“Vroom… vroo… vr…” The headlights grew dim as we rolled to a stop on an abandoned logging trail in Northern Michigan. Spontaneous death followed by the laying on of hands and miraculous resurrection was a common occurrence for our dune buggy, a modified VW Bug. As far as I was concerned, my father was the best 50s VW mechanic and could raise any dead engine to life. As we tried to push start the engine by popping the clutch, it became quickly apparent that it wasn’t our night. We were stranded in the middle of nowhere, pitch black, scared, and going nowhere quickly. We had run out of one extremely important element, gas. If you’ve ever run out of gas, you know how helpless we must have felt in the middle of nowhere.
It’s bad enough running out of gas on the highway. Running out of gas on the road of life is much, much worse! If you find yourself out of gas and in need of renewal, the half-brother of Jesus, James, has some encouraging words for you. He begins his letter by explaining that trials can be expected in this life and when they come, joyfully welcome them (1:2-3) because they can lead to a mature, enlivened faith. On the flip side, sin can bring atrophy to the Christian life. He presents two options: 1) Let the word take up home and save your life (1:21); or 2) Sin will eat away at you propelling you on a collision course with death (1:15). Lest we think that sin does not have deadly consequences, we need to remind ourselves of Ananias & Sapphira who died instantly from their sin against the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-10), the believers in 1 Corinthians that died from taking the Lord’s Supper in an improper way (11:27-30), and King Saul who died because he consulted the Witch of Endor (1 Chron 10:13-14).
Many of us have run out of gas and feel helpless in the Christian life. We have stopped moving forward in our spiritual walk and don’t know how to get moving again. Is your spiritual life growing or deteriorating? James gives his recipe for spiritual growth—take what you believe and put it into practice.
No Works, No Maturity (vv 14-17)
14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 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? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
These verses caused Luther to call James a strawy epistle. He wanted to toss the whole book out because he didn’t think it was consistent with Paul:
Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness (Rom 4:4-5)
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 (Eph 2:8-9).
At first blush, he does seem to have a point. How can we make sense of James and Paul? Many try to get around this by translating James’s question in v 14 by adding “helping words” like: “Can false/this kind of faith save him?” The original language does include an article, but it is common for Greek to use the article before abstract nouns (love, faith, hope, etc.). In fact, the article is included five times in this passage. No one would describe Abraham’s faith in v 22 as false.
We don’t have to add words to harmonize Paul and James. Most overlook James’s audience at the beginning of the same verse, “What use is it my brothers?” In other words, he is speaking to Christians. Now, we must ask, “If they’re Christians, what do they need to be saved from?” The answer was in James 1:15—the deadly consequences of sin.
Many don’t realize that saved usually doesn’t mean saved from hell in the Bible. It can mean saved from sickness (healed), rescued from enemies, or delivered from calamity.1 When we see the word saved in the Bible, we should always ask, “Saved from what?” It could be saved from the penalty of sin (justification), the power of sin (sanctification), or the presence of sin (glorification). Paul tells sinners how to become saints (Rom 4) and James tells saints how to become sanctified.
In these first few verses, James addresses a problem that the church was going through. Apparently, many in the church weren’t helping their hungry brothers and sisters in Christ. They showed favoritism to their rich oppressors (2:1-13) but ignored their poor brothers. They were having a prayer meeting and then sending them on their way when they should have given them something to eat. In response, James says, “Your faith is useless!” When faith is not married to works, it remains useless to our brothers and sisters in Christ and useless to our spiritual growth.
The Marriage of Faith and Works (vv 18-20)
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. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead (or useless)?
At first sight, these verses seem strange, but this is an example of a common rhetorical device in James’s day.2 The objector argues, “Give me a doctrine. Then do a work that will prove what you believe. I’ll do the opposite. See James, works don’t prove anything.” He then adds an illustration, “The devil believes God is one. You too believe in one God. Both believe. Two distinct responses. Thus, you can’t see faith by your works!”3 Most likely James had heard this argument before, and we see this defensive approach when someone’s faith doesn’t line up with their works. They might say, “Faith and works aren’t related. Don’t criticize my faith. I may not do those works, but I have correct doctrine!” James responds, “Fool! Faith and works have everything to do with the usefulness and maturity of one’s faith.” Many of us have useless items around the house that are collecting dust like an old VCR or a car that doesn’t run. We might even have useless people in our lives that don’t add anything to the household. If a father believes that he should provide for his family but plays video games all day instead of working to provide for his family, his belief isn’t any use to his family. His faith and prayers won’t make the hunger go away. James would say that his belief (faith) that his family should be provided for is useless.
The Example of a Patriarch & a Prostitute (vv 21-25)
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect (or mature)? 23 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. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?
James now illustrates his point with two examples from Scripture, a patriarch and a prostitute. Both examples show faith married to works in the midst of a trial (James 1:1-18). While Paul explained that we are justified by faith before God, James explains that we are justified by works before men. Abraham was justified before God in Gen 15:6 and justified by works before men when he offered up his son on the altar.4
God told Abraham to take Isaac to Mt. Moriah and kill him. Even before they went up the mountain, Abraham told his servants, “Stay here and after we worship, we will come back down” (Gen 22:5). Abraham knew that if God could bring life from his dead body (Rom 4:17), he could raise his son to life. As he took out his knife to slay his son, an angel appeared to him and provided a ram. With the knife in his hand, Abraham’s faith was made mature by his works. He was saved in 15:6 and his faith was made perfect, complete, and mature in Genesis 22 (Heb 11:17-19). Offering up Isaac had nothing to do with his justification before God but everything to do with his justification by works before men. For that reason, he has been called a friend of God before countless generations.
James knew that no one would have a hard time believing that a patriarch’s faith was matured. He knew that his readers might respond, “But, I’m not Abraham. I’m a sinner.” As a result, James moves from patriarch to prostitute. By using the example of Rahab, James knew that no one could say, “I’m too far gone.” Plus, Rahab was the supreme example of a physical life saved by works (cf. James 1:21). Rahab received the spies by faith in Joshua (Heb 11:31), but she still had the opportunity to betray them. In fact, even the spies doubted her: “And if you tell this business of ours, then we will be free from your oath” (Josh 2:20). Luckily for them, she sent them out (Jas 2:25) and her faith was matured by her works. They successfully escaped, and Rahab and the lives of her household were saved while the city of Jericho was destroyed. She was justified by her works. Just like Abraham, she went to the next level spiritually.
Faith Without Works Brings Death (v 26)
26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
James ends by taking his readers to familiar scene, a funeral. With the spirit, the body is alive. Without it, the body dies and begins to shrivel up. Likewise, faith shrivels up and dies if it isn’t combined with works. Just like no one would deny that the body exists in the coffin even without the spirit, no one should deny that faith exists without works. But that is not James’s point. The point that James wants his readers to internalize is that faith without works is useless to our brother in need and for spiritual growth.
Do you feel defeated but long for victory in the Christian life? If you want to resurrect a dead spiritual life, try adding works. Start reading the word, letting it penetrate your life, and begin putting your faith into action. Look for ways to show love to your brothers and sisters in need. Works won’t justify you before God but they will put life back into a dead faith and set you on a path towards growth. Plus, you will be justified before men like Abraham and Rahab.
- Rescued from enemies – Judges 13:5; Pss. 7:9-11; 33:16; Rescue from imminent death – Matt 8:25; Acts 27:20, 31, 34; Phil. 1:19; Heb 11:7; Jas 5:20; Delivered from Disease – Mark 3:1-5; Jas 5:15; Saved from Sins – Mt 1:21; Lk 7:48-50; John 3:17.
- Many have debated about where the quotation marks go. Rom 9:19-20 and 1 Cor 15:35-36 shed light on this issue.
- Many have quoted this in order to say that the demons assent to God being one and thus merely believing something doesn’t save someone. There are several problems with this: 1) Demons do not have the offer of salvation; 2) No one is saved by monotheism; and 3) This is clearly the illustration of the objector. These are not James’s words. Many have quoted these words and stuck them in James’s mouth when James refutes the foolish objector in v 20.
- James explains that Abraham was also justified by works in Genesis 22. Paul makes it clear that Abraham was not justified by works before God (4:2) but doesn’t deny that Abraham was justified by works before man.