Comments on James 2:14-26

21 Jul
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 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. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 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? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jas 2:14–26). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
One of the most famous and controversial passages in the New Testament, this section of the letter of James is part of what got the letter labeled as “an epistle of straw” by Martin Luther. Of particular concern is the last section which speaks of being justified by works. This seems to fly directly in the face of the teaching of Paul that we are justified by faith apart from works. But the word “seems” is a key word. In fact, James and Paul are preaching the same gospel by speaking it to different audiences. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. In his ministry, he spoke as one who had been converted out of Judaism and called to take the good news about Jesus to the Gentiles. In Acts, when Paul tries to fulfill this mission, he is consistently opposed by Jews, who insist that his Gentile hearers must follow the rituals and the law of the Jews in order to be saved. This Paul flatly rejects, making the strong case that we are justified by faith apart from works. When Paul uses the word “works” most often he is talking about the works of the law, he focuses the word in a specific way to address the idea that one must follow Jewish customs in order to be saved. So Paul, in preaching to Gentiles, wants to make sure that his readers don’t add anything to faith in Christ as the way of salvation. At the same time, Paul is clear in many places that when one comes to faith in Christ, their life is changed. Paul would say “amen” to what James writes here about doing good to those in need. He would agree that the actions of Abraham and Rahab which James highlights are expressions of faith through works. Likewise James would agree with Paul that salvation is of the Lord and comes through faith in Christ (see 1:18). James, however, is speaking to a different audience than Paul and so he gives a different focus to his message. James is speaking to a group of Christians from a Jewish background. For these early followers of Jesus, the idea that they had found their Messiah and that through faith in Him they could be saved probably caused many of them to jettison the thought that they had any need for obedience. Since Jesus was their sacrifice for sin, the only thing necessary was to believe in Him. And James says, “No!” By its very nature true faith overflows into works of righteousness. To be sure it is God-empowered righteousness and to be sure it is not perfect righteousness, but it is real righteous action nonetheless. This means that if one professes faith in Christ but that faith does not overflow into good works, the foundation of that faith is very shaky. James says mere intellectual assent is not sufficient to save. For James, he looks at the word “works” not as works of the law but as deeds of righteousness. The best summary of good works in James is 1:27 —  “to look after orphans and widows and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James is speaking to Christians from a Jewish background  who were eager to make a clean break with law-keeping but in their eagerness moved into a kind of pseudo-intellectual approach to faith where professing belief in the right things was all that mattered and where a life which flowed from faith in Christ was not an essential part of knowing Christ. It is right to think of Paul as dealing with salvation on the front end and James on the back end. We are justified by faith alone apart from works (Paul) but having been justified our faith shows itself in good works (James). In a sense Paul is like an obstetrician while James is like a pediatrician. Paul teaches us what it is to be born (again) and James shows us what it looks like for a born (again) one to grow. And remember the emphasis in James on Christian maturity (see 1:4 for example).

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