One of the most fantastic lies Satan has convinced religious people of is the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. The belief is summed in this phrase: “Our justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed in the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone” (found here). No doubt justification is by faith (Galatians 3.24); just as Abraham was justified by faith so too are we. But justification is by works also (James 2.24); even as Abraham was justified by works so too are we (cf. James 2.21). “Justification…through faith alone” is simply not Biblical. In fact, the only time the phrase “faith alone” is found in Scripture is in James who says that “a person is justified…not by faith alone” (2.24).
Chapter two is dealing with “faith” and holding or having (the) faith (v.1, 14). In fact, while not entirely evident in English, in the original language, James will use the same verb (Gk echo, to have, hold) when presenting the imperative command (v.1) and now in touching on what the obligations of faith are he uses it again (v.14). James’ teaching concerning faith is straightforward: it must be coupled with works. “Faith by itself, it if does not have works, is dead” (v.17). Shocking! No doubt the first century readers would be scandalized by this announcement. Indeed, some (many?) today are likewise incredulous over this. Nevertheless, James is explicit – faith must work or be active.
James 2.14-26 (ESV)
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.
The central theme of this section is that holding the faith includes works. To use the language of James, he argues that faith cannot be separated from works. Faith without works is dead faith which is really no faith at all. Once more the shepherd heart of James is on display as he writes to exhort his “brothers.” James begins this section with rhetorical questions: What good is it or is there any advantage to claiming to have or hold the faith but not have works? Can this kind of faith save a person? In other words, can profession without practice save someone? The answer anticipated by James is “no, it cannot.”
James writes to correct his brethren who have swung from one extreme in Judaism to another extreme in Christ. Adam Clarke puts it this way: “As the Jews in general were very strenuous in maintaining the necessity of good works or righteousness in order to justification, wholly neglecting the doctrine of faith, it is not to be wondered at that those who were converted, and saw the absolute necessity of faith in order to their justification, should have gone into the contrary extreme” (emphasis original). As he has been doing so now James does once more to exhort his brethren to not only be hearers of the word but to put that word into practice (cf. James 1.22, 25) and thereby “hold the faith” (2.1). Now James will illustrate this principle several ways for his brethren.
Practical Illustration (v.15-17)
Perhaps indicting his brethren of behavior known to happen when they meet in the synagogue (see v.2), James begins with an illustration from life and practice. The “hypothetical” is of a brother or sister (that is, a fellow Christian) who is clothed scantily (lit. naked) and is on a regular day-to-day basis lacking in nourishment. The example may not be as extreme as it may seem. The early church was composed of many poor people, especially the church in Jerusalem (see Romans 15.26). James is probably pulling from everyday experience for these Christians. It is fitting that in this context of “mercy triumphs over judgment” James would insert this example of showing mercy to the brothers.
Here is a destitute Christian brother or sister. What seems to have been the typical response of those to whom James writes? Merely a word from one brother to another: “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” (v.16). Three imperatives are given which meet none of the needs. “Go in peace” is a common Jewish farewell which Jesus used after healing (Mark 5.34) and forgiving (Luke 7.50). No doubt James readers would make the connection. However, this farewell without meeting the needs of a brother or sister is meaningless. Rather, the imperatives to “warm yourselves and fill yourselves” are given. No food, no clothing; nothing needful for the body. James asks, “What good is that?” It is once again rhetorical – it is no good!
From this example James reasons to the same principle he began this section with: faith without works is dead. A faith that talks but is void of action is of no value or benefit to 1) God, 2) those in need, and 3) the one possessing it.
Theological Argument (v.18-19)
Apparently James anticipates objections to his previous illustration. “Someone” among the recipients might challenge James on this point. This could be a false teacher among the readers. Some scholars say that early antinomian (anti-law) roots might be in place in the church when James is writing. There are some who say James is merely presenting two parties – one who has faith (without works) and another who has works (from faith). Still others say that James is pitting himself against the one who assures “faith only” proponents they are just fine.
It seems best to understand this passage as a strong objection to James’ conclusion (v.17) that faith without works is dead (“But” in the Greek is alla which is stronger than just de). He seems to be lined up with the fellow of verse 16 who has words but no deeds for the destitute brother. This person is “one of you” or from among the church to which James is writing. It is this person (“You”) who is claiming to have faith in light of James’ (“I”) works. We might rework this verse to read: “But some (among you) will say (that) you have faith and I have works.”
James’ reply is swift and cutting (as many of the statements in James are). “Show me your faith without works and I will show you from my works of the faith.” It is interesting that there almost seems to be a contrast between the faith this person claims to possess and “the faith” which James has and charges his brethren to hold to as well. “The faith” will be accompanied by action; the faith of the opponents will be workless.
This kind of faith which talks but does not act may even confess belief in God. Every good Jew would be familiar with the Shema (Deut 6.4) – YHWH is one. James seems to be alluding to this passage with which his Jewish brethren would have been familiar. This person may believe in Jesus, the virgin birth, the inspiration of the Bible, heaven, hell, the final coming of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the church of Christ. All of these doctrines are important and one does well to believe them. That’s what is so dangerous about this faith void of action: it is almost true faith. But in the end, no matter how many doctrines one may affirm and assent to, faith without works is demonic faith. “Even the demons believe – and shudder!” They’re extremely afraid. So terrified that their hair stands on end! Assent to truth is not enough; faith must be coupled with action.
Scriptural Argument (v.20-25)
James now turns his reader’s attention to two Scriptural examples to further and finally deliver his point concerning holding the faith. There almost seems to be a sense in which James is carrying on his conversation with his opponent begun in verse 16. He refers to the empty-headed man (“O foolish person,” ESV; “O ignoramus,” NAB). This man is empty because his argument is empty. James asks yet another rhetorical question of him: And do you wish to know that the faith without works is useless (esp. in regards to salvation)? The answer should be “yes”; a “no” would condemn them. James once more puts on display his heart in beseeching his brethren to put aside their unwilling hearts and put on works from faith.
First Example (21-24): James begins with Abraham, the “father” of the faithful. Once more, as is now common in James’ style, he asks a rhetorical question: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” (ESV) The reply would of necessity be “yes, Abraham was justified by works in this action.” This account from Genesis 22 shows how faith “works together with” works in order to add what is yet lacking in order to render a thing complete (v.22). What is fascinating is that James views Genesis 15.6, which he quotes in verse 23, as somewhat prophetic for he says “the Scripture was fulfilled.” Only when Abraham lays his son on the altar and considers him as good as dead (cf. Heb 11.19) is faith “completed” or “made perfect” (ASV) by his works. So James answers his brethren who had totally internalized faith with no outward manifestation of that faith by essentially asking, “Where’s your sacrifice?”
The language used by James about justification should be noted. Abraham was “justified” by works and righteousness was “counted” to him. Both of these are passive voice verbs. That is, Abraham is being acted upon from without, i.e. by God. While Abraham did works in obedience to God, it is God who does the justifying and the counting. Even the completion of faith is a passive voice verb – while Abraham has faith and puts that faith into action, God does the completing or perfecting of that faith. This seems to be expressed in God’s words to Abraham: “now I know that you fear God” (Gen 22.12). Through the test of Abraham, God made his faith complete.
From this first and brilliant example James concludes, “You see that a man is being justified from works and not from faith only” (v.24). Abraham had been declared righteous in Genesis 15, before he had a son. As a righteous man, he maintained his justified standing by obedience to God in offering up Isaac in Genesis 22. By his obedience to God, Abraham was styled a friend of God, a moniker which remained with him throughout Scripture (2 Chron 20.7; Psa 25.14; Isa 41.8). So James, speaking to his Christian brethren, explains that while they may have been declared righteous at the baptistery, saved people manifest their faith and continue to be justified by God by maintained obedience. If Christians would be friends and remain friends of God (like Abraham), then faith must manifest itself in actions, namely obedience to the word of God.
Second Example (25): As if Abraham’s example was not enough, James turns his readers’ attention to a more unseemly example – Rahab the prostitute. Like Abraham, she was justified by God when she sent the messengers from Israel by another way. Literally, she hurled them out by a different way they came, i.e. they came in the door but had to leave through the window. It is interesting to note that she never lost the title of “prostitute,” even though she was justified. Also, according to Jewish Midrash, Rahab married Joshua and became an ancestor to Jeremiah and Ezekiel. That may be just tradition, but we do know she finds her way into the lineage of Christ (Matt 1.5).
Why Rahab? James has been and will continue to deal with the rich and poor, the elites and the emarginated. This seems to be yet another example of this. If they missed the point in Abraham, they would get it with Rahab. Indeed, the contrast is striking. “Abraham was a Jew, and the father of the chosen nation; Rahab was a heathen woman. Abraham had for many years received a special training in the school of faith; Rahab had enjoyed no training at all. Abraham was a good and pure man; Rahab had lived a loose and sensual life. Yet this degraded Canaanite obtained ‘like precious faith’ with the illustrious patriarch” (Pulpit Commentary 39). She’s part of the faithful. So too those who align themselves with God whoever they may be and whatever their background can likewise find justification from God.
The conclusion of the whole matter is found in the final verse of chapter 2: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (NASB). This is the point James has been making throughout this epistle thus far. He has exhorted his brethren to be doers of the word (1.22). He has spoken about pure Christian religion (1.27). He has exhorted them concerning holding the faith (2.1), especially in terms of how we treat one another (2.2-7). To love one’s neighbor is a call to put faith into practice (2.8). And now showing mercy to brethren (2.15-16) is used to further drive this point home. To allow faith to expire by not doing the works of God is just like a dead body. There is no life in that faith. But a living faith will be active in actions which promote the will of God.
This is a problem which apparently has plagued the church since the beginning. Toward the end of the first century, the church in Sardis was guilty of failing to couple faith with works. Jesus told them, “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God” (Rev 3.2, ESV). Church growth experts and statisticians bemoan the fact that the church today is dying. The prescription for the dying church of today is found in the words of James and Jesus. Wake up! And do the justifying works of the kingdom of God!