Epistle of James: Righteous Works
James 2:14-26; Ephesians 2:8-10; Matthew 7:21-23
“What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 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? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 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. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 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. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 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? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”
James 2:14-26 NASB1995
We now reach a section of James that is the subject of many scholarly studies and interpretations because it can seem, at first glance, to be quite controversial and also contradictory to other Biblical statements. Is James saying that faith alone is not enough to save us? Is he saying that we also need works for our justification? Doesn’t this contradict what Paul said in Ephesians 2:8-9?
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Ephesians 2:8-9 NASB1995
Paul is saying unequivocally that we have been saved by grace through faith. Our good behavior and works do not save us. No one is good enough to make it on their own. This is where Martin Luther initially had real problems with the Epistle of James and called it “straw”. I think we can all agree on that point from Paul. James also agrees with Paul, however (all good and perfect gifts come from God, including His grace) and is talking about having a genuine saving faith. Believing and accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior should have a transforming effect on us. People can claim to believe in Jesus as their savior and then change nothing in their lives, continuing to love their sins and behaving badly and hoarding every dime and yelling at homeless people. Even the demons believe that God exists. Jesus warned us about this false faith in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’
Matthew 7:21-23 NASB1995
Let’s go back to Ephesians and see what Paul says in the very next verse to the ones noted above (Ephesians 10:
“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”
Ephesians 2:10 NASB1995
There is no contradiction that I can see now. Our justification first comes through faith in God’s saving grace. If our faith is genuine and not an emotional reaction, then we are transformed by the Holy Spirit and move into the will of the Father and His good works come naturally as we are sanctified.
I admit that I have struggled with this in the past and even now to some degree, which means my stubborn, independent mind sometimes fights back against the Holy Spirit. I’m kind of a “leave me alone” person and want to enjoy life and not be bothered; I also don’t move around really well due to joint damage that occurred in the past (Rheumatoid Arthritis). But God puts before us the opportunities to do good in so many ways and it is up to us to feed and clothe the person in front of us, not just wish them well. You might be called to sponsor children who are in poverty or help with a food bank or write devotionals (ha! I like that one). You might be called to travel to other countries and help with emerging churches. You may be called to give financially above and beyond a minimal “tithe”. The point that James is making is that, with our faith, we follow God’s will without question, like the historical examples of Abraham and Rahab.
David Guzik from Enduring Word commentary has an excellent list of what it means to having genuine, living faith:
Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead: This is the first time James speaks of a dead faith. Faith alone saves us, but it must be a living faith. We can tell if faith is alive by seeing if it is accompanied by works, and if it does not have works, it is dead.
-A living faith is simply real faith. If we really believe something we will follow through and act upon it. If we really put our trust and faith on Jesus, we will care for the naked and destitute as He told us to do.
- What are some marks of saving faith?
· It is faith that looks not to self, but to Jesus Christ.
· It is faith that agrees with God’s word, both inwardly and with words.
· It is faith that in itself is not a work that deserves reward from God; in this sense it is simply refusing to think God is a liar, and that in itself is not a good work, simply the absence of a sinful work.
· It is faith grounded in what Jesus did on the cross and by the empty tomb.
· It is faith that will naturally be expressed in repentance and good works.
· It is faith that may sometimes doubt; yet the doubts are not bigger than the faith nor are they more permanent than the faith. This faith can say, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.”
· It is faith that wants others to come to the same faith.
· It is faith that says more than “Lord, Lord” as in Matthew 7:21-23.
· It is faith that not only hears the word of God but does it, as in Matthew 7:24-27.
My next devotional will examine James 3:1-12 The Tongue is a Fire
Heaven on Wheels Daily Prayer: Heavenly Father, guide me into a genuine faith that is alive, full of repentance and doing your will through good works that You have prepared for us. I ask this in Jesus name. Amen.
Scripture quotations taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved. www.lockman.org
Biblical commentary by David Guzik on Enduring Word is used with written permission.