Many people have said something to this effect when they come to James 2:14-26, “This paragraph is the most theologically significant, as well as the most controversial, in the letter of James.” In fact this is one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament. Interpreting the section and then teaching it is a sizeable and significant task.
One of the major issues is the relationship of James' teaching with that of the Apostle Paul. Many ask whether they contradict each other or if there is any way to harmonize the two. I have decided to show you Paul’s teaching with an explanation then James teaching with an explanation with the hopes that I can demonstrate that Paul and James were writing against different problems to different audiences in different settings and therefore are not contradicting one another. Finally, I will try to be sum up some things from James 2 as simple as possible so that I can be as clear as possible.
Point 1: Apostle Paul
Text: Romans 3:27-4:5
A. Problem: Legalism
People are saved by doing certain things and abstaining from other things.
Works = Justification, Righteousness, Salvation
B. Audience: Predominately Gentile Christians
C. Setting: Churches All Over the Roman Empire
Now let’s turn our attention to what James teaches.
Point 2: Elder James
READ Scripture- This is the Word of God
A. Problem: Torah Minimalists
People are saved by only believing. Doing the least amount required.
Intellectual Faith = Justification, Righteousness, Salvation
B. Audience: Predominately Jewish Christians
C. Setting: Jewish Christians Meeting in Synagogues Outside Palestine
And so we now see that James and Paul are not standing face to face in a confrontation but they're standing back to back fighting two common enemies. Paul is fighting those people who want salvation to be by works. James is fighting those people who want a salvation that doesn't demand anything.
Point 3: Main ContextThere are three ways in this passage that James talks about faith to show that the faith he says cannot justify is a faith that Paul would agree cannot justify- dead faith (v17), devil faith (v19), and useless faith (v20 alternate trans).
James has already taught in 1:22, “Be doers of the Word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” There are two types of faith that James is dealing with:
1. Intellectual Agreement that simply believes the facts and history- Dead
2. Intellectual Agreement that becomes Spiritual Reality- Saving
Valid, saving faith has always been verified by fruit. And a false, dead faith is indicated by the absence of righteous actions. Many examples could be given, but let me just quote a few:
1. Hebrews 12:14 “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord”
2. John 8:30-31 “As He spoke these words, many believed in Him. Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.”
3. John 2:23-25 “Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.”
4. Paul says the same as what James says here when he states in Ephesians 2, “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. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
Both agree that there is a faith that does not save.
James gives two examples of Faith/Action people from the OT- Abraham and Rahab. These two are an interesting combination. One is a patriarch, the other is a prostitute, but both are people who believed and went to action. Both were hospitable.
Salvation < Faith < Works
Faith is the buffer between works and salvation. Works can never directly ensure salvation, but they can add to a believers faith. Faith is what saves a person. If your faith fades away, if your faith died, then salvation will be forfeited. So the question is- Do you only believe the facts or is your faith a spiritual reality?
As we begin to conclude, let me bring all of this home in simple terms.
Some of you may have friends that have urged you and urged you to come to church. Others of you have had your parents and grandparents urge you and urge you to be here. Why do they do that? Is it because being in this building will save you? Just because you go to a church building every week and put on your Sunday clothes, does that save you? Of course not, but they know that there is something special that happens when we meet together. The Word of God is proclaimed and you all know that faith comes by hearing. The Spirit of God moves in the hearts of His people so that we are renewed and transformed. These are the things that will save you.
Why do Christian parents teach their kids to come to church each week? So that they may learn commitment. Why do they teach their kids to dress in their best when they come? So that they may learn reverence. Why do they teach their kids to give of their resources? So that they may learn that God supplies needs. Why do they have their children attend classes? So that they may learn that the Word of God is living and powerful. These things will not save a person, but they go a long way to cultivating faith in Christ. You see, these things are beneficial to our faith, not harmful. These are the natural out-workings of a Christian.
When God instructs us that these things are what flow from the heart of a believer then I believe it. James tells us that saving faith will produce certain works. Therefore we know that the one who simply says, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled” to a cold and hungry person cannot be a true believer. They may say that they believe, but God has not worked in their hearts. The Spirit is not active in them. The Word has not transformed their mind. The type of faith that saves a person is active because the Holy Spirit is at work. Faith without efforts of compassion is foolish, useless, demonic, dead...
Jesus said your belief is not sufficient unless it involves a new birth, a transformation which leads to a life of obedience. He told Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” Saving faith includes a new birth and James does teach this in 1:18, “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.” And then there is the tendency to want glory for ourselves, but the truth is that even when we do “good works” it is because God has renewed us and continues to work in us. All of the glory goes to Him.
God desires a merciful attitude and acts of kindness. We are free in Christ from the works of the Law which cannot save, thus our freedom is a license to help our brethren so that others may be encouraged and so that needs may be met. And maybe, just maybe, an outsider may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.