Faith And Works - James 2
"Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is no faith at all." Whenever taking my dog for a walk, I never cease to be amazed how easily distracted he is from one fascination to the next. There’s an interesting smell, but the scent is dropped as soon as something else grabs his attention: someone walks past, a leaf blowing in the wind, a shiny object on the ground, a bird taking flight, water to run into, a treat… Everything is a random distraction chased after at speed. The letter of James seems a bit like that. Coming out the other side of chapter 1 where James has written to the Jews about trials and then the importance of listening to God’s word, we find ourselves in chapter 2 in seemingly unconnected territory but with no slowing in intensity.
It seems appropriate to write a bit like James and start somewhere different ourselves, by being reminded what themes there are in this letter rather than the chapter itself.
Foremost throughout the whole letter is a call to rightfully give to God the complete allegiance he deserves. His jealousy for us is fierce (4:5) and as was touched in the previous chapter, double-mindedness (1:8) has no place. This call to give God everything is sounded by James because of the very real nature of the trials and temptations faced by the Jewish Christians scattered among different nations (1:1-4); temptations that would seek to steal them away from God.
Secondly, in the midst of trial, James exhorts the believers everywhere to continue to ‘do the word’ (1:22-25). James is fundamentally an action packed book. He is forever calling people to obedience in action. In fact, James has the greatest frequency of imperative verbs (command words) than any other New Testament book.
James 2:1-13 – Showing favouritism
James is addressing the Church not to show favouritism (2:1), or more emotive to us today, not to discriminate. His warning comes because our discrimination actually shows a reflection of the state of our hearts (2:4). Verses 5-7 then serve as a reminder that it is more important for us to be aligning our hearts with the way God sees things, and not the world: i.e. to see that God has chosen the poor in the eyes of the world, who love him, to inherit the Kingdom; whilst those who are rich in the world are those who are rejecting God. Surely, the church is to align itself with those who seek God?!
Verse 8 continues with the idea of favouritism, but it takes a different angle. Rather than aligning ourselves to God’s way, verses 8-11 are about not kidding ourselves as to the severity of our disobedience.
I’m sure you’ve done it, just like me, you’ve ranked your sin and convinced yourself that the ‘smaller sins’ are not bad enough to really separate you from God; at least you’re not murdering or committing adultery. But James says loud and clear, ‘No!’ If you break any of the law, big or small, you are a law-breaker and are guilty. As a result, James says there are two things to do: speak and act with humility knowing your true state as a law-breaker (v12), and be merciful because God will be merciful to you if you do (v13).
A quick side word – unlike most of the New Testament, the way James finishes this section doesn’t sound like we have a way out of our position as law breakers. But cast your eyes back on 2:5 and 2:13 and see that like the rest of the New Testament, James is equally keen to emphasise God’s grace to those who love him.
James 2:14-26 – Faith and deeds
On first glance this appears to be saying something entirely different to the rest of the New Testament. James 2:24 says, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” Whereas Paul in Romans 3:28 says, “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” So is the Bible in contradiction? Can we really earn our way to God by good works – is James or Paul right?
We are helped by recognising the different issues that James and Paul are addressing. Paul warns about a self-imposed standard that insists our works are part of the basis for earning our right-standing with God. For e.g. if I do enough good things today, God will love me. But recalling the themes of James – ‘a call to follow God completely’ and the reminder to ‘put into practise the Word of God’ – he is fighting against the tendency to think that faith alone means obedience to God is an optional extra. He drives this point home with a killer blow in v19: ‘You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.’ Essentially, James says it all in verse 17: “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is [no faith at all].”
This drastically changes how we read the words ‘faith’ and ‘deeds’ in this passage. For example, the question in 2:14 really reads, ‘Can such faith [without works] save them?’ Or if we were to rewrite verse 24, “You see that a person is considered righteous by [works implementing faith] and not by faith [unfulfilled by works]’. Calvin sums this all up: “Faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is not alone.”
Perhaps having sorted all this out intellectually we are in danger of missing the real exhortation James is trying to make. Faith is not an intellectual exercise, rather it is practical, engaged, obedient and eager to please our Lord. Go back and re-read these verses, allowing his encouragement to an active faith to inform how you live for Jesus; and let the challenges of the rest of this letter become action in your life.