Summary: We are justified by faith alone, but faith that saves is never alone; it issues in good works.
“What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 18 But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”
WHAT ARE ‘WORKS’?
Have you ever wondered just where the parameters sit in the Biblical definition of works? I think about these things, which I suppose is a good propensity for a preacher to have, and I wonder if other people do also.
What exactly constitutes ‘works’? Am I performing Biblical works in the act of praying? Is mental ascent to Biblical truth a work of sorts? Are works defined only within the context of performance of religious ritual or do they include something as mundane and simple as volunteering to wash the dinner dishes?
In your moments of contemplation have you ever pondered these things? Or are you sitting there thinking that I have way too much time on my hands?
I believe that it is an important question to ask. I think that we always have to be on our guard against the tendencies of the fallen nature, to excuse bad behavior or lack of proper action by saying this or that is not covered in some Biblical mandate or admonition. We have to be on guard against ourselves as much as against the outward things that come against us to impede our spiritual walk and growth.
So what I’m getting at here, is that if we find and confront a precise definition of the term ‘works’ as the Bible writers have used it, then we will be forced in our day to day activities to recognize the opportunities that are set before us and the potential for Godliness in our lifestyle that is always present.
Now the Greek word itself, which is used exclusively in every case that the New Testament writers discuss good works or good deeds, means very simply, toil, labor, an act or deed done.
We needn’t take that farther; the implication is that there is some physical thing going on. It can mean building a structure or offering a glass of water; serving communion or changing out the paper towels in the church restroom.
Instead of going on about it, let me attempt to offer you as concise yet complete definition of ‘works’ in the Biblical sense of relating to faith as I can.
Works, good deeds, are the physical response and demonstration of an inner set of beliefs and system of values based upon those beliefs, that are both stimulated into being by those beliefs and are also the seen and experienced evidence of those unseen beliefs and values.
Now I may at some later time be able to sharpen the focus of that definition – for now I only hope that I have been complete if not brief.
In short, what I am saying and what James is teaching is that faith manifests in physical action of some kind, and that action will complement rather than contradict that faith.
So I hope that helps you. You may not have needed it; you may have understood all this very clearly for a long time. But on the chance there might be some to whom the definition has never been clear, I hope this helps somewhat, In any case, with all this in mind, let’s go in to see what James has taught us in these verses.