Imagine yourself sitting with Jesus having a conversation and he turns and looks you dead in your eyes and asks you “What have you done for me lately?” How would you respond? Would you stutter? Or would you start making excuses for why you haven’t done anything? If we truly claim Jesus as our Lord and Savior we will want to do things for him, and the rest of his body (the church). In chapter two of the Book of James he addresses our works and our faith. James works very hard but intelligently to let us know that we cannot separate our faith in Christ from the good works we do. Scripture is clear that anything not done in faith is sin. (Rom 14:23b)
How many of us when we first came to believe in Christ did not have a good understanding of salvation? For me personally the church I was attending did not present grace very well. Ephesians 2:8-9 is probably the best example for the understanding of grace through faith. This one church was very legalistic, we were informed that to be members in this church you could not smoke, drink, nor many other things. It was not until I began to grow in Christ that I realized this was more of a works based religion. So to find out which way I correct let’s take a look at what James has to say on the subject.
Historical/Cultural and Literary Context
In order to understand our passage more accurately we have to know a few things about it. Like who was the author, his audience, location, their situation, and several other factors. When we hear the name James we almost automatically think of the Apostle John’s brother, but in actuality the writer was Jesus’ half-brother. The sad thing is James did not accept his brother was God while Jesus was alive. However sometime after Christ crucifixion he came to believe that Jesus was in fact the Son of God. He rose in the ranks of the early church to become one of; if not the prominent leader of the church in Jerusalem. His ministry was primarily to the Jewish community, but he also had input into how the Gentiles were to live as Christians as well.
James more than likely was writing to a Jewish audience that had been scattered with the persecution under the Roman Empire. His book has been estimated to have been written between 50 and 60 AD. With his audience being made up of Jewish converts they were accustomed to the temple and sacrificial system that had been established. Just like those before them however their faith laid in the things they did for God and not God himself. James wrote this book to be a source of correction, whether it were how they dealt with one another (in word or deed), placed value on their works, or just plain old lack of wisdom.
The Book of James has often been referred to as the New Testament book of proverbs. In the section of scripture proceeding the one we are going to be studying James is rebuking his readers for showing favoritism to people in the church. Telling them that just because their outer appearance is nice, or that they have wealth does not earn them any special privilege in the church. In some synagogues in the period if you had enough money you could reserve yourself a seat. But we are all equals in Christ.
The section of scripture that follows James is telling his readers to beware of how they speak; telling them that even though their tongue is the smallest muscle in their body it is very powerful. He uses the illustration of a rudder which is small in proportion, yet it controls the movement of a boat. James also shows us that it only takes one little spark and a whole forest can be set ablaze.
Our section of scripture that falls in between the both of these, James makes it a point for us to understand that faith without works is dead and works without faith is pointless. I would have to say that his theme would be dealing with our actions and where our heart truly lies. If we love the Lord we will love his people no matter how they look. If our faith is alive we will produce good works, and if we guard our tongues we can keep ourselves from much trouble.
Our Selected Passage of Scripture
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Our Faith And Our Works Are Inseparable
In verse fourteen James comes on strong with a set of rhetorical questions concerning a man’s works and his faith. In the ESV, NIV, and the HCSB they use the term “what good is it…” while the NASB uses the term “what use is it”. I wanted to know why such the difference and upon further investigation I learned the Greek word being used was ophelos. Ophelos is normally translated benefit or good in the ESV, and profit or use in the NASB. The Greek word is only used three times total in the New Testament twice by James and once by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church. Several commentators such as John MacArthur and Warren Wiersbe both suggest that the question be rephrased as “Can that kind of faith save?” “ What kind? The kind of faith that is never seen in practical works. The answer is no! Any declaration of faith that does not result in a changed life and good works is a false declaration.” (Wiersbe 2007)
He goes even farther in the next two verses to drive home the point, that we cannot see a need and only wish some one well and not respond. James posed this question as a hypothetical one trying to make a point about people in general, while trying to make his readers and their listeners (since most New Testament letters were read out loud during church services) really ponder where they stood in line with their faith. The word used by James for brother is adelphoi, and it could be rendered as brother or brother and sister it is used over three hundred times in the New Testament and nineteen times by James alone. The word can and does in the sense of most New Testament writers reffer to fellow believers in Christ. James is trying to make sure that his readers understand that there is a stark contrast between real faith and just an intellectual faith. In verse 16 he uses the phrase “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” you will find it that way in the ESV and the NASB, however the NIV says it this way “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” the only conclusion that I can draw is it was a decsion to not be literal with the translation of this verse. I did however notice that James uses a common Hebrew farewell, when he says”Go in peace…”. One thing that we can conclude from the way James issues this statement is whoever says this to someone probably has no intention on being the one to clothe or feed the person in need.
Even in asking his question James has already prepared the answer. His answer is no easy Sunday morning feel good message either, he says to them “if you tell them to go in peace, be warm and filled, but don’t help what good is it?” (my parapharse) I think rendering the word good as benefit instead may be alittle more clearer at least for this context. While the people he is writing to are not causing any harm, they may not see the need for “good”. However, they may recognize that it could be more of a benefit for those who are receiving their mercies.
In verse seventeen James does not let up on his burrage of words at his readers. He cares about the people who are going to be receiving this work, and he wants to make sure that there is no misunderstanding about what is being said. He tells them straight out “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”  He uses the “so also” to connect his point to his previous example of leaving a fellow believer without the basic needs one requires to survive. In the KJV it uses the word alone instead of by itself. This discrepancy can be attributed to the fact the ESV is using a more up-to-date manuscript. The word itself is derived from the Greek word heauten, was used 318 times in the New Testament ninety of those times were in The Book of Acts. James used it himself five times; it was a common reflexive pronoun that was often used to express himself, herself, or itself. He speaks in such a way that even we can understand what he means. If you claim to have a faith and it does not produce anything, what kind of faith is that? A dead one. “Action is the proper fruit of living faith. Because life is dynamic and productive, faith that lives will surely produce the fruit of good deeds. Therefore, if no deeds are forthcoming, it is proof that the professed faith is dead. Notice that James does not deny that it is faith. He simply indicates that it is not the right kind of faith. It is not living faith, nor can it save.” (Burdick 1981)
In the next verse he is prepared for those who would bring argument against him, stating that their works are good enough to earn their salvation and he can have his faith. He tells them to give evidence of their faith without their works, and James plans to counter by telling them I will show you my faith through my works. Throughout this whole section of scripture James repeatedly uses the word faith, but what is it. The Greek word for faith is pistis which is used 243 in the New Testament; James uses it more than others, but much less than Paul. The most common translations of the word are faith (238), faithfulness (3), pledge (1), and proof (1). Faith is defined as “Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.” (Dictionary 2010) I believe that many of us including myself can struggle at times with our faith and wanting to allow our good works to be a substitute for it. But we cannot allow this to happen, so we must continue to live out our faith (our belief in Jesus as God), and by doing so we begin to show others our faith through our works. “The implication is that faith cannot be demonstrated apart from action. Faith is an attitude of the inner man, and it can only be seen as it influences the actions of the one who possesses it. Mere profession of faith proves nothing as to its reality; only action can demonstrate faith’s genuineness. Hence James declares, “I will show you my faith by what I do.”” (Burdick 1981) Now we must look at ourselves and figure out exactly which kind of faith do we have,is it one that is alive and producing fruit or one that is dead.
Mere Belief in God
Since James is speaking to Jews he takes them back to the Shema (Deut 6:4) affirimg them saying that they do well beleiving God is one. Then he criticizes them by telling them even demons believe in God and shudder. The word shudder is phrisso, which can be translated, be extermly afraid, or to be horrified. James is the only person in the New Testament to use this word. I love what Charles Spurgeon had to say about this verse he says, “If there be a faith (and there is) which leaves a man just what he was, and permits him to indulge in sin, it is the faith of devils. Perhaps not so good as that, for “the devils believe and tremble.” Whereas these hypocrites profess to believe and yet dare to defy God and seem to have no fear of him whatsoever.” (Spurgeon 2005) James was expressing that having a head knowledge of God was not enough, that unless we have a repentant heart our knowledge was useless. He contrasted his readers with demons, saying that even the demons believed in God and that he was one.
Some people may get the term demons confused with Satan, the Greek word being used here for demon is daimonion which usually means “an evil spirit.” In Matt 8:29 and Acts 16:17 we hear demons confirming the power of God, but still lacking the ability to be saved. ” It seems to me that James is telling his readers that at least the demons believe in God and fear him.His reader on the other hand may have the belief, but they lack the fear of God. John Calvin in his commentary says “The devil trembles, he says at the mention of God’s name, because he acknowledges his own judge, he is filled with the fear of him. He then who despises an acknowledged God is much worse.” (Calvin 2005) James is making sure to use drastic examples all through out his message to assure his points get across clearly. If all we have is baisc head knowledge of God, and do not trust him for salvation then we are no better than the demons.
Examples of Faith from the Old Testament
Verse twenty sets up the rest of the chapter to drive home the point he has been trying to make since verse fourteen.For me personally, I like the way the NASB renderes this verse, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?”  I like how James asked him “...are you willing to recognize…” The Greek word for recognize here is ginosko, it is most commonly translated as know, learn, be familiar with, understand, or acknowledge. This sentence could have possibly been phrased like this, “You foolish man do you not understand that faith without works is dead.” That is my opinion; however this is how his readers may have understood this verse from him.
The ESV, NIV, and the NASB all call the man foolish and works useless (the NIV says deeds instead of works); while the KJV calls him vain and works dead. A question that we need to consider is why he calls this person foolish and what does that mean. Foolish in the Greek is kenos, meaning without anything, foolish, without result, without purpose, vain, or untrue. Therefore James calls the person foolish because any of those definitions would fit someone who is lacking a genuine faith. James finishes this verse by repeating himself for the second time in the passage reminding them that faith without works is dead or useless.
To prove his point with examples that his readers would understand he reaches back into the Old Testament. Since the Jewish faith placed so much value on the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) the first example he provides for them is Abraham. For many of us we may be confused to hear someone called father who is not our biological father, but in Israel the term father would commonly represent a father, grand-father, or some other ancestor. The Greek word used here is pater, and it carries all of the implications that go along with the ancient Jewish concept. The use of the word shows up the most in the Gospels, with John using the word 136 times, while James only uses it four. So having a better understanding of the semantic range allows us to see he is referring to Abraham as his ancestor or forefather.
One of the most difficult things to grapple with in this passage is where James begins to refer to Abraham’s justification. Because many people including myself at first glance will look at this section and start asking themselves isn’t this in clear contradiction of Paul’s teaching on justification. One commentary attempts to clear the air by saying, “Paul, however, was arguing for the priority of faith. James argued for the proof of faith. Paul declared that Abraham had faith, and was therefore justified, or declared righteous (Gen. 15:6), prior to circumcision (Gen. 17:11; cf. Rom. 4:9). James explained that Abraham’s faith was evident in his practice of Isaac’s sacrifice (Gen. 22:12), and he was therefore justified, or declared righteous. Works serve as the barometer of justification, while faith is the basis for justification.” (Walvoord, Zuck and Seminary 1983)
In verse twenty-two James starts to unpack the answer to the question he asked in the previous verse. The NIV says it well, in a way that can easily be understood, “You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.”  Some versions can get rather confusing on the first part of this statement take the NASB for example it says, “You see that faith was working with his works…” The one place I get hung up is where James says his faith was made complete or perfected. When you look into this in the Greek you find it translates was completed from one word, teleioo. The most common meanings for this word were, make perfect; make genuine; complete; succeed fully; initiate; make happen or attain. Even though we now know the semantic range of the word it does not fully explain what James was saying. However, if we take the time to look carefully at the text we are able to see he is connecting this sentence to the previous one about offering Isaac on the altar.
Now in verse twenty-three James says that scripture had been “fulfilled’, what does he mean by this? He makes two references to Genesis in this section (15:6 and 22:1-14), one commentator remarks, “The obedient offering of Isaac in the latter passage “fulfilled” the statement of the former passage. This is not to be understood as the fulfillment of prophecy. Rather it is fulfillment in the sense of completion (cf. v.22). What Abraham did in Genesis 22 was the outworking of the faith described in chapter 15.” (Burdick 1981)
I struggled with (v.24) in particular because I have been taught that we are justified by faith alone, which is made very clear in Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 2:8-9. Wayne Grudem in his book Systematic Theology, says, “Here we must realize that James is using the word justified in different sense from the way Paul uses it. In the beginning of this chapter we noted that the word justify has a range of meanings, and that one significant sense was “declare to be righteous”, but we should note the Greek word dikaioo can also mean “demonstrate or show to be righteous.” (Grudem 1994, 731) So by having a better understanding of what the word justified can actually mean depending upon the context in which it is being used has eased the tension I felt existed between these two passages.
I am amazed at the examples James chose to use to show us examples of faith; one could not be more different than the other. The first is a patriarch of the faith while the other being Rahab is a gentile prostitute. He was again giving us another example of someone’s faith producing works that allowed her to be justified, just as Abraham was willing to offer Isaac on the altar. Calvin had this to say, “He had named the patriarch, by far the most eminent of all; he now includes under the person of a harlot, all those who, being aliens, were joined to the Chruch. Whosoever, then, seeks to be counted righteous, even though he may be among the lowest, must yet shew that he is such by good works.” (Calvin 2005) Calvin confirms that no matter our status in the world to be known as righteous we will have to show ourselves as such by our works.
Then, last but not least, James delivers for the third time his message of faith without works is dead. He does however use a very good analogy that even the densest of readers should be able to understand. He equates the body (faith) and spirit (works), and says that the body without spirit is dead. By this being a Jewish community they believe in the human spirit because they accept the story of creation as true.
So what do we take away from all of this? That if we call ourselves Christians and see someone in need, and do nothing then we are not living out our faith. Our faith should manifest its self in deeds and not only words.
What exactly does it look like to live out our faith? For me it involves loving my neighbor. My family and I aren’t rich, and we don’t make a lot of money. But what we do have we are willing to share. Next door to us is a single mom, she is raising four daughters ranging from 18 – 6. She is doing this while working full time and going to school. This leaves her older daughters to take care of the youngest. The youngest girl has become good friends with my sons, and had confessed to us that her sisters do not provide for her very well. We have taken it upon ourselves that when we can we provide her with a hot meal and spiritual guidance. We try our best to treat this young lady as though she were our own (within our means), we take her to the park on occasion, go swimming, whatever we can to let her enjoy her childhood.
Another way I have been able to show my faith by works has been to trust the Lord to get me into Liberty University and provide the funding I needed. The last time I was in school had been seven years and my grades were not stellar. I was fearful that I would not be able to transfer in very much. The Lord had other plans; out of the 120 credits needed to graduate I transferred in 87. Liberty has a very gracious military program for military, veterans and their spouses, He again allowed me to marry a lovely lady who served in the Coast Guard. All of this to say that by stepping out in faith He has proved himself to me; and has provided for me far beyond my expectations.
Burdick, Donald W. The Expositor's Bible Commentary. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein. Vol. 12. 12 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981.
Calvin, John. Calvin's Commentaries. Vol. 22. 22 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005.
Dictionary, The American Heritage. dictionary.reference.com. july 6, 2010. dictionary.com (accessed 2010).
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.
MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Bible Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2005.
Spurgeon, Charles H. 2,200 Qutations from the Writings of Charles H. Spurgeon. Edited by Tom Carter. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005.
Walvoord, John F, Roy B. Zuck, and Dallas Theological Seminary. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scripture. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983.
Wiersbe, Warren W. The Wiersbe Bible Commentary. Colorado Springs,CO: David C. Cook, 2007.