Faith and Works
James 2:14-26 presents to us the well-known passage about faith and its relation to works. We often use this in order to show that faith requires works, and therefore there is no contradiction between obedience to God and having faith. We then show that James does not contradict Paul when he says that salvation is not by works, but by faith (e.g., Rom. 4). While all of this true, I would suggest to you that James’ purpose was not to serve as a corrective to potentially misunderstanding Paul. Paul can be understood on his own terms as not denying the need to obey God (e.g., Rom 6:17). So James’ purpose is better found within his own context of the overall argument he is making.
In the first chapter, James deals with problems relating to trials and temptation. Trusting God is critical here, and the way we show our faith is through listening to His word and trusting Him. One of the trials indicated in the text has to do with how the rich and poor look at each other (vv. 9-11). This is picked up at the end of James 1 as it relates to the way that people would treat orphans and widows in distress. In other words, the concept of “class Christianity” is in view. Do the rich look down upon and oppress the poor? Do the poor envy the rich? In truth, both groups should recognize that they stand in the same position before God. Yet those who have opportunities and abilities to aid those in distress should do so. The heart of “pure and undefiled religion” is found in the way people treat others. We cannot espouse Christ as Lord on the one hand, then fail to show our concern for others when those opportunities arise.
Chapter 2 continues with the same theme. If both poor and rich come into an assembly and we shun the poor and show favor toward the rich because of their wealth or the way they are dressed, then we have committed sin because of our partiality (2:9). Instead, as indicated at the end of chapter 1, we should rather show mercy toward all, knowing that all of us need mercy from God (2:13).
James 2:14 does not begin a new context. The text picks right up with that same line of argumentation. Can faith alone (i.e., mental assent) save a person who doesn’t show mercy? Can faith alone save one who simply ignores the will of God when it comes to how we should be treating people? Can faith help the one who refuses to do what God requires? In the context of James, what God requires has to do with our attitudes toward others. Helping, showing mercy, treating with respect and without partiality are the primary works James is talking about.
We further see this emphasis in the following verses: “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, by itself” (vv. 15-17). Faith, in James’ context, is demonstrated through the treatment of those who might have less than others. Being rich or poor materially is not a sign of one who is more or less righteous than another, so faith acts to show mercy and help provide as the opportunities are presented.
Faith is not indicated simply by what someone says. Even the demons believe, and tremble (vs. 19). The demons knew who Jesus was (Mark 1:24; 5:7). They needed no further convincing. They even trembled at the power of Jesus. But no one would argue that they had saving faith or that they would help anyone. True faith is more than mere mental assent or technical belief. It is action. It is engaging our will to do God’s will.
Of course, action by itself doesn’t accomplish much without the faith underlying it. While we might say that faith justifies us before God (as per Romans 5:1), the actions justify our faith. When Abraham offered up Isaac, “faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected” (Jas. 2:22). Actions complete our faith. Without those actions, faith is dead and cannot justify anyone.
Now we can certainly take James’ instructions and broaden the application. We are not suggesting that this concept of faith and works only applies to how we treat others. But let’s not forget that, in the process of understanding our relationship with God, how we treat others is critical. The greatest commandment must not be forgotten: love God with all the heart, soul, strength, and mind. The second greatest commandment is also crucial: love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commands hang everything else in God's laws (Matt. 22:36-40). James is stressing the latter as an indication of how genuine our faith really is. Are we showing it?