James 2. 14-26

This passage appears to contradict Paul’s teaching on faith and works. The latter states that one is justified only by faith and not by the works of the law, whilst James claims that justification is by works and not only by faith, 2. 24. When one analyses this more carefully, the problem really is in the form and not in the content, and, as with all apparent contradictions in Scripture, it illustrates the Biblical mixture of great variety with perfect unity. Thus, before going into this section in more detail, let us clear up this difficulty.

1. The Enigma of Faith

Firstly, we must define faith.

  1. Definition: Here we may borrow the words of another. “It has been well remarked that ‘faith in man is the complement of grace in God’. God’s approach to man is ‘in grace’ and man’s response to God is ‘by faith’. God in grace has been pleased to give a man a revelation of Himself and the only adequate response man can offer is confident trust. Our Lord indicated this when He praised the faith of childhood. Faith is ‘the instrument’ by which the Divine Revelation and all the blessing inherent in Him are grasped” (T. C. Hammond: In Understanding be Men, page 18).
  2. Differentiation: James states that faith without works is dead; Paul states that by faith alone can one be saved. What James refers to is an intellectual faith which lacks any practical outworking, and he cites believing demons as an example, v. 19. Paul, however, deals with an attitude of a whole person by which one’s life is completely committed to Christ; so that the faith that James condemns is not the faith that Paul commends. Galatians 5. 6 solves the problem, “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love”. Here we see that the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” 5. 14. Paul is just as strict as James against a faith that allows men to continue in sin. He mentions the faith that receives the Spirit, who provides the ability to live godly.

Again, the works which James commends are not synonymous with the works which Paul condemns. Paul writes about “works of the law”, i.e., works which seek salvation by fulfilling the law by human means. James does not refer to these works, but deals with works that emanate from faith, and that are the expression of faith. Paul demands these in his Epistles, and they are dependent on divine power.

2. The Elevation of Faith, vv. 14-17, “What doth it profit?”

As mercy has been shown to be an obvious result of love, so James now illustrates the point that, where practical love is not present, there is an undeniable proof that true faith is absent; cf. Gal. 5. 6 above. To make this clear, for fear anyone should attempt to seperate faith and love, he asks two rhetorical questions, the implied reply to both being “Most certainly not”. Note the wording of verse 14, “though a man say he hath faith”. “Faith” which is verbal and not practical is likened to an empty shell of religion, vv. 17, 26. The rendering “can faith save him?”, v. 14, is misleading and fails to bring out the force of the Greek definite article: we should use the r.v, “can faith save him?”.

In verses 15-16 he provides a hypothetical case, in which the sufferers are told to do what they cannot at all achieve. They may be male or female, here called “brother” or “sister”, for all believers are part of the family of God. “Naked” means ill-clad. In the phrase “notwithstanding ye give”, there is a change from the singular, “one of you” to the plural “ye”, for James puts the responsibility of practising the truth taught in these verses on all his readers, even if only one of them might raise the issue now discussed.

3. The Expression of Faith, v. 18 “Show me”

The difficulty in this verse is due to the absence of punctuation— the problems are outlined as follows:

  1. Who is meant by “a man may say”? Is it a supporter or enemy of James? Or is it the author himself?
  2. How much does he say in verse 18?
  3. Who are implied by the words, “Thou hast faith, and I have works”?

If it is a friend representing James, then the rest of the statement should probably be regarded as a quotation aimed at the man who is rebuked in the earlier verses; the meaning could then be paraphrased, “We shall be inclined to say to him, ‘Thou hast faith, but I have deeds to show. Show me this faith of thine without any deeds to prove it, and I am prepared, by my deeds, to prove my own faith’”. Yet, why use the words “Yea, a man may say”, for they seem to be those of an objection? Furthermore, the impression could be given that James admits this person has faith, thereby denying what he, the author, has been stating previously.

We should take it, then, that it is an enemy who is speaking, and that what he is saying is, “Thou hast faith, and I have works”, claiming that some have the gift of faith and others of good works. So the sentence, “Show me thy faith without (or “apart from”, R.V.) thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works”, is James’ reply to him. He is, therefore, again demanding evidence of that faith.

4. The Examination of Faith, v. 19

James now deals once more with the professor of faith, and he distinguishes between the intellect of the head and faith of the heart. Demons had the former, and it produced only fear, as can be seen when Christ met the demoniac, “What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? art thou come hither to torment us before the time?”, Matt. 8. 29. We, however, are to “come boldly unto the throne of grace”, Heb. 4. 16.

5. The Estimation of Faith, v. 20

The phrase “wilt thou know?” begins a new section. James is going to bring out the Biblical evidence for the statement that “faith without works is dead”, or, barren. It is ineffective and so, in keeping with the argument, “unproductive of salvation”. The faith that James has been talking about may be tabulated in the following way:

  1. Sphere, v. 5
  2. Spurious, v. 14; cf. v. 26
  3. Saves, v. 14
  4. Shown, vv. 13, 18
  5. Substantial, v. 19f
  6. Sacrificial, v. 2 If

6. Examples of Faith, vv. 21-26

In Abraham’s case, justification means a consideration that one is right. It is primarily and gratuitously by faith, consequently and evidentially by works. The difference between Paul and James may be presented thus:

  1. Position: Paul concentrates on Abraham’s attitude towards God, his acceptance of the divine word. Only God was aware of this. The Epistle to the Romans is occupied with the effect of this Godward attitude, not upon Abraham’s character or actions, but upon the contrast between faith and the lack of it, viz., unbelief. Compare Romans 11. 20, “Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not high-minded, but fear”. James mentions the contrast between faith that is true and faith that is false, James 2. 21-26.
  2. Periods: Paul refers to Genesis 15, but James has Genesis 22 in mind; the former has Isaac’s birth and its consequences in view, but the latter accentuates the event of Isaac’s “death” and the sequel. Contrast the words “believed” in Genesis 15. 6 and “obeyed” in Genesis 22. 18.
  3. Principles: The two men use “faith” and “works” in different ways. With Paul faith is the acceptance of God’s Word. With James it is the acceptance of the truth of particular doctrines about God, v. 19, the acceptance not necessarily influencing one’s behaviour. Faith, as taught by Paul, leads to acceptance with God, i.e., justification, and must declare itself. If not, James says, “can that faith save him?”, v. 14 R.V. Paul asserts, works are dead works; James affirms they are life works. Paul writes of works which could be independent of faith; those that James speaks of can be achieved only where faith is actual, and they will prove its reality.
  4. Persons: Paul deals with a right relationship with God, James with right conduct. Paul indicates that the ungodly can be justified by faith, James, that only the right-doer is justified.

This justification is

  1. Personal—“reckoned to him”, Rom. 4. 3 J.N.D.
  2. Prototype—Rom. 4. 11, etc., where Abraham’s fatherhood is seen.
  3. Prophetic—for it foreshadowed future believers, Rom. 4, 11; Gal. 3. 6f.
  4. Practical—James 2. 2If.

Romans 4 brings out Abraham as out father, whereas James 2 refers to him as God’s friend. Jehoshaphat, 2 Chron. 20. 7 and James, v. 23, use this latter term, but, most important of all, God Himself does, Isa. 41. 8. Indeed, we are Christ’s friends, John 15. 15, the reason being that God desires fellowship with us as He did with Adam in the beginning, unworthy as we are. To us now righteousness is “imputed”; during the millennium it shall “reign”; and in the eternal state it shall “dwell”.

In Rahab’s case, so as to indicate that the above teachings have a general application, James refers to one who is a Gentile, a woman and a prostitute. With Rahab he uses an example from the lower section of society, for the statement “also was not Rahab the harlot?” should probably be rendered “Was not even the harlot Rahab?”. Hebrews 11. 31 alludes to her treatment of the spies as an illustration of her faith and the consequences, “perished not”, when Jericho fell. James does not mention her faith, but assumes that his readers know of the incident when she confessed the sovereignty of Israel’s God and how this faith caused a response to further His purposes. Instead of “when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way”, we should read “in that she received….and sent them” R.V., the Greek aorist participle having the same force as in verse 21.

In conclusion, we see that spurious faith is likened to a corpse; indeed, James could hardly have put this over by a stronger or more conclusive simile. Thus, good works do not make a person a Christian, but a Christian is expected to do good works.


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