Summary: Evangelical Christianity often struggles with the words of James 2 when he declares things like "faith without works is dead," and "Abraham was justified by works." This sermon reconciles his meaning to that of Paul and demonstrates genuine faith is always expressed in works.


During my Sophomore year of college at Wartburg College – a Lutheran school in Northeast Iowa, I had the privilege of taking a class which took us to Germany for a month to tour sites associated with the Reformation, as we learned about the history of the movement and its effects on the world. And during our stay, we visited a town called Rothenburg, which had stood since the Middle Ages, and was filled with quaint old German buildings, a medieval wall, an old castle, and beautiful gardens and streams running throughout. It was like walking into a fairy tale or a Disney cartoon. It was beautiful! And the local Germans prided themselves in the ancient history of their town… well, most of it anyway.

You see, there was a darker side to the city of Rothenburg, a side hinted at in a modest plaque which rested in a beautiful garden, surrounded by flowers and a low wall which divided it from the shops and buildings beside it. This plaque told the story of how the local rabbi in the late 13th century had attempted to lead a group of Jews out of the city to find a new home in Palestine after the Holy Roman Emperor took away the rights of his people and laid heavy taxes on them. He was arrested, and when his captors suggested he could be freed if his people provided a ransom, he refused; fearing it would lead to the arrest of more rabbis. He died there in prison, and eventually all the Jews were banished from the city of Rothenburg and their cemetery was torn up, with the headstones being used to build the wall around the castle garden.

This obviously isn’t the only tragedy to befall the Jewish people within German borders, as the atrocities of the Nazis during WWII immediately come to mind. But I remember touring other ancient cities, and finding similar plaques telling similar horrific stories in many of them, including one in which all the Jewish people of the city were hauled into the synagogue in the 1100’s and burned alive in side. These stories are horrifying! And most of the Germans we met naturally didn’t want to talk about this side of their history. They wanted to go about their daily lives and remember the pieces of their history that spoke well of their people, but the stones which had been placed centuries before, some of them ruins now, still spoke the truth. It’s a truth that runs through the histories of most people on the planet at some point or other, and it’s a truth that we often try to avoid seeing – preferring to only see the good in people.

But it’s a truth we cannot ignore, especially in times of crisis and uncertainty; because if we do, we run the risk of repeating the actions of our ancestors. And that truth is that fear, especially the fear of death, can drive people to go to unspeakable lengths to preserve themselves. Now, we might think we’re exempt. That none of us would ever allow history to repeat itself. But I think we’ve seen a glimpse of what people are willing to do in the wake of the current Coronavirus pandemic and the acts of hoarding – of all things toilet paper, soap, and pasta apparently – which have followed.

This pandemic has caused many of us to realize that our lives and livelihoods aren’t as secure as we thought, and that even our own bodies might unexpectedly fail us. And naturally, that makes us afraid. Fear is a perfectly normal emotion in the face of stress, but it’s when we succumb to it and allow ourselves to be consumed by selfish needs at the expense of our neighbors – or at worst, to seek scapegoats to blame our problems on – that it becomes dangerous.


Germany of the late Middle Ages and the early Modern era was no stranger to fear. By the time the year 1517 rolled around, in the century and a half that came before it, a plague much worse than ours – the Black Death – had rolled through Europe, killing 1/3 of its population. Wars raged between so-called “Christian” kings for decades, and the life expectancy of the time was only between 30 and 40 years. People were constantly reminded that they were going to die – soon! And it naturally made them afraid. Many found a sense of peace and assurance in the practice of religion. They needed to know that after a short life filled with pain, loss, and suffering; there would be something better for them. And since Europe was a Catholic continent, they turned to the Catholic Church.

But the Catholic Church had been embroiled in much of the same turmoil as everyone else. Many priests were illiterate, and for a long time most of the bishops who became the Pope weren’t trained in theology or chosen for their piety, but rather were trained in law and chosen for their political connections. At one point, the Church entered what was called the Great Western Schism when for almost 40 years, there were three different claimants to the Throne of St. Peter and the title of Pope, and they each excommunicated each other.

The Pope was a powerful political figure, and the Catholic Church was a powerful political force in Europe. And since it needed money to feed its armies and build its massive Basilica in Rome, it fed off the fears of the people and men like the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel roamed the land, selling what were called “indulgences” or statements declaring reprieve from the fires of purgatory, using the slogan “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!” Catchy isn’t it?

This practice naturally roiled many, but maybe most especially a young monk named Martin Luther who that year nailed his famous 95 theses against the abusive practice of selling indulgences to the church at Wittemberg, and sparked the Reformation and eventually led to our church among many others today. Luther was a man who for much of his time as a monk was consumed by fear. His journey into faith had begun when he was almost struck by lightning on the road and in fear he had cried out to God for help, promising to become a monk if he survived. And when he became a monk, he was afraid that no matter how hard he tried, he could never live up to all the expectations expected of him. He could never obey all the rules from the depth of his heart as was expected of him. He knew that the Roman Catholic Church taught that he needed to live rightly in order to be saved from the fires of Hell, and he could never be righteous in the way God defined righteousness. He was deeply afraid.


Now, there’s a reason I’ve given you all of this background information into Germany, Martin Luther, and the nature of fear and that is because Evangelical Christianity has been deeply shaped by the revelation which Luther discovered which finally gave him freedom from his fear: and that is the understanding that God loves us even though we cannot do anything to earn our salvation or to please Him by our own power alone.

This revelation was supported by passages like Rom. 1:16-17 which reads,

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’”(1)

Or Rom. 4:1-5 which reads,

“What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”

Or Gal. 2:16 which says,

“yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”

Or Gal. 3:16-17 which say,

“Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham.”

Or finally, Eph. 2:8-9 which says,

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

All of these passages were written by Paul, and all make the same central point which had been so liberating to Martin Luther: When we try to earn our own salvation through good works, we are going to fail. But the beautiful truth is that we do not need to fear God’s perfect justice when we freely receive His grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

But this beautiful truth is also what makes our passage this morning so difficult for Protestants in general and Evangelical Christians in particular to swallow. James seems to be saying almost the exact opposite of what Paul wrote and Luther discovered! It was for that reason that Luther at one point called James “an epistle of straw” in comparison to the works of Paul (though he later removed that statement from future editions of his work). It’s why some scholars and readers of scripture have claimed that James and Paul contradicted each other. And it’s why, I think, we rarely hear this passage preached from Protestant pulpits.


It’s certainly easy to see why people would think James is contradicting Paul, especially when James opens in v. 14 with the rhetorical question, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?”

We’ve already seen from the previous passages that Paul clearly believed faith indeed saves us – or more accurately, that it’s faith which leads us to receive Christ’s grace. And this is a truth which has been ingrained into most of us since we were small. So it’s no wonder why we are naturally uncomfortable with the implied answer to James’ question, which is “No.”

But how can this be? How can James possibly be suggesting that faith doesn’t save us? The truth is, James is making a distinction in this passage, which will become clear as we delve more deeply into it, that there are different kinds of “faith,” and that people mean different things when they say to others, “I have faith in Jesus.”

The word “faith” in Greek is the word "pistis", and it can mean a variety of things, ranging from belief in a particular doctrine, adherence to a body of teaching, intellectual assent to an idea, or – and I think this is essential to understand James’ point in this passage – even relational trust.(2)

What most people fail to realize about this passage is that James contrasting one meaning of the word "pistis" with the other, because apparently by the time he wrote his Epistle, people were already misinterpreting Paul’s words to mean that since we are saved by grace through faith, we don’t need to do anything – because works aren’t going to please God anyway. This position is called antinomianism.

But this is most definitely not what Paul said! After all, even Paul stresses the importance of “the obedience that comes from faith” in Rom. 1:5,(3) and the understanding that God will judge us based on our actions and not on our beliefs alone in Rom. 2:6 where he writes, “For he will repay according to each one’s deeds,” and 2 Cor. 5:10, “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.” Paul is just saying what the prophets like Micah in the Old Testament and what John the Baptist and Jesus proclaimed in the New.(4)

The problem is, antinomianism is alive and well within much of Evangelical Christianity today. More than once, I’ve heard people say, “It isn’t about what you do, but what your faith is in.” Or, “Nothing will change the fact that I’m a sinner. I’m redeemed by God’s grace and that’s all that matters.” I even remember one time as a youth pastor when I was encouraging the teens in our youth group who had put their faith in Christ to be baptized because Jesus Himself commands it in Mat. 28:19, and we who have put our faith in Him are called to be obedient to His commands. I actually thought it was one of my more compelling messages, but afterward two sets of parents approached me saying they were deeply concerned as they didn’t believe in baptism, because it is a “work” and encourages “works righteousness.” I was dumb-founded! I mean a person doesn’t have to have extensive theological training to figure out that if you claim to follow Jesus you should probably do what he said!

But they were working from the misconception that Paul taught works were not necessary to the life of faith and I’m convinced that this misconception is fueled by the fear that we can never live up to God’s standard, and so many of us despair when confronted with the truth that God is actually telling us to do things. But this misconception isn’t supported by what the New Testament actually says. I’ve stated in previous sermons that the fullness of the Gospel is not only that God forgives our sins by His grace through faith in Christ, but He also frees us from sin and enables us to do good works. We don’t have to sin any more! We aren’t consigned to wallow in our own crapulence! 2 Cor. 5:17 declares that anyone who is in Christ is made a new creation and that this reality begins now!

I had mentioned before Eph. 2:8-9 as one of the proof-texts people use to support a faith-not-works position. But they would have a better understanding of Paul’s real position if they included v. 10, which together reads, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

We were created for these good works and re-created in Christ Jesus to live in the way of life He prepared for us. This is something which we partake in now, it isn’t just a future, post-resurrection hope. Things don’t have to be the way they are! Christ has shown us a better way!


Yes we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ. But we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ so that we may do the good works which are the evidence of our faith! This is why James continues his thought in vv. 15-18,

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

James is referring to a phenomenon which is all to real today, and that is the tendency to substitute real action with pretty words and statements of belief. We can say we love God. We can say we love people. But if we don’t actually do anything to demonstrate that love, to express that love through action, then we are just claiming intellectual assent to an idea that James is saying we don’t really believe in anyway.

It reminds me of the recent backlash in popular culture against the “thoughts and prayers” often offered by believers on social media or public statements after a preventable tragedy. When people starve to death, it isn’t because we didn’t pray enough. It isn’t because we didn’t think pretty thoughts. It’s because we failed to feed them. We make enough food on this planet to feed all 7.5 billion people. Yet 820 million people are in danger of starving to death right now. And it’s because we failed to heed the word of the Lord. And when we fail to help those in dire need when it is in our power to do so, how can we even claim to believe in the One who commands us to do so?

James is describing the 1st century equivalent of “thoughts and prayers,” by describing a hypothetical “faith alone” Christian who tells his suffering brothers and sisters he will pray for them, when in fact he just wants them to quit bugging him. James wants us to ask ourselves, “How often do we pray for a miracle for others, without realizing we are the miracle God is sending to them?” Or conversely, “How often do we blame God when people suffer, when we are to blame for their suffering?”

James continues in vv. 19-20 with even stronger language, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?”

James is citing the Sh’ma of Deu. 6:4, the central Creed of the Jewish faith which was used to define whether a person’s beliefs were orthodox or not.(5) But James is saying that even the demons believe this creed is true and they tremble for fear because despite their intellectual assent to the truth of God’s nature, they remain in open rebellion against Him.

Even the Church of Martin Luther’s day, which had become so corrupted that it fed on the fears of starving people to build massive monuments to its own glory, proclaimed the ancient Creeds and Statements of Faith which we still proclaim. And there are many Christians today who with callous disregard for their fellow men and women, consider themselves saved because they prayed the Sinner’s Prayer, asked for God’s forgiveness, and continued with life as usual. They might proclaim that they believe with their lips, and they may even intellectually ascent to the beliefs associated with Christianity, but their actions demonstrate that at heart they are really atheists.


Finally, James ends this passage with vv. 21-26 where he describes the actions of two heroes of the faith in the Old Testament, Abraham and Rahab. He writes, “Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.”

Again, this almost seems to contradict Paul, who writes in Rom. 4:1-5, “What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”

But James and Paul are talking about two different points in Abraham’s faith. Paul is referring to Gen. 15:6, where Abraham begins to trust in the promise revealed to him by God; while James is referring to Gen. 22, when that faith was tested with the impossible command to obediently sacrifice his son Isaac. God already knew Abraham believed in Him here, in his mind; but now Abraham needed to push that faith down here, to his heart. I’ve said before that the longest journey any Christian ever has to take is the distance from here to here, from head to heart. But once that faith resides in our heart, inviting Christ’s grace to transform it, it will naturally be expressed here, through our hands and in what we do.

And the bridge between the thinking of James and Paul, both in the ordering of the New Testament, and in how they approach faith and works is found in Heb. 11:8-12, where it is written,

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’”

“By faith Abraham obeyed… By faith he stayed… By faith he received power of procreation...” Each time Abraham expressed faith, it necessarily gave birth to action. This is the point James is making. And if our so-called faith doesn’t give birth to action, as James says in v. 20, such “faith apart from works is barren.”

By referring to Abraham’s act of obedience, James is highlighting the fact that the genuineness of Abraham’s faith was confirmed through his obedience. Abraham did not earn anything by being obedient. And he certainly didn’t earn salvation, as our passages cited from Paul have shown us. But his faith had reached the full maturity required for it to move from just being an idea in his head, to being a way of life in his heart, expressed through his hands and feet.

Ultimately, not only was his faith confirmed through his obedient decision to sacrifice Isaac, but it was strengthened when God providentially intervened and spared Isaac by offering another sacrifice, a ram caught by its horns in a thorn bush – a foreshadowing to the Christ who would wear a crown of thorns and die on a cross as a sacrifice in our stead. In the same way, not only does genuine faith necessarily lead to obedience, but that obedience in turn strengthens our faith when we see God’s miraculous grace at work in the lives of others through our hands.

In the same way, the hospitality which the prostitute Rahab showed to the spies of Israel in Josh. 2 demonstrated that she believed them when they said God had sent them to conquer the land. She risked her life and her family because she believed the words of strangers regarding an unknown God who would eventually save her and her own household and even bring about the salvation of the world through her, when the Son of God was incarnated into the line of her descendants.


So how do we express our faith through obedience as Abraham and Rahab did in such a time of fear as we live in today? How do we care for one another and express our love for the most vulnerable and the poorest among us, in an age of social distancing? I would argue that that the first step is in recognizing that the measures put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 are designed to protect the very people we are called to love.

We love them by obeying the law, even though it restricts our natural right to freedom. Because even though freedom is a natural right bestowed upon all human beings by God, the call to live a life of faithful action means that we are often called to willingly sacrifice our rights for our brothers and sisters in the way that Christ willingly sacrificed his own right to live by dying on the cross so that we might be saved.

But there are still creative ways to demonstrate faithful love for one another that also keep one another safe. Donating food to our food pantry, writing notes of comfort and encouragement and sending them (or dropping them off) for one another, volunteering to help feed people in a soup kitchen, donating blood, or calling people on the phone who you haven’t connected with in a while just to see how they’re doing and to ask if they need anything. There is still a lot we can do to demonstrate that our love and the faith that we profess is genuine. Thank you.


(1) Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quoted is from the NRSV.

(2) Serrão, C. Jeanne Orjala, “James,” in the New Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2010), 104.

(3) NIV.

(4) Mic. 6:6-8, Luk. 3:7-11, Mat. 7:17-20; cf. Serrão, "James," 99.

(5) Green, Joel B. “Comments” in The Wesley Study Bible, NRSV. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 1501.

First delivered Mar. 29, 2020 at Cortez Church of the Nazarene, Cortez, CO.