Our Text – James 2:14-26
Our theme – “Genuine faith expresses itself in good woks”
Faith is certainly an essential element in a believer’s life because without faith, it’s impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). We are saved by faith (Ephesians 2:8) and we are to walk (live) by faith (2 Corinthians 5:7). The argument of James’s epistle is stated in chapter 1, verse 22, “But be ye doers of the Word, and not hearers only.” His letter is a series of mini-commentaries on the implications of that exhortation. At the beginning of chapter 2 he said, “A doer of the Word would not be guilty of discrimination”. In chapter 2, verse 14; he states that a doer of the Word, i.e., one whose faith is genuine, would demonstrate his faith through good works.
If we consider the context of James 2, I don’t think it is a difficult passage to understand or to bring into harmony with Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone. Paul and James are each addressing a different issue in the believer’s life; each of them is addressing different problems and using the term, justification in different ways. Paul is talking about redemption and how a person is ultimately right with God. In his discussion, he is emphasizing that we cannot work our way to heaven and that salvation is completely of God’s grace.
James is talking about the problem of people who claim to believe, but their claim to faith is not producing any fruit in their lives. He is dealing with the problem of intellectual assent and the fact that true saving faith will produce the fruit of obedience in the life of a person who is truly trusting in Christ. That true saving faith produces obedience to God is a primary theme in the whole book of James. James is exhorting his readers to live in a manner that is in keeping with their profession of faith.
In this section of James, we are called upon to add to our faith, works. We like to say we are people of faith, but James asks us, are we also people of good works. Faith by itself will not accomplish anything to advance God’s kingdom. We must be willing to do something. To illustrate this, Charles was coaching a soccer team of boys, ages 12 and 13. One game was played in Oakdale where the soccer field actually was built on a slight hill. After half-time our team was going downhill, so Charles told the halfbacks on the team that when they approached midfield, about 50 yards out, they might have a shot at a surprise goal since the ball would descend in its flight at the same time the field was descending underneath the ball.
Charles’ 12 year-old son, Chad was always the good student. Sure enough, he approached midfield, and kicked a booming shot that flew into the upper right corner of the goal before the goalkeeper realized what had happened. After that goal, a number of the other halfbacks tried their hand at the same idea. Now they may have all originally had faith that what their coach said was true, but only Chad added action to his faith and scored the goal which helped the team win the game. Many of us are like those soccer players. We believe that God’s ways are true, but we will never experience the reality of our faith until we take some action and prove our faith. Now let’s examine what it means to add works to our faith. James gives us some compelling arguments.
JAMES 2:14, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?”
James is asking a question. Can someone say he has faith but not have works? Many people claim to be believers, but do their actions show it? While visiting the zoo, a man was asked, “Do you believe that Daniel spent the night in a lion’s den?” He answered, “Yes, I believe.” Next he was asked, “Do you believe that the lions’ mouths were shut by angels?” He said, “Yes, I believe.” Then he was asked, “Do you believe that God could still do that today?” He said, “Yes, I believe.” Finally he was asked, “Would you be willing to go in the lion’s cage?” He answered, “I don’t believe that much.” There’s a difference between saying you have faith and doing something about it.
Here in this verse, James is not saying that we are saved by works. James 1:17-18 shows that he understands that salvation is not earned by our works. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” We see that our good works do not save us. In fact the very next verse after saying we are not saved by works, Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
MacDonald wrote, “James is not saying that we are saved by faith plus works. To hold such a view would be to dishonor the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. If we were saved by faith plus works, then there would be two saviors — Jesus and ourselves. But the New Testament is very clear that Christ is the one and only Savior. What James is emphasizing is that we are not saved by a faith of words only but by that kind of faith which results in a life of good works. In other words, works are not the root of salvation but the fruit; they are not the cause but the effect.
JAMES 2:15-16, “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?”
Now James explains exactly what he is talking about. James is giving us a good example of what it means to add to our faith, works. We may see a person in need. If we really care for them, we will try to help them. This is not only true for physical needs. There are many people with emotional needs and of course spiritual needs. When we see those who are afflicted and hurting, we need to minister to their hurt.
This may mean meeting their physical needs; it could also mean supporting them emotionally or encouraging them spiritually. God does not want us to only pray and go to church. He also wants us to reach out our hand to others. As Paul wrote in Timothy 6:18, “Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share.” Annie Johnson Flint wrote this poem exhorting us to good works.
Christ has no hands but our hands to do His work today;
He has no feet but our feet to lead men in His way;
He has no tongue but our tongues to tell men how He died;
He has no help but our help to bring them to His side.
We are the only Bible the careless world will read;
We are the sinner’s Gospel; we are the scoffer’s creed;
We are the Lord’s last message written in deed and word —
We are the only sermon that some have ever heard.
JAMES 2:17, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead”
Now this is a remarkable statement by James — faith without works is dead. MacDonald wrote, “A faith without works is not real faith at all. It is only a matter of words.” We claim that we are people of faith, but are we also people of works? Do we put some action behind our beliefs? Are we willing to sacrifice our time for the sake of others? Or are we too busy to get involved? What kind of a faith do we really have? Jesus said in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” In verses 14-17 of this lesson James is referring to “A Dead Faith” (James 2:14-17).
It’s important to realize that there are different kinds of faith, but only one that is truly “saving faith”. In this portion of Scripture James is discussing the different kinds of faith, with an emphasis upon that faith which works to the saving of the soul. Beginning with verses 14-17, we notice the first kind of faith. We could call this kind of faith a “Dead Faith”. Simply put, people with this kind of faith know the correct vocabulary for prayer and sound doctrine. They can even quote the right verses from the Bible; however, their “walk” doesn’t measure up to their “talk”. It is only an intellectual faith. In their mind, they know the doctrine of salvation but they have never really submitted themselves to God and trusted in Jesus for salvation. They know the right “words”, but they don’t back up their words with their “works”.
We must then ask the question. Can this kind of faith save? Of course not. Three times in our lesson, James emphasizes that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17, 20, 26). Any declaration of faith that does not result in a changed life and good works is a false declaration – A Dead Faith! Such faith is a counterfeit faith and lulls the person into a false confidence of eternal life. Do we have this kind of Faith? We do, if our walk does not measure up to our talk and if our Works do not measure up to our Words! In summary, we need to beware of mere intellectual faith. As Warren Wiersbe said, “No man can come to Christ by faith and remain the same, anymore than if he came into contact with a 220-volt wire and remained the same.”
JAMES 2:18, “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 by my works”
James is arguing that faith and works cannot be separated. If we have true faith, we will put our faith into action. James challenges his unknown skeptic to show his faith without his works. How can we reveal any faith if we have no actions behind it?
When we see lightning flash across the sky, we expect the roar of thunder to follow. If there were no lightning, there would be no thunder because one causes the other. It’s like that with our faith. Just as thunder always follows lightning, good works always follow true faith. The relationship between faith and works is explained in the New Testament writing of the apostle Paul to the Ephesians, and in this letter from James. At first glance, these authors seem to contradict each other. Paul insisted, “By grace you have been saved through faith, not of works” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
But James declared, “A man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). However, in context, James wasn’t denying that we are saved by faith. He referred to Abraham, saying that he “believes God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (v. 23). This belief occurred years before Abraham gave evidence of his faith by preparing to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice (v. 21). Nor was the apostle Paul denying the value of works, for after stating that we are saved by faith alone he said that we are saved “for good works” (Ephesians 2:10). So, has the “lightning” of your faith in Christ been followed by the “thunder” of good works?
Wiersbe comments, “Even in the early church there were those who claimed they had saving faith, yet did not possess salvation. Wherever there is the true, you will find the counterfeit. Jesus warned, ‘Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.’ (Matt. 7:21) People with dead faith substitute words for deeds. They know the correct vocabulary for prayer and testimony, and can even quote the right verses from the Bible; but their walk does not measure up to their talk. They think that their words are as good as works, and they are wrong.” Now James gives us a wonderful example of faith without works.
JAMES 2:19, “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe; and tremble!”
You say you have faith and believe in God? Big deal. Even the demons believe and tremble. Certainly demons will never be accused of doing good works. So what good is it to say we believe if our actions don’t follow? MacDonald comments, “When a person truly believes on the Lord, it involves a commitment of spirit, soul and body. This commitment in turn results in a changed life. Faith apart from works is head belief, and therefore dead belief.”
In this verse James reminds us that even “demons” have a kind of faith! They believe in God (no atheists or agnostics here). They even believe in the deity of Christ (Mark 3:11-12). They also believe in the existence of a place of condemnation (Luke 8:31) and they believe Jesus will be the Judge (Matthew 8:28-29). What kind of faith do “demons” have? We saw that the man/woman with a “dead faith” was touched only in their intellect. Demons are “touched also in their emotions” (please note that they “believe and tremble”. This is one step above a “dead faith” because it involves both intellect and emotions.
So can this kind of faith save? Of course not. A person can be enlightened in his/her mind and even stirred in their heart and still be lost forever. A true saving faith involves something more, something that can be seen and recognized, a changed life (James 2:18). Being a born again believer involves trusting Christ and living for Christ? Thus, you first receive the life and then you reveal the life! Do we have this kind of faith? So far, James has introduced us to two kinds of faith that can never save. Dead faith (involving the intellect alone), and demonic faith (involving the intellect and the emotions, but stopping there).
JAMES 2:20, “But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?”
Once again James re-states his theme — faith without works is dead. It seems to me we need to examine our own life. Are we putting action behind our faith, or are we believers in name only? Ninety percent of all Americans say they believe there is a God. But how many of them actually serve Him? We can say we believe with our lips, but do our hands, our feet, and our actions say that we believe? As born-again believers, we need to be growing in the truth along with good works. Colossians 2:6 says, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him”. As Pastor Olcott stated last Sunday, we must not stay on the milk of God’s Word, and only be spectators, which leads me to the time I lived in Washington, DC.
Looking at the map I had purchased of the Washington, DC area, I knew that I could do it. The boarding house where I lived was centrally located off Thomas Circle approximately four blocks from the White House. Being a new comer to the DC area, I wanted to see the Capital Building, which was approximately twelve blocks from the boarding house. A nice long walk on a sunny and warm Saturday morning would be good for me. I could have taken a cab or bus, but if I really wanted to see the DC area, I knew walking would be the way to go and so I did. Hearing the sounds, smelling the smells of the various pastry shops, studying the people, watching the traffic and visiting the shops along the way, I really felt like a part of Washington, DC. Although, it took some time and effort, it was well worth both. You might be asking what this has to do with this study.
Well, as we travel this journey we call the Christian life, we face a similar choice. We can take the easy route, depending on others to give us all our instructions, short-cutting our way past a good prayer-life, or speed-reading a passage of Scripture and calling it “devotions.” Or we can make the effort and take the time to get into the Word and closer to God. Why not take a long walk with God today, tomorrow and the next day? As you map out your course, choose to “seek Him with your whole heart”, study His Word, and obey what He says, because such a walk through His precious Word will be a most delightful experience! For the believer in Christ, you started out with faith in Him, after recognizing your sinfulness and a need for a Savior, when you asked God to forgive your sins.
You were a babe in Christ; however, you don’t stop there! No one who has put their faith in Christ can afford to let spiritual growth and maturity start and stop with only one act of spiritual surrender. Your salvation must be followed by spiritual growth wherein you are weaned off the “milk of the Word” and start enjoying the “meat of the Word”. My friend, keep your heart and mind open to the Word and the leading of the Holy Spirit, be receptive and obedient to it, and above all as the Scriptures tell us, “…grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”. I’m afraid there are too many people who should be on the front lines in their spiritual growth but are still in basic training.
The Christian life should be progressive active walk rather than inactive one. Every believer in Christ should be growing in the faith. The maturing believer will be walking in Christ, settled in the faith, and abounding with gratitude. The Colossian believers had received a person, Jesus Christ. It is extremely important to understand that salvation depends upon a relationship with Jesus Christ rather than upon a mere intelligent agreement to doctrinal statements about Christ. James exposed the lifelessness of invalid faith. He wrote in James 2:19 that “devils also believe, and tremble.” A person may attend Sunday school in a Bible believing church from the cradle to the grave; however, the person’s long record of perfect attendance can’t save him or her. A person may have verbatim knowledge of the church constitution, including its statement of faith and covenant, but lack salvation. Correct doctrine leads us to Christ, but He does the saving.
The only way to be saved is to believe on Jesus Christ as Savior (John 1:12; Acts 16:31; Romans 10:13). Having received Christ Jesus, we must walk in Him. We received Him by faith; we need to walk in Him by faith. Faith, of course, comes through the Word of God (Romans 10:17). As we study the Bible, we learn what God wants us to be and to do good works. Recognizing that Jesus Christ is our Lord, we submit to His authority and depend upon Him for the wisdom and strength to honor Him. The word “walk” suggests that Christian living is a progressive experience. Nothing in this life catapults a Christian from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity. We gradually become like Christ one day at a time and one step at a time. Our spiritual development is described as a walk, not a leap.
JAMES 2:21-22, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?”
Now James gives the example of Abraham. In Genesis 15:6 we see that Abraham believed in the Lord, and God accounted it to him for righteousness. So we know Abraham had faith. But 7 chapters later in Genesis 22, Abraham obeys God concerning his son. So works followed faith. And what does James say about Abraham’s action — “by works faith was made perfect.” By being obedient to God, Abraham’s faith was tested and strengthened. When we take action for God and obey his commands, our faith may also be tried, but it will also be strengthened.
JAMES 2:23-25, “And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works and not by faith only”. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?”
We see in Abraham’s case his works testified to his faith. No human was with Abraham that night he talked to God. Sarah was not with him. His servant was not with him. Though Moses, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, would inscribe the account hundreds of years later, the reality or genuineness of Abraham’s faith was revealed to men by his willingness to offer Isaac. That incident was observed by the servants.
Though they did not accompany Abraham and the lad to the top of the mountain, there is little question that Isaac brought the wide-eyed account of his close encounter with a father willing to take his life on orders from God. The faith of Abraham was demonstrated to be real in the eyes of men. Those who could not look on the heart could affirm that Abraham’s faith was genuine. By his willingness to offer his son, God demonstrated Abraham’s faith to be the “real thing”.
At the same time he developed Abraham’s faith to a new level of intensity and consistency. Abraham could neither see nor know what God was going to do. But he acted in the confidence that God knew what He was about. And that was all the affirmation Abraham needed. Verse 23 concludes that Abraham’s act of faith was a fulfillment of the Scriptures, which reported that God imputed righteousness unto him. Again, God knew Abraham’s heart. But Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac was proof to people that his justification was valid. It didn’t accomplish it, but it did affirm it.
Can there be a higher honor than to be called the friend of God? While it is an incredible privilege to be called a “child of God,” it is of even greater significance to be the friend of God. God referred to Abraham as His friend (Isaiah 41:8); the priests referred to Abraham as God’s friend (2 Chronicles 20:7). James affirmed that Abraham was called “the Friend of God” because he was willing to sacrifice for God the most precious thing he owned.
What do our works say about us? Are we doers of the word, or are we lazy and complacent Christians? J. Vernon McGee said this, “This is a choice illustration of the fact that you demonstrate your faith by your actions. The action of this man was that he believed God.” Paul wrote in Titus 3:14, “And let our people also learn to maintain good works, to meet urgent needs, that they may not be unfruitful.” We also have another example in the person of Rahab. She believed in the God of Israel, but she was forced to take a stand and to hide the spies. Her faith was revealed by her good works. He declared that she, too, was “justified by works, when she had received the messengers and had sent them out another way”.
Rahab declared her confidence that Jehovah, the God of Israel, was the true God. She believed all the reports of the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt and God’s sovereign protection during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. However, the statement of her mouth was evident in that she was willing to risk her life for the spies. One often thinks of the scarlet cord from her window as being a statement of her faith. Many fanciful interpretations are made primarily because of the color of the cord. However, the verification of Rahab’s faith, said James, was not the cord out the window but the risking of her life for the spies. The cord merely identified the house for those of Israel who had not been with the spies and thus had no clue where Rahab’s house was.
J. Vernon McGee comments on Rahab’s actions in his unique style, “She did not say to the Israelite spies, ‘I’ll just stand on the sidelines when you enter the city and sing, Praise God from whom all blessings flow.’ She did not just say, ‘Jesus saves and keeps and satisfies.’ She did not say, ‘Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!’ She said to them ‘I’m going to do something. I will hide you because I believe God is going to give the people of Israel this land. We have been hearing about you for forty years, and I believe God.’ My friend, she believed God, and she became involved.” How much do we believe God? Do we believe God enough to start to put actions to our faith? This is what James is trying to get us to do.
JAMES 2:26, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also”
For the third time James tells us faith without works is dead. This time he gives the example from life. He wrote, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” The emphasis is on the fact that saving faith is both dynamic and demonstrative. The body without the spirit is static and nonproductive. However, the animating spirit communicates energy and activity to the body. Genesis 2:7 says, “And the Lord God formed man [of] the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Though the body was fashioned by the sovereign and omnipotent hand of God, it had no energy or dynamic until the breath of life was breathed into it.
Similarly faith may simply be a strong sense of conviction or an intense belief. It may be a simple optimism or a rigid determination. But faith that is Biblicaly based and spiritually generated is ratified by good works. Hebrews 11 honors a roster of men and women far beyond the two examples of James. The conclusion is the same. They believed God, and their faith was demonstrated in the actions of their lives. Their confidence in God’s promises enabled them to obey God and to the finish without wavering. Their faith produced a legacy of faith imitated by those who are genuinely the children of God today.
It’s important that each professing believer in Christ examine their own heart and life, and make sure they possess true saving faith, which is a dynamic faith. We must remember that Satan is the great deceiver of the brethren, and one of his devices is imitation. If he can convince a person that counterfeit faith is true faith then he has that person in his power.
I’ll close with this illustration. Mary is a senior citizen with many health problems. She is also a widow with a home to keep up. No use expecting Mary to do much in the church or community anymore, right? Wrong! In spite of her limitations, her faith continues to work. Although Mary and her late husband had no children, they had a ministry to other people’s children. Now alone, she coordinates a new ministry in her church for women who might be considering abortion. Mary writes, “If we are preaching against abortion, we should offer pregnant women our help. Within 2 days I’ve had four volunteers to help me. Now we must meet to set up a plan of action.” A plan of action, how typical of a working faith! How different from people who see a desperate need and moan, “Why doesn’t somebody do something?” but are unwilling to be that somebody!
In today’s Scripture we read that Abraham obediently offered his son Isaac on the altar. This act is cited as a work that proved the reality of his faith (James 2:21-23). Mary, like Abraham, has a faith that works. Our needy world could use many more like them. How can we put our faith into action today and the months that lay before us?
An unknown person penned these words, “Faith is the power that prompts us to go and give to the hungering, bread; Faith means much more than a doctrine or two, for faith without works is dead”.
Faith never stands around with its hands in its pockets.