FAITH WITHOUT WORKS
A man came into my office one day with a soft drink can that he had purchased from the soda machine outside. He had put his money into the machine and had made his selection and was awarded with this can. As he showed it to me, it looked perfectly normal. The writing on the side of the can said that it contained Pepsi. The tab was still in place showing that it was as yet unopened. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the can. But when he handed it to me, I could tell by the weight that there was nothing in it. Instead of the swish of the liquid soft drink, I could feel that it was empty.
An empty soft drink can is no great tragedy, but I’ve often wondered how many folks who claim to be Christians are like that can. They have the right label. They go to church where they sing the hymns and they listen to a sermon. But they are really just empty cans with a colorful label. There is no life in them.
This is the problem with which James deals in this passage. It is the problem of inward emptiness. It is the problem of faith without works.
He began this chapter dealing with the problem of discrimination and partiality within the church service. He pointed out that we who are believers in Christ ought not to hold that faith while committing the sin of discrimination.
He now takes that specific lesson and expands it into a general principle -- that faith ought to produce a visible reaction in the life of the believer.
THE VALUE OF A NON-WORKING FAITH
What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (James 2:14).
A number of years ago, a television commercial for a fast food restaurant featured a little old lady returning to the counter holding her hamburger and asking a penetrating question: “Where’s the beef?” This chapter asks a similar question: “Where’s the works?”
James asks two questions in this verse. They are both rhetorical question. In each case, the answer is obvious.
1. The First Question: What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? (2:14).
The first question deals with the man who claims to have faith, but has no works in his light that accompany the attested faith. It is not that he is insincere in his faith. He might really believe. But there is nothing manifested in his life to show his belief. There has been no change in his life. He continues to have no works in his life -- the Greek text uses the present tense denoting continuous action: What use is it, my brethren, if a man continually says he has faith, but he continually has no works?
The question is asked: “What use is it?” The man was once an unbeliever and he lived his life in sin. He now claims to be a believer and he still lives his life in sin. There has been no change.
The answer to the question is very obvious. His faith is useless. It has produced no effect. This brings us to a second question. Can this kind of faith save a man?
2. The Second Question: Can that faith save him? (2:14).
Of what kind of faith are we speaking? It is the kind of faith that produces no change in the life of the one who believes. The answer to this question is very obvious. This faith cannot save anyone.
As a young Christian, I studied under an evangelist who taught that this question ought to be answered in the affirmative -- that this kind of faith COULD save a man (A. R. Stanford, Handbook of Personal Evangelism, Pages 102-103). This book went on to be used at Dallas Theological Seminary.
But the construction of the Greek text begins with a negative mh, indicating that it expects a NEGATIVE answer. This kind of faith that does not manifest itself in works cannot save anyone.
At this point, I can almost hear the objections begin to voice themselves: “What do you mean by saying that this man’s faith cannot save him! Doesn’t the Bible teach that you are saved through faith and apart from works?” Yes, the Bible is very clear in teaching that the only was a man can be saved is through faith in Jesus Christ.
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, that no one should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9).
This is not merely Pauline theology. This is not Paul teaching one thing while James teaches a contrary doctrine. James himself has already set forth the truth that our salvation does not originate in anything that WE do, but rather in what God Himself does for us.
Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow. 18 In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we might be, as it were, the first fruits among His creatures. (James 1:17-18).
When James describes God as bringing us forth in the exercise of His will, he is describing salvation by grace that is totally apart from human merit.
Don’t miss this! The only way that anyone is ever saved is because God has determined to bestow that salvation as a free gift. That salvation is accompanied by faith. And yet, not all who have faith are saved. James is going to give the example of the demons. They have faith. They believe in the power of God. And yet, they are not saved. Here is the principle. The only faith that brings salvation is the faith that also produces a changed life.
AN EXAMPLE OF NON-WORKING FAITH
If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. (James 2:15-17).
James is a practical book. It is a book about Christianity in action. He quickly moves to a practical example of faith without works. It is seen in the context of a need.
The illustration sees one who is without food or clothing. It is not merely an imagined need, but a real one. The person claiming to have faith is confronted by this situation. His response is to give the needy person a verbal blessing while doing nothing to outwardly help.
James presents this illustration as an obvious fallacy. But it is just as much of a fallacy to think that saving faith can exits without resulting in works.
As an aside, the specific illustration deals with one who is a brother or sister (2:15). Whether you take this as referring to a believer or whether you see this as Jews thinking of other fellow Jews, the point is that these are members of the covenantal family. I mention this, not to say that we should only help believers and ignore the rest of mankind, but rather that we are instructed to take special care of our own.
So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. (Galatians 6:10).
How do you treat those of your own household? You treat them as family. I know that if my brother or sister showed up on my doorstep in need of a hamburger or a sweater, I would not turn him away.
1. A Pious Platitude: One of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled” (2:16).
The phrase “go in peace” was a common Hebrew blessing (Luke 7:50; 8:48). Even today it continues to be a common greeting among the Jews. It sounds so good. But what it really means in this context is, “Go away and leave me in peace.”
2. A Passive Proclamation: One of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?(2:16).
The phrase “be warmed and be filled” can be translated either as a passive or as a middle voice in the Greek.
· As a middle voice, the force of the statement would be reflexive as this person is saying, “Go out and get a job and warm yourself and feed yourself.” This is the professed Christian who thinks that the church has no business in reaching out to the poor or the homeless until they get a job and help themselves.
· As a passive voice, this statement is saying, “Let someone else do this work of warming you and filling you.” This person realizes that someone ought to be helping the needy, but has decided that this is a good job for someone else to do.
It is striking that Jesus Himself used this same illustration to describe what would be the basis of the final judgment.
Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”
Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?”
And the King will answer and say to them, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25:34-40).
This is not a salvation by works. But it is a judgment of works. Your works are described here as the manifestation of your faith. How you treat others is a sign of how you feel about Jesus.
3. A Prohibitive Prognosis: Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself (2:17).
James is not putting down faith. He is saying that real faith must be alive or else it is not real faith. There is a principle here. It is that inward spiritual reality without an outward manifestation is a counterfeit reality. If something is really going on in the inside, then there will be a resulting effect on the outside.
ORTHODOXY VERSUS WORKING FAITH
But someone may well say, “You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? (James 2:18-20).
At this point I feel as though I should pause and make a disclaimer. I am not saying that faith is not important. The Scriptures teach that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). But not all faith is God’s faith.
1. A Comparison with Working Faith: But someone may well say, “You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (2:18).
The problem with faith is that it is invisible. I cannot look at you and see how much faith you have. I can only look at the effects of that faith upon your life. The kind of faith that you have will manifest it in how you live.
There is one kind of faith that results in a changed life. It is a supernatural faith. It is a faith that God Himself brings about in the life of one whom He has chosen. It is the faith that results when God draws a man to Himself. It is the faith that comes about when God enlightens the heart of a man who has formerly lived in darkness. It is the faith of one who has been born again.
But there is also another kind of faith. This second type of faith is that which brings about no change in the life of the one who has it. We have all known people who have this second type of faith. They proclaim, “I believe that God exists.” They might even know about the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross for sins. This is the kind of faith that the demons have.
2. A Comparison with Demonic Faith: You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder (2:19).
James began his epistle by addressing it to the twelve tribes of the Diaspora (James 1:1). He is speaking specifically to believing Jews. What is the cardinal doctrine of Judaism? It is that there is one God. Every Jew was familiar with the Shema, the truth that God is one.
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! (Deuteronomy 6:4).
There is nothing wrong with believing this. In fact, I do not think that you can be a Christian without believing this. But merely believing that God exists and that He is One is not enough to save you.
Even Satan and his demons believe that God exists. They believe that Jesus died and paid for sins and that He arose again from the dead. What is the difference between their faith and the faith of a child of God? It is that there is no life in them. They believe certain facts, but there has never been a faith that leads to repentance and obedience.
There is a lesson here. It is that orthodoxy is no substitute for a faith that works. But that is not all. James does not merely tell us that the demons believe. He also tells us that they shudder. The Greek term here is frissousin, the third person plural of frissw. This is the only time that this word is used in the New Testament. But it is used three times in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Job 4:15; Jeremiah 2:12; Daniel 7:15). Each time it is used to describe an EMOTIONAL response.
Do you see the point? Even an emotional response to the gospel is not enough to save you. It does not matter that you had a great feeling or shouted or kicked your heels or walked down an aisle or spoke in tongues. None of those things will save you because demons are able to do all of those things and they are still not saved because faith without works is useless (2:20).
EXAMPLES OF WORKING FAITH
Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.
And in the same way was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works, when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:21-26).
James has already given illustrations of non-working faith. It was seen in the examples of the one who says, “Be warmed and filled.” And it was seen in the example of the demons. Now James moves to examples of working faith. He does that by focusing upon two Old Testament heroes. These two people could not be more different.
Considered to be the father of the Jews
A Canaanite from Jericho
A holy man
He was prepared to sacrifice his only son
She risked her life by protecting Israelite spies
You could not find two people who were more different. And yet, they both exhibited a faith that worked.
1. Abraham our Father.
Abraham was the father of the Jewish nation. As such, he was the physical ancestor of those to whom James is addressing in this epistle. But that is not all. There is a sense in which he is the spiritual father of all who believe. He is my spiritual father and yours.
James tells us that Abraham was justified by works. When did this happen? It happened when he obeyed the commandment of the Lord to sacrifice his only son upon an altar.
James assumes that his readers are familiar with the story. It is told in Genesis 22. God comes to Abraham and instructs him to take his son to a far-away mountain and put him to death. Abraham does not question or debate. He simply obeys. He takes his son to the mountain. They climb to the top. They build an altar, Abraham ties his son and places him upon the altar and is about to cut his throat when the Lord stops him and orders him to release his son and sacrifice a ram in the place of his son.
Abraham’s obedience was a fulfillment of the Scriptures that “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (2:23). This is a direct quotation from Genesis 15:6.
Now I want you to notice something. The belief of Abraham of which James speaks took place at least 25 years before the incident of the sacrifice. Abraham had believed the promise of God. That belief was manifested in an act of complete obedience 25 years later. That act of obedience perfected (the Greek would could be translated “completed”) that faith that had begun so many years before. This means that there were two different points of justification in the life of Abraham.
Abraham’s First Justification
Abraham’s Second Justification
Took place when Abraham was about 86 years old.
Took place when Abraham was over 110 years old.
Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness
Was not our Father Abraham justified by works when he offered up Isaac on the altar?
Abraham was justified before God.
Abraham’s justification was completed.
It is true that Abraham was declared to be righteous by God through his faith. But it is also true that his faith was manifested in his obedience and he was seen by all to be righteous in that perfect obedience.
2. Rahab the Harlot.
The second illustration that James uses is of a pagan prostitute named Rahab. Her story is found in Joshua 2. When Joshua was about to invade the land of Canaan, he sent out two spies. They came to Jericho and found their way into the house of Rahab, located on the wall of the city.
When the king of Jericho heard that Israelites had entered his city, he put out an APB on them and ordered their immediate arrest. When they came to search the house of Rahab, she lied and told the searchers that the two men had already left the city. When the searchers had gone, she went to the two spies whom she had helped and explained her reasons for helping.
Now before they lay down, she came up to them on the roof, 9 and said to the men, “I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have melted away before you. 10 For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. 11 And when we heard it, our hearts melted and no courage remained in any man any longer because of you; for THE LORD YOUR GOD, HE IS GOD in heaven above and on earth beneath. (Joshua 2:8-11).
Everyone in Jericho had heard the news of what God had done and had become afraid. But the fear of this one woman turned to faith. It caused her to seek the Lord. And her faith was put into action in hiding and protecting these spies. How do I know that Rahab believed? It is because her actions bear testimony to her belief.
That is not the end of Rahab’s story. She did not remain a prostitute. Instead she went on to marry Salmon, a Jew from the tribe of Judah. One of her descendants was Boaz, the grandfather of David. If you look at the genealogy of Jesus, you will see the name of a former Canaanite prostitute included.
I don’t know about you, but I’m glad that James included Rahab in his illustration. He is teaching us something. He is telling us that God does not only use stained-glass saints. He uses wretched and vile sinners. He can use me. And He can use you.
3. Illustration of a Corpse: For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead (2:26).
This last illustration is of a corpse. The element that makes it a corpse is the absence of a living spirit within. In the same way, faith that is not accompanied by corresponding works is dead.
How do you make it alive? Do you go out and start doing a lot of works and hope that life will come? No. That would be like digging up a corpse in a graveyard and giving him a job at the grocery store in hopes that would bring him back to life.
There is only One who can raise the dead. There is only One who can bring spiritual life. You go to Him. And He will give you life.