We’re called intolerant because we don’t support some of the practices of the culture around us, such as abortion and promiscuous lifestyles. We get labeled as bigoted because we believe Jesus’ teaching, when He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes unto the Father but through me” (John 14:6). After all, that does deny the veracity of other religious systems.
And, of course, there is that most stinging criticism of all: “talking the talk” but not “walking the walk.” I’m not thinking so much about the Christian leaders who have fallen so publicly into sin, but more about everyday relationships. People know us through our personal relationships and business dealings, and they certainly know whether which of their Christian friends have a faith that works and which don’t. In the matter of the "talk," we reject many of the morals and lifestyles of our culture. But in our "walk," the trouble sometimes seems to be just the opposite.
A common criticism of evangelicals is that we are caught up in knowing the Bible and preoccupied with stamping out personal sin, but we just don’t get involved much in fixing social ills, such as racism, poverty, and injustice. Sometimes, those critics are right. In the U.S., the evangelical church plays an embarrassingly small role in social action and much too large a role in conservative politics. In too many areas of need, I am afraid the typical evangelical Christian falls short of James standard of demonstrating our faith by our works.
Today there also is another, opposite, problem. We sometimes call it, a little too self-righteously, I should add, the social gospel. That describes what I might call works without faith, with great and valuable social action but lacking in declaring the gospel of salvation and peace with God and not drawing the biblical distinctions between sin and righteousness.
Reading the book of James, we find over and over that works of faith are a big deal. He wanted to make the point obvious to his readers that the works we do as Christians are indicative of what is going on in our spiritual hearts. To sum up James' teaching in one sentence, there is no faith present if there are no works present. Notice how he directly connects the social concern and personal righteousness as his definition of pure Christianity: “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27). (Notice the “and”: the outworking of faith includes both “works” and “righteousness”!)
It is important to remember that the book of James does not limit itself to social action. It’s about living out the whole word of God: personal righteousness and avoiding sinful behavior, as well as loving our neighbor. Theological understanding and doctrinal knowledge are useless if they are not accompanied by genuine repentance, genuine trust in God, genuine obedience to his word, and genuine concern for others, especially the poor and downtrodden.
James’ message in this passage today is not really very complicated: Genuine faith always is accompanied by action
It is a complete transformation that God, through James, insists we undertake if we are going to follow Him. Remember to whom James is writing: Jewish converts very early in the church era. Their tradition was strictly following the law to please God, as the Pharisees preached. What James is teaching really should make common sense to any Christian: it’s not just professing and expressing my faith in Christ that is key, but just as important is a life of faith because Christ is my Savior.
Look at James’ first illustration in verses 15-17: “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also, faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Our actions demonstrate the genuineness of our faith.
There was a school of thought in the early church that some had the gift of faith and others had the gift of works. We see that in verse 18: “But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith with my works.” James’ declaration is that there is no separation. If one has faith, that will be seen in his or her works (personal righteousness, helping others, etc.). But if one does not have works, then that itself is the demonstration that he or she does not have authentic faith.
There is a great illustration I came across years ago. Charles Blondin, a French acrobat was first to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope, in 1859. He crossed numerous times, including being blindfolded, crossing forward, backward, on stilts, and pushing a wheelbarrow full of rocks. Playing to the crowd, he asked if any believed he could cross pushing the wheelbarrow with someone in it. They cheered and responded that they thought he could do it. So he asked for volunteers, and everyone got silent. No one volunteered.
A dumb illustration, maybe. But it’s adequate to illustrate the difference between expressing faith and living it.
That’s what James means when he tell us about faith being dead without works. In fact, in verse 19, he says even the demons believe in God. They know He exists. They know His power. James here draws a clear distinction between mere belief in God (understanding what His will is but not living it) and saving faith (evidenced by a changed life). Faith, according to James, isn’t real if there is no changed life, no action.
Martin Luther described James as an epistle of straw. To him, it seemed to undermine the doctrine of salvation by faith. He even suggested to his academic colleagues at the University of Wittenberg that the book of James be removed from the New Testament. Luther had issues with what James wrote in verse 24 (“You see, then, that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only”), compared to Paul’s teachings: “justified by faith apart from observing the law (Romans 2:28); “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). But it is very important to note that James is not talking about works in order to earn salvation and a relationship with God. He is pointing out that how we live demonstrates our relationship with God.
James does not contradict Paul. Paul wrote to churches who were arguing about whether Christians had to follow the Jewish law to be (or to remain) a Christian. Both Paul and James agree that one becomes a Christian by grace through faith. James is not writing to us about how to become a Christian, but rather how to act like one. Having all the correct beliefs about God, James contends, is not enough, and to illustrate, he points out that even demons know all about God. Real, authentic, life-giving faith will show itself in spiritual action.
Paul warned against what we might call “slavish legalism,” but he also, like James, insisted on holy, righteous living. Remember how he addressed the sins in the Corinthian church. He preached just as strongly as James against immorality and a life that does not reflect faith. Unlike the churches Paul addressed, James' readers were not struggling with legalism. They were steeped in their Jewish background and the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees, who majored in strict ceremonial observance but largely ignored (and personally practiced) unrighteous living. Their cultural background was one of professing belief but ignoring the expectations of righteousness that God had clearly revealed. And for that, James suggests a simple remedy: "Do not merely listen to the word. Do what it says." (1:22)
There is also an issue of word usage here. James uses the word “faith” (“faith” and “belief” are the same word in Koine Greek) to mean simple intellectual knowledge and agreement. Paul, who started writing his letters to the churches about 10 years later, wrote to a more organized and widespread church. He uses the term in the deeper meaning that the church by then understood it: belief, trust, and dependence. Similarly, James uses “works” (or deeds) to mean the action of living out your faith, while most of Paul’s references to “works” refers to the works of the Jewish law.
James stresses that Christians must put God’s word into practice: Don’t just listen. Do! He wants his readers to know that it does not make sense to claim to believe in Christ but not live a life in keeping with the His teachings and His revealed will. To those people he has a warning: not only will that sort of empty, dead faith not save you, but the lack of a life demonstrating your faith is, in fact, the very evidence that you are not saved.
My point is that James and Paul may address different concerns but their messages do end up saying exactly the same thing. In Romans 8, Paul explains how we can tell if someone is really, genuinely a child of God indwelt by the Spirit. He describes the Christian as being “predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29)—that is, to be like Jesus: righteous, holy, without sin, active in faith. By looking at their actions (their deeds, their works) one can judge the presence or absence of genuine faith, because faith is demonstrated not by words, but by deeds and lifestyle.
The examples of Abraham and Rahab—faith and works
James cites two people in his readers’ history as example, pointing out the convergence of faith and works in the lives of Abraham and Rahab. Abraham obeyed God, and that demonstrated his faith to be genuine. You will notice that Paul takes a slightly different approach in Romans 4. Even though Abraham and Sarah were 100 years old, Abraham “he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God” for a son (4:20) and, in fact, was “fully persuaded that God had the power to do what He had promised” (4:21) and “it was credited to him as righteousness” (4:22). Likewise, the writer of Hebrews points out that it was by faith that Rahab did not perish. James emphasizes the outworking of her faith; that is, what she did. She demonstrated the reality of her faith when, at great personal risk, she protected the messengers of God.
Paul’s general point is that we are declared righteous by faith, not by observing the Law. James’ general point is that genuine faith always demonstrates itself in action and lifestyle. I will end by quoting one of the most controversial (and often misquoted) theologians who led a major movement in the Reformation, John Calvin. It may surprise many that Calvin, known his unwavering insistence on the doctrine of election and grace apart from works, summed up nicely what God is telling us through the writings of both Paul and James: “We are saved by faith alone,” Calvin said, “but saving faith is never alone.”