Summary: Faith is so much more than a passive agreement to a set of doctrines. Saving faith transforms the one who believes. Without this transformation, how will anyone know whether we are saved, or merely pretending to be a follower of Christ?
“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.”
Faith is vital to religious practise. Every religious group urges adherents to “have faith.” Some urge faith in the denomination or the religious group itself. Some urge faith in the words of the spokesmen of the group. Others urge faith in what is done. Still others, especially in recent years among some self-described evangelicals, urge faith in faith. The Word of God calls us to faith in the Living Son of God; and if we indeed possess such faith, it will be evident through how we live.
James informs us that faith is vital. One must believe Christ Jesus the Lord. However, believing Christ leads us to believe the truths that He has presented. Believing Him, we also believe the truths that He taught, and thus we arrange our life to align with those timeless truths. As we have seen in recent studies, faith is useless if the life of the one claiming to believe remains unchanged. It will be beneficial for us to review such useless faith, learning what should be evident as we live out the Faith of Christ the Lord.
THE PRINCIPLE STATED — “Faith apart from works is useless.” This is the principle of the Faith that is too often neglected in contemporary churches. We have redefined success in pursuing the Lord’s work to mean larger crowds at a service, increasing membership, expanded budgets, approval and adulation from the adoring masses—everything except changed lives. However, the Word of God anticipates that those who are born from above will reveal that new condition through daring to live holy lives.
Review in your mind what James has said to this point concerning faith. He began by pointing out that faith is impartial [vv. 1-7]. Real faith receives each individual whom the Lord sends to us—both to be blessed by their presence and to bless them through providing strength and hope as we serve together. In fact, those who are least capable of repaying our ministries are often those who prove to be the greatest blessing to us as individuals and as a congregation.
In that context, James has stressed the need to see that we are responsible to see the Law, not as a series of restrictions to steal our joy, but as a revelation of what is pleasing to the Lord [vv. 8-11]. Therefore, through applying the Law without prejudice—both among ourselves and in the greater society—we honour the Lord, encourage the saints and attract those seeking the truth. This lifestyle reflects, not a slavish adhesion to minutiae that are difficult to remember; rather such lifestyle reveals an understanding of the great mercy we have already received [vv. 12, 13]. Through demonstrating mercy, we may anticipate mercy.
The unspoken assumption in what James has written is that the Spirit of God is at work in the life of the believer urging her to a holy life. The believer’s desire for righteousness arises in great measure because she has received mercy. Indeed, God is “compassionate and merciful” [JAMES 5:11], and those who claim to know Him are expected to demonstrate that same mercy. It is perhaps significant that one of the Names Paul gives to the Lord God is “the Father of Mercy” [2 CORINTHIANS 1:3].
We should anticipate that the redeemed child of God will increasingly express the character of the Father, and that character is distinguished by mercy. This is the reason for the beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” [MATTHEW 5:7]. This is the reason that the Master needed to remind the Pharisees of the divine assertion recorded by Hosea, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” [MATTHEW 9:13]. A failure to show mercy invites divine judgement [see MATTHEW 18:33-35]. Indeed, the child of God has received the divine command, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” [LUKE 6:36].
James has also stressed that the mercy, growing out of faith as it does, will be applied across the spectrum of humanity, but especially will it be applied to caring for the needs of the saints [vv. 14-17]. The individual possessing genuine faith understands that God blesses so that in turn he may prove to be a blessing to others. The individual who walks by faith sees his possessions, to say nothing of the spiritual gifts which God has given him, as a stewardship. Thus, the believer who understands the divine work God has performed is concerned to ensure that the needy among the assembly are cared for.