can’t see the faith in your heart. If we understand this, then James 2 becomes perfectly clear to us.