Understanding the Faith that Works
Faith Responds From A Believing Heart Into An Obedient Life
In the letter of James we read, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead” (Jas 2:26). The Christian is exhorted to exercise a demonstrative faith that is wrought in good deeds and pleasing in God’s sight.
Historically, we the readers, are left to guess the time and spiritual condition of the believers whom James was writing. The only clue given was that of scattered Jews from the twelve tribes. What was James’ purpose for having written such a letter? What was the atmosphere then that possibly triggered him to instruct and encourage the believers? Why the need to emphasize measure of faith against trials, temptations, deceptions and oppressive actions?
James presents his case before the Jewish Christians and rhetorically questions the validity of a claim to faith without deeds. In the near context of chapter two, he confronts the claim with a practical instance from everyday life: an encounter with an unclothed and hungry brother. The pressing situation necessitates a physical dependence upon the action of another brother to care for and meet such needs. A mere response of worldly wishes does the person no good. Polite words uttered with much feeling but no real meaning can dangerously distance our personal safety from the present reality (Jas 2:14-16). Faith unaccompanied accomplishes nothing (2:17). Such a faith is rendered barren because of inactivity. This is the description of a thoughtless and profitless belief yielding no fruitful but foolish results (2:18-20).
Contextual Illustrations Of Faith
As we evaluate the weight of James’ words, we need to recognize the importance of placing verse 2:26 in its near/immediate context of verses 14-26. This passage readily point out the contrasts of a false and genuine faith. Good comparisons were made between the use of James’ two illustrations lifted from everyday encounters: The example of favoritism toward the rich in verses 1-7 and negligence toward the poor challenges us to re-examine the outworkings of our faith in verses 14-16. An emphasis on James’ question “Can this kind of faith save you?” addressed the difference between one’s claim to faith (mere intellectual assent) as opposed to one’s call to action (direct personal involvement). Do we carry this claim out of convenience to our own selfish ends or out of a commitment to Him who we have to do?
The definition of faith is well described between what is fake and what is fact. The three types of faith described—demonic (v. 19), useless (v. 20), and dead (v. 26)—determine as well as expose the nature of one’s belief. The two facts of faith in verses 17 and 18 amply conclude its true condition: that of being lifeless and devoid of deeds. It shows how James literally strips off faith’s false facade and renders it naked to the shame of its impostors.
To further strengthen the argument, James warns of the stiff consequences of judgment issued in the subsequent verses (2:8-13). As we expound this passage, we would benefit and support “the faith that pleases God” recorded as the chapter’s eminent truth. Loving your neighbor as yourself in verse 8 calls for the individual expression of believers to actively participate in fulfilling God’s royal law: the law of love. Being the source of all other laws, the royal law oversees all human relationships. This verse correlates well with Galatians 5:6: The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. According to Fee and Stuart, “Orthodoxy is correct belief. Orthopraxy is correct action. Through the prophets, God calls the people of ancient Israel and Judah to a balance of right belief and action. This, of course, remains the very balance that the new covenant requires as well (cf. Jas 1:27; 2:18; Eph 2:8-10). What God wants of Israel and Judah is, in a general sense, the same as what He wants of us. For those who obey the stipulations of the new covenant (loving God and loving one’s neighbor), the final, eternal result will be blessing, even though the results in this world are not guaranteed to be so encouraging. For those who disobey, the result can be only curse, regardless of how one fares during life on earth.”[i]
Ancestral Applications Of Faith
A significant portion of the passage we are studying focuses on the actual ancestral applications of faith. This section draws its strength from the two experiential evidences of Abraham and Rahab—a friend of Jehovah and an outcast from Jericho. A patriarch and prostitute who are highly regarded by the Jews as models who manifested righteous deeds that pleased God. Their actions spoke louder than words. The root of their faith bore fruit in obedience. Personal sacrifice was what it cost them: the life of his son and the safety of her family. In both cases, we witnessed that faith expresses itself by a demonstrated action. Mears notes, “Faith which does not express itself in works is of no value. Faith is revealed by what we do. What is the use of anyone’s saying that he has faith if he does not prove it by his actions? Just as a body without a spirit is dead, so faith is dead without actions (2:17).”[ii] Faith fleshed itself out in the lives of a man and woman who desired to obey God. The evidence was wrought in deeds of righteousness.
Righteousness was found in Abraham’s altar of action. Faith and action “working together” (2:22) make up two sides of the same coin. The root of Abraham’s faith in Genesis 15:6 bore fruit years later in Genesis 22. In the same way, Rahab’s sacrifice of safety was recorded as a righteous act (Jos 2:6-22; Heb 11:31; Jas 2:25). The results of their belief was manifested in their desire to obey God. These ancestral examples demonstrate the great difference between a naked faith and one clothed in righteousness. Faith that pleases God is always active, never passive. “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is also dead” (2:26).
Doctrinal Balance Of Faith
Of course, a balance is needed in citing the difference of the justification and the validation of faith. These are important issues that should be clarified, especially for those who come from a background with strong leanings against a doctrine of works. Their preconceptions in the matter would facilitate such a question. Getz comments, “When studying the letter of James, particularly the passage we’re looking at in this chapter, Luther concluded that James was contradicting Paul. It is easy to see why. First, he had been reared in a religious community where he had been taught that a person gets to heaven by performing good works. Through personal study of the Scriptures, he discovered that this was a false doctrine. Consequently, he literally put his life on the line for the doctrine of justification by faith.”[iii] From Luther’s cultural perspective, we can see why he overreacted and misunderstood the sayings and teachings of James.
A distinct contrast, therefore, should be made with the faith that comes by hearing (Rom 10:17) and the faith that expresses by doing (Jas 1:22). The correlation of verses between these books (the message of Paul and James) would help substantiate rather than contradict the teachings of faith. Wilkinson and Boa add, “In Romans 4, Paul used the example of Abraham to show that Abraham was justified by faith, not by works. But James asserts that Abraham was justified by works (2:21). In spite of the apparent contradiction, Romans 4 and James 2 are really two sides of the same coin. In context, Paul is writing about justification before God while James cites the evidence of justification before men. A faith that produces no change is not saving faith.”[iv] In a comparison between the message of Paul and the message of James, the emphasis is readily observed: “Paul’s message calls attention to the ‘root,’ looking at what happens at the moment of salvation while James’ message calls attention to the ‘fruit,’ looking at what happens after salvation.”[v] Paul’s perspective focuses on God’s part, while James’ perspective focuses on man’s part. The terminology differs wherein Romans deals with the justification of faith, while James deals with the validation of faith.
If we were to derive any benefit from Scripture, it would have to depend on how we use it and on what response we make towards its message. Stott observes, “One of God’s recurring complaints in the biblical record itself is that His people continually turned a deaf ear to His Word. His messengers had to keep pleading with Israel: ‘O that today you would hearken to His voice!’ (Ps 97:7).”[vi]
In the same vein, Jesus also warned his contemporaries about their response to his teaching. The parable of the sower exemplifies the manner of how people received the Word of God by the condition of the soil into which the seed fell. “All of us," according to Stott, "are building our life on some foundation. Those who build on rock, whose house will survive the storms of adversity and of judgment, are those who listen to Christ’s teaching and put it into practice.”[vii]
In the remote context of James 1:26-27, the passage, according to Mears, asks us to “keep faith and works in their proper place. Because of all this, James says in effect, ‘the faith that you have is the faith you show.’ Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world (1:27).”[viii]
God still speaks through what He has spoken and listening to His voice through His Word is only the beginning. Jesus said that it is not enough ‘to know these things,’ but that we shall be blessed only if we ‘do them’ (Jn 13:17). Stott concludes, “Perhaps no apostle put this more clearly than James, the Lord’s brother, who wrote: ‘But be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves’ (Jas 1:22). To ‘do’ the truth is to do what it says, to translate its message into action.”[ix] This is the principle of faith: Faith is alive and active, and it responds from a believing heart into an obedient life. True faith that produces genuine fruit. Thus our works, the outcome of our faith in action, reveals the reality of one’s own personal relationship with God.
[i] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 167.
[ii] Henrietta C. Mears, What The Bible Is All About, new rev. ed., with a Foreword by Billy Graham (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1983), 578.
[iii] Gene A. Getz, Doing Your Part (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1984), 21.
[iv] Bruce Wilkinson and Kenneth Boa, Talk Thru The Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983), 467.
[v] Getz, 31.
[vi] John R. W. Stott, Understanding The Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, rev. 1976), 243.
[viii] Mears, 577.
[ix] Stott, 246.
© 2009, Gicky Soriano. All rights reserved.
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The epistle of James is perhaps the most practical--and most convicting--book of the entire New Testament. It is a marvelous exposition of the outworking of genuine Christian faith. True faith works!