By Rony Kozman, Ph. D.
Assistant professor of Biblical Studies, Samford University
Faith on display in your actions
A faith not backed up by our actions is a useless faith. (14–17)
In James 2:1–13, James emphasized the importance and necessity of keeping the whole law (vv. 10–12). To fail in one part is to be guilty of breaking the whole law.
James entreated his audience to keep the whole law by not failing to show love and mercy to the poor as they seek to enact justice. They must not favor the rich as they judge cases. It should not be surprising to us that when James gives us a specific example of dead faith (v. 17), it is one where someone recognizes a poor person’s need of food and clothing and does nothing more than mouth platitudes to their needy brother or sister.
Such a person who claims to have faith has no more than a dead faith. True faith, a faith that is alive, is animated by works of charity and love toward those in need.
True faith feeds the hungry. True faith clothes the needy. Those with true faith are the ones Jesus recognizes and welcomes into His kingdom (Matt. 25:34–36).
Faith is more than merely what you believe. (18–20)
James is adamant that true faith is always coupled with good works. Faith and works are an inseparable pair; the two cannot be disjointed or separated. We must not claim to have faith while neglecting to do the deeds God requires of us.
James uses two similar descriptions of faith to emphasize the union of faith and works. A faith that does not have works is dead (2:17). Just as a living person breathes, so also a living faith works. And the phrase is this: “Faith apart from works is useless.”
Merely believing true things about God is insufficient. After all, even the demons have this kind of useless faith.
Demons have true cognitive knowledge of God. If faith is merely knowing true things about God, we will find ourselves in the company of demons and sharing their “faith” — a faith that does not do good works. True faith is demonstrated by our works.
Genuine faith is seen in our obedience to God. (21–26)
James uses Abraham as an example of the inseparability of faith and works. When Abraham was willing to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice (Gen. 22), he showed he believed God’s promise that He would make Abraham’s offspring abundant (Gen. 15:4–6). After all, if Abraham was willing to kill his only son, the one through whom God’s promise and covenant was to be established, by binding up Isaac, Abraham demonstrated through his faith that God would keep His promise.
In the story of Abraham, faith was not idle, but faith and deeds worked together, James asserts. And just as James earlier said that endurance completes the one who perseveres through trials (1:4), now James says works complete one’s faith.
James’ statement that we are “justified by works and not by faith alone” seems to be in tension with Paul’s assertion that one is justified by faith and not by works of the law (e.g., Rom 3:28). A few observations lessen the tension.
Whereas for Paul, the faith in view is effective and brings us into union with Christ and into God’s kingdom, the faith that James criticizes is a useless faith devoid of works. Second, Paul (like James) also writes of the necessity of works for justification (Rom. 2:13). For both James and Paul, obedience is necessary for justification, and faith in Christ is foundational to our obedience.
True faith produces the works God requires. And works are the children of faith. Since faith generates good works, Paul emphasizes faith as foundational for justification. True faith always successfully gives birth to works.