Summary: James 2 and Romans 4 have some interesting contrasts. Faith without works is dead or faith apart from works is what saves... which is true?
Last week James told us that if we are careless with our language our religion is worthless. (Jas. 1:26) This week James tells us that if we believe without acting on it our faith is worthless. (Jas. 2:14,17,20,26).
A worthless religion and a worthless faith make a worthless Christian and a worthless church. Jesus said: You are the salt of the earth! But if the salt loses its flavor how can it be made salty again, it is then GOOD FOR NOTHING, but to be cast out and trodden under foot by men. Salt without flavor is worthless salt, it is good for nothing. James doesn’t actually say faith without works is “worthless.” James says, “Faith without works is DEAD.” Dead! That’s almost worse than worthless.
Dead faith doesn’t work. Dead faith doesn’t save. Dead faith only makes mockery of living faith by claiming to be valid when it is actually like the devil’s kind of faith. So it is not simply the claim of faith that counts but the practice. Not just the talk but the walk of faith that pleases God.
Jesus said, “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.” Matthew’s gospel gives us several discourses of Jesus where it is clear that our salvation hangs on this at the judgment: whether we did or did not do God’s will. James words in 2:14, 17, 20 & 24 fully agree with Jesus and strongly declare:
14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?
17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by deeds, is dead.
20You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless (or dead)?
24You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
It is interesting that James has to take up this argument at all. Why does he need to talk about this? What is going on that brings this up and makes this instruction even necessary? It makes me wonder who is in his sights when he pulls the trigger here, and how did they ever get there?
Some think that James is providing a corrective for Paul’s instruction about saving faith. It is true that Paul stresses salvation by grace through faith and apart from works. Let’s go to a couple of passages that illustrate this: Ephesians 2:1-10, Romans 4:1-8. (Read)
Now, do you hear anything in the writings of Paul here that seem to conflict with what James is saying in James 2:14-26? If you listen carefully, you will hear things that sound like James and Paul are standing in opposite sides of the ring ready to duke it out. But actually it’s like heads and tails of the same coin.
I have read a few lessons by various denominational leaders in evangelical churches on these verses to see what they say. Generally I found them saying: We know that we are not saved by works but by faith alone. And Paul’s letters were referred to, particularly Romans 4 and Ephesians 2. As I read their sermons I was reminded that the great temptation here is to choose one side and stand against the other. It seems that we either must explain James through Paul, or explain Paul through James. But I think it is more serious than that. Jesus own words in Matthew must be taken into account as well. Jesus teachings in Matthew sound a whole lot like James words in his epistle. So that now you have to take the gospel of Matthew and James to explain Paul or the other way around.
Is anyone confused yet? If not let me give you some more to think about: if you lay James 2:20-24 beside Romans 4:1-5 and just read them one after the other you will notice that James and Paul use the same statement to support what appear to be opposite positions. When Martin Luther, the great reformer commented on James, he called it an epistle of straw, meaning that it was of less importance than the letters of Paul. He noted that James does not talk about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which are the very heart and soul of salvation, the very core of our saving faith. But, does that mean that James’ teachings should take a back seat to the writings of Paul? I don’t think so. Matthew 5-7 record the words of Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, they never mention the death, burial or resurrection either, but does that make them less inspired and important? No way! While Paul is theological, James is practical and there is no biblical reason to think that what James wrote is of any less importance than Paul’s writings. Both are inspired of God, both are preserved as Holy Scripture and both need to be taken to heart and heeded by every Christian.