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“Faith That Works”

James 2:14-26
Bob DeGray
February 11, 2001

Key Sentence

Is your faith limited to words, or has it resulted in actively trusting God?


I. The Logic of Faith and Works (James 2:14-19)
II. The Life of Faith and Works (James 2:20-26)


        In 1958, America's first commercial jet air service began with the flight of the Boeing 707. A month after that first flight, a traveler on a piston_engine, propeller-driven DC-6 airliner struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger. The passenger happened to be a Boeing engineer. The traveler asked the engineer about the new jet aircraft, whereupon the engineer began speaking at length about the extensive testing Boeing had done on the jet engine before bringing it into commercial service. He recounted Boeing's experience with engines, from the B-17 to the B-52. Yet when asked by his traveling companion if he himself had yet flown on the new 707 jet airliner, the engineer replied, 'I think I'll wait until it's been in service awhile.'”

        Now what kind of faith did that man display? The exact kind discussed in James chapter two, verses 14 to 26, the kind of faith that will not show its trust by its actions. James presents a clear and impassioned condemnation of that kind of faith, and challenges us to consider whether our faith has resulted in acts that show we trust God. Is your faith limited to words, or has it resulted in actively trusting God?

I. The Logic of Faith and Works (James 2:14-19)

        James presents a clear argument - the logic of faith and works, followed by two examples - the life of faith and works. The first section is verses 14 to 19: What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder.

        The verses we are studying today are at the heart of the debate over faith and works that has raged for centuries, and of the related debate over the apparent disagreement between James and Paul on the subject. The debate and over faith and works is real, and vitally important to the correct understanding of Christianity. But the debate between Paul and James is based on a misunderstanding, especially of this passage.

        Notice what James says:”what good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” The construction of this sentence in Greek is such that it requires the answer ‘none’: it does a man no good at all to simply say he has faith. James asks ‘can such faith save him?’ Again in the Greek, the question requires a negative answer. No, such faith, the faith that he only claims to have, can not save him.

         James is not denying that salvation is through faith, or belief in Jesus. In chapter 2 he identifies his audience as people with faith: “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism.” What James is denying is that the mere claim to faith can save anybody. The kind of faith that is limited to words is not saving faith. Instead saving faith is the kind of faith that actively trusts God.

        The difference between this verbal faith and real faith, according to James, is that verbal faith has no deeds, or no works. Some will say this is the point of contradiction between James and Paul, that James says works are required for salvation, while Paul teaches that salvation is by faith alone. But this is a misunderstanding of what both James and Paul mean by works, and of where in the process of salvation they are addressing their readers. Paul talks about ‘works of the law’, works designed and performed in order to keep a high standard of righteousness and earn salvation. Paul is vehemently opposed to that kind of works, but not opposed to good works which result from salvation, which are the kind of good works addressed in James. He sees good works after salvation as evidence that living faith has really taken to hold of a persons life, evidence that the person is actively trusting God.

        In verses 15 and 16 James gives a vivid illustration of merely verbal faith. He shows how someone might respond to a poor or poverty stricken brother or sister, who is both without proper clothes and daily food: he or she is hungry, starving. Someone with merely verbal faith says to this poor pitiful person, “Go, I wish you well; be warm and well fed.” The verbs are in the middle voice: “warm yourself, feed yourself.” ‘I wish you well but all I have to offer you is words.’ Think of the cruelty of it. Starvation is an awful thing to suffer: I’ve read several books recently that have proven that to me. And yet James puts the words ‘Go, take care of yourself’ on the lips of believers. Why? Because a faith that is just words is no more helpful than the words ‘Be warm and well fed’ are to a starving man. Can these words save him? Can the verbal affirmation of faith, mental agreement with doctrine save us? No.

        Verse 17: “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” A faith that is merely verbal is no faith at all: it is a rotten decaying corpse - as implied by the Greek word. A living faith is indicated by works, by active trust in God and what he has said and promised. This has been illustrated in many ways over the years. One of my favorites is the story, possibly fictional, of visitors to the national mint who were told by a workman in the smelting works that if you first dipped your hand in water, a ladle of molten metal might be poured over your hand without burning it. A husband and wife were part of this group. "Perhaps you would like to try it," the workman said to the husband. The husband drew back, "No thanks," he said, "I'll take your word for it." Then the workman asked the wife, She replied, "Certainly." She thrust her hand into a bucket of water, and then calmly held it out while the metal was poured over it. The husband believed at one level – but wouldn’t put belief into action. The wife showed her faith by her deeds.

        Verse 18: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ James replies “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” If you live your life without ever actively trusting God in specific circumstances, no one, not even you, can know if you have faith. James warns against the kind of faith that is merely mental assent - believing with your mind and not your heart. His sarcasm in 19 shows this clearly: “You believe that there is one God” - a cornerstone of the faith - “Well, good for you! Even the demons believe that, and they at least have the good sense to tremble in fear.” But do they have saving faith? No.

        A man fell off a cliff, but managed to grab a tree limb on the way down. He cried out: “Is anyone up there?" "I am here. I am the Lord. Do you believe me?" "Yes, Lord, I believe. I really believe, but I can't hang on much longer." "That's all right, if you really believe you have nothing to worry about. I will save you. Just let go of the branch." A moment’s pause, then: "Is anyone else up there?" Faith that consists of saying you believe, or even thinking you believe is no faith at all. Faith has to show itself as active trust or it is dead and useless. This is the logic of faith and works.

II. The Life of Faith and Works (James 2:20-26)

        But what is this active trust, these works or deeds? James illustrates and explains the life of faith and works in verses 20 to 26: You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend. 24You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. 25In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

        The examples James gives of a life of faith and works are not examples of good works in any traditional sense, but are examples of active faith, the kind of faith that saves and justifies and leads to righteousness. The works don’t accomplish righteousness: but the true faith that leads to righteousness inevitably makes itself known in works.

        James addresses the one who wants to separate faith and works as ‘you empty man.’ He asks this imaginary opponent if he would like to be shown that faith without works is barren - literally that ‘faith that has no works does not work’! As his first example James chooses Abraham, possibly because his opponents already used Abraham to prove the importance of faith. James takes the exact same historical situations and uses them to show ‘works’ on the basis of which Abraham was ‘justified’. But in claiming Abraham was justified by works James appears to contradict Paul, who claims equally clearly that Abraham was justified by faith and not works. The key difference is the way in which the important term ‘justified’ is used.

        Paul makes ‘justification by faith’ the center of his argument in Galatians and Romans. There he gives the term justification a very distinct meaning, one closely related to his whole theological perspective. He uses it to mean the initial transfer of a person from the realm of sin and death to the realm of holiness and life, a sovereign act of God in which apart from any human ‘work’, He declares the sinner to be innocent before him. This free gift is received by faith and the sinner is declared righteous.

        James uses the same word in a slightly different way, with the ongoing life of the believer in mind. Justification is not so much the declaration of the believer as righteous, as the demonstration in a believer’s life of the righteousness he or she has received. You could almost translate the word in James, as vindicated. Faith is vindicated by actions. Faith is demonstrated by actions. In this, by the way, James aligns himself much more closely with the Old Testament than does Paul. We are indebted to Paul for the amplification of the Old Testament term righteous so that we understand our salvation to be by faith alone. But we are indebted to James for continuity with the Old Testament usage, that righteousness must be shown in the life of the believer.

        How does Abraham illustrate this truth? Notice in verse 23 James quotes Genesis 15:6. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” This verse is the culmination of one of the early encounters between Abraham and God. After following and serving God for some time, Abraham knows that God’s promises to him cannot be fulfilled unless he has a son, and that hasn’t happened. In chapter 15 Abraham points this out in prayer, and God promises he will have an heir, “a son coming from your own body”. He tells Abraham to look at the heavens “and count the stars – if indeed you can. So shall your offspring be.” Then “Abraham believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness.” This believing, this faith, just as Paul tells us, is not the result of works, but is simply trust in the promise of God.

        But James sees this Scripture as prophetic of the works. He says when Abraham offered Isaac on the altar, thirty years later, he fulfilled or completed this Scripture. He demonstrated by this work the righteousness he had already received from God. But notice the nature of this work: he was required to actively live out his trust in God. He was told to do something that from a human point of view was nonsensical. But when he trusted God, even with the life of his only son, he demonstrated true faith.

        The difference between a merely verbal faith and a true faith is actively trusting God. So James says in verse 22 that his faith and his actions were working together and his faith was made complete or seen to be complete by the works. His faith culminated in active trust. As R. Kent Hughes points out "Abraham's works in offering Isaac gave convincing testimony to the reality of the faith and righteousness which had infused his life for over thirty years. James' point is that where there is real faith, there will be an inevitable outworking of it into life. Genuine faith results in works. James would say we are justified by faith alone, but not by faith which is alone! Verse 24:”You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith only.” That little word ‘only’ that James adds to ‘faith' makes all the difference: it shows that James has no intention of excluding faith from the process of justification. He was deeply disturbed, however, by a faith that had no consequences for life – what we could call ‘cheap faith'. Faced with this tendency, James placed great stress on the active nature of faith, asserting that actions matter in the long run. Paul was faced with a different problem: his legalistic opponents thought work done in obedience to God was sufficient to maintain their place in God's covenant. Against them, Paul asserted that faith in Christ was the only way one could be made right with God.

        Douglas Moo adds that "whenever people rely on their religious activities for salvation, Paul's powerful plea that it is by grace we have been saved through faith must be vigorously proclaimed. But when "faith" has been turned into nothing more than a mental commitment to certain doctrines, James’ understanding of faith as an active vigorous obedience must be forcefully asserted.” Here at Trinity, it has seemed to me over the years that both things are needed: we need a call to vigorous obedience, but we need to know that we are entirely dependent on God even in that obedience.

        In verse 25 James’ second example again shows the signifigance of active faith. He cites Rahab, the prostitute who helped the spies Joshua sent to spy out the land. Why did she do this? Because she had heard of, and come to fear and then to trust in the God of Israel. In her own words “I know the Lord has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone's courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” Joshua 2:9-11

        So Rahab diverted the soldiers of Jericho, lowered the spies through the wall, and gave them instructions as to how they could hide out from the search parties and then return across the Jordan. And James contends that Rahab was considered righteous for what she did. No doubt she was considered righteous, or at least considered a part of God’s righteous people, whom she joined after the destruction of Jericho, and into which she married, being the wife of Salmon, and thus the mother of Boaz, the father of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David, the ancestor of Jesus.

        So she was considered righteous. But the key point again is that the works which James cites were works of active faith, that is putting her trust in God, and serving him above the false gods that she had grown up with. She chose to trust to God when all those around her were trusting in the might and power of Jericho, and it was this act of active faith which was the evidence of her true and saving faith.

        James concludes in verse 26 by restating his central theme: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” A body without its invigorating spirit, or "breath" of life is nothing more than a corpse. Faith without the active trust that gives it vitality is equally dead. Again we see that James is concerned that people possess the right kind of faith, ‘faith that works', active faith. Without that kind of faith Christianity becomes a barren orthodoxy and loses any right to be called faith.

        Many of you know that Martin Luther, the great reformer, didn’t think much of James. In his overriding concern to bring salvation by grace through faith back to the church, he felt James’ emphasis on works was counterproductive. At one point he called the letter of James ‘a right strawy epistle'. But had he lived in a time when contentless faith was being preached, I think Luther would have felt differently. In fact it is ironic that no one has captured the basic message of James 2:14–26 more forcefully than Luther in his preface to Romans: “O it is a living, busy, active thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done: it does them and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith it is nor good works. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works."

        This whole principal, that saving faith is active faith is nowhere better illustrated than in Hebrews chapter 11, where we see men and women living out their faith in the real situations in which God has placed them. Hebrews 11 has been called the roll call of faith. But it might as well be called the roll call of works. For it is by the works of these people that we know their faith. Because their faith was active it was real.

        “By faith Abel offered a better sacrifice. By faith Noah built the ark to save his family. By faith Isaac blessed Jacob. By faith Joseph spoke. By faith Moses chose. By faith the people passed through the sea. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after the people had marched around them for seven days. By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient. And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.”

        Theirs was an active faith. And the next question is obvious. I’ve avoided asking it up to now, because it is so obvious, but I’ve got to ask: Do you have an active faith that trusts God and lives out what you believe? Or are you guilty of merely agreeing with what is right? Is your faith limited to words, or has it resulted in actively trusting God? Like Abraham, like Rahab, like the witnesses of Hebrews 11, has your belief so touched your life that others can see your trust of God demonstrated?

        Ken Davis, in his little book How to Speak to Youth tells the following story of living faith, and with this I close. “In college I was asked to prepare a lesson to teach my speech class. We were to be graded on our creativity and ability to drive home a point in a memorable way. The title of my talk was, "The Law of the Pendulum." I spent 20 minutes carefully teaching the physical principle that governs a pendulum.

        You see a pendulum can never return to a point higher than the point from which it was released. Because of friction and gravity, when the pendulum returns, it will fall short of its original release point. Each time it swings it makes less and less of an arc, until finally it is at rest. I attached a 3-foot string to a child's top and secured it above the blackboard with a thumbtack. I pulled the top to one side and made a mark on the blackboard where I let it go. Each time it swung back I made a new mark. It took less than a minute for the top to complete its swinging and come to rest. When I finished, the markings on the blackboard demonstrated my thesis.

        I then asked how many people in the room believed the law of the pendulum. All of my classmates raised their hands: so did the teacher. He started to walk to the front, thinking the class was over. In reality it had just begun. Hanging from the steel ceiling beams in the middle of the room was a large, crude but functional pendulum (250 pounds of metal weights tied to four strands of 500-pound test parachute cord.)

        I invited the instructor to climb up on a table and sit in a chair with the back of his head against a cement wall. Then I brought the 250 pounds of metal up to his nose. Holding the huge pendulum just a fraction of an inch from his face, I once again explained the law of the pendulum he had applauded only moments before, "If the law of the pendulum is true, then when I release this mass of metal, it will swing across the room and return short of the release point. Your nose will be in no danger." After that final restatement of this law, I looked him in the eye and asked, "Sir, do you believe this law is true?" There was a long pause. Huge beads of sweat formed on his upper lip and then weakly he nodded and whispered, "Yes."

        I released the pendulum. It made a swishing sound as it arced across the room. At the far end of its swing, it paused momentarily and started back. I never saw a man move so fast in my life. He literally dived from the chair. Deftly stepping around the still swinging pendulum, I asked, "Does he believe in the law of the pendulum?" The students unanimously answered, "NO!"

        Is your faith mere words? Or can you trust God when the pendulum swings your way?