The theme of chapter three is that of faith. James began by speaking about being rich in faith, as opposed to being poor in faith. Ironically, he says the poor man is rich in faith, and the rich are poor in faith. But it was evident that James was speaking of a kind of faith that produces love. Love being the evidence of faith. And love that is partial to certain people or shows favoritism is not the love which we are to have as Christians. But we are to love like Christ loved us, which means that our faith has changed our natural inclinations to become like Christ.
James then indicated that faith in Christ changes us so that we desire to keep the royal law, which is to love your neighbor as yourself. So we understand that when James speaks of faith, he is not speaking of just a theological principle, but he speaks of a practical outcome of our faith. Rich faith, which is true faith, is life changing, in that it produces a new nature that produces works that are like Christ – such as by showing mercy.
In this second half of this chapter, James goes on to further develop the principle of faith, by saying that real faith doesn’t stop at just an intellectual assent, but real faith is living, that is active, and working. If faith doesn’t produce love, then James says that it is not living faith at all, but dead faith. Perhaps it can be illustrated in the analogy of a tree, that faith is the root and the trunk of the tree, and love is the branches. The life of the tree requires both root and branches, they cannot be separated. For it to be living, fruitful, it requires both.
So James begins this teaching by asking a question, using a style of teaching similar to Jesus which helps to engage the hearer in his reasoning. He says in vs14, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” The way the question is posed gives us a clue to it’s answer. The answer is no, faith without works is not saving faith, it’s not living faith, any more than a tree that doesn’t produce fruit is a good tree.
Notice something though in the way James frames this question. He says the one who says, or claims to have faith. James doesn’t say that he has faith but no works. He says the man claims to have faith but no works. That is a huge distinction. The man claims to have faith, but there is no evidence of it in his life. Now if a man actually had real faith, James indicates that he would have works. Real faith, saving faith produces works as certainly as a good tree, a living tree, produces fruit.
But notice what James is not saying. He is not saying that good works produce faith, but that real faith produces works. Again, there is a big difference. James is indicating in his question that this man does not have saving faith, because there are no works to prove it. So what good is his confession, or his intellectual assent? Can that type of faith which is only an intellectual assent to the truth, can that faith save him. And the answer is no, he isn’t actually saved, even though he believes, or claims to believe.
To lay elaborate on that possibility, James gives a hypothetical situation, similar to what he began with in vs 1, a hypothetical situation which is set in the church, where we should be known for our Christian love. He says in vs 15, “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?”
The illustration is set in the context of the church. Presumably the church is made up of those who are of the faith. In the previous illustration at the beginning of the chapter, we see the possibility in the church of showing favoritism and not true Christian love, depending on the social standing or wealth of someone. Now in this illustration, we see the example of not necessarily favoritism, but rather neglect, or uncaring disregard for another brother or sister in the church.
The picture James presents is of a desperate person who is without proper clothing or food, basic necessities for life. And the person who sees them offers them nothing but words, but does not provide anything of substance to supply their need. Again, James asks the question, “what good is that?” What use are empty words without providing any help?
Perhaps in the response of the church member to the needy person there is a hint of the old adage, “God helps those who help themselves.” Have you ever heard that expression? I think we often use such logic to get off the hook in feeling some obligation to help someone. But is that the way God responds to our needs? No, God doesn’t tell us we need to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. But rather, God is merciful, and helps those who cannot help themselves. Paul says in Romans 5:6 “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” God shows mercy on those who cannot help themselves, and as those who have received mercy, we should also show mercy on those in need.
So the question is, what use is it to say you have faith, but ignore the need of a brother? The answer James gives in vs 17, “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, [being] by itself.” Dead faith is no help at all. And James says that faith without works is dead. James contrasts living, working, active faith, with faith that is dead, lifeless, and fruitless. Notice, he says if faith is by itself, it’s useless, it’s dead. Faith and action must go together. Even more to the point, faith that is void of works is not real faith at all. It is dead. Our faith in Christ made that which was dead come to life, and life produces action, it produces works.
James is really somewhat like a good lawyer, that has built his case, has asked various questions to illustrate his case, and now he calls someone as a witness for cross examination. Vs.18, “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.”
Now there is some interpretative confusion about this verse, because the translators can’t seem to figure out when the quotation begins or ends. There is no punctuation in the original Greek. But I think the best interpretation is to see that this witness is claiming “You have faith and I have works.” And then the response of James is “Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
The point is that both faith and works are necessary. This imaginary witness wants to make an either or situation out of faith or works. Heb 11:1 says about faith, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And James says you cannot see faith but you can see the evidence of it. We can’t “see” someone’s faith, but we can see their works. You can’t see faith without works, but the evidence of their faith is visible in their works.
We hear in this teaching of James the echo of Christ’s statement concerning the fig tree that had no fruit. He said a tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. It is good for nothing. So those who claim to have faith but no works will hear Jesus say, “Depart from me I never knew you.”
James then adds an illustration of faith without works as an example of dead faith by pointing to the belief of the demons. He says, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” When James refers to believing that God is one, it’s a reference to the “shema” the Jewish prayer based on Deut. 6:4 which says, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is one.” It would have been well known by all Jews, and was in a sense their profession of faith.
But James shows that such a confession without transformation is useless, it’s dead. And he shows that by the demon’s belief in God. The demons believe in the reality of God, and at least they are fearful of Him. And yet they are not saved by that belief. Therefore, there must be more to faith than just an intellectual assent to the truth. A lot of people claim to believe in God, but they are unsaved. But to believe in faith means there will be a life changing response to the truth which is shown by one’s deeds.
And so James gives a stinging rebuke to the foolishness of that kind of false faith in vs 20 “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” If you think that you can believe in God but it doesn’t require a change in your heart, a change in your life, then you are a fool. If demons are not saved by belief in God, then it should be evident that faith that is only intellectual is not saving faith either.
Now as James develops his case, he goes on to supply evidence for this principle. And the first evidence comes from the life of Abraham. James says, “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.”
Abraham was considered the father of the Jews, and the father of faith. The Jews claimed salvation on the basis of being a child of Abraham. But James doesn’t emphasize physical descent, but the concept of righteousness as the result of faith. Abraham was considered righteous in the sight of God because he trusted Him to the point of sacrificing Isaac, who was the son of promise.
But notice that James says Abraham’s faith was working with his works. It was not one or the other with Abraham. If he had faith in God, then he had to trust God enough to obey God, even when it seemed contrary to human reasoning. This idea of trust is essential to faith. Trust is believing in the truth, but then acting on that faith, putting your weight of action upon it.
I remember an illustration my Mom made years ago when I was a kid in Sunday School. She showed us a chair, and said “Do you believe that this is a good chair, that it will support your weight if you sit on it? And we said “yes, we believe it’s a good chair.” Then she said, “Then sit on it, and let it support your weight.” When you believe in the chair, that’s faith, when you sit on the chair, that’s trust. That’s the elementary explanation of faith and trust.
The theological explanation is a bit more involved. There are three elements of faith in classical theology. The first is the Latin term notitia: which means believing in the information. It’s an intellectual awareness. The second aspect of faith is what they call assensus, or intellectual assent. I must be persuaded of the truthfulness of the content.The crucial, most vital element of saving faith is that of personal trust. That final term is fiducia, referring to a fiduciary commitment by which I entrust my life to Christ. Like when we put our money in a bank. That’s a fiduciary institution. That’s why a lot of banks are called So and So Bank and Trust. They take care of your money, and put your money to work so that it makes interest.
So trusting my life to Christ who will work in my life and give me new life is an essential component of faith. But a lot of Christians stop at the intellectual part. They never make it to the trusting part. They don’t put their life in Christ’s hands to use as He sees fit, and so consequently there is no life, no growth, no works.
Abraham, however, not only believed but he obeyed, he acted in accordance with God’s word. He trusted God’s promises. And James says the evidence of Abraham’s faith is you can see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. Works are the evidence of faith. Without evidence of faith, there is no faith. Or another way of saying it, is faith works. Faith does not stand alone, but faith works.
But let’s make sure we understand an important distinction that may not be apparent in this translation. And that is, that it is God who justifies. Man does not justify himself on the basis of his works. Man cannot justify himself. Man cannot save himself by his own merit or his works of righteousness. The Jews thought that if they could keep the law, particularly certain laws above others, then they could obtain righteousness.
But Paul said in Ephesians 2:8 “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, so that no one may boast.” At first glance Paul seems to go against what James is saying. But not so fast. Read the next verse. Paul adds, in vs 10 “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” So actually Paul says what James says, that faith and works go together. Faith produces works, and so faith without works is not really faith at all.
The next evidence that James gives from scripture is that of Rahab the harlot. What a contrast. First he showed us Abraham the friend of God, the righteous father of the Jews, the father of the faithful. Now he goes to the other end of the spectrum, to a Gentile, a woman who was a prostitute. Vs.25 “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?”
Rahab demonstrated her trust in the God of Israel by hiding the spies and seeking salvation from their God. You can read about it in Joshua 2:8-13. Her faith was shown to be living faith because it did something. Her belief in the God of Israel would not have saved her if she had not done something with that faith. Simply believing in the God of Israel was not enough faith, but faith required action. She acted on that belief which saved the spies, and saved herself.
The lesson from Abraham is clear: if we believe in God, we will do what He tells us to do. The lesson from Rahab is also clear: if we believe in God, we will help His people, even when it costs us something.
So then having questioned various witnesses, and presented his evidence, James then presents his logical conclusion in vs 26. “For just as the body without [the] spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” Just as you can have a body with no life ( which is what we call a corpse), so you can have a faith with no life. And that kind of faith without works is a dead faith, unable to save.
With Christmas around the corner, I can’t help but remember Christmas’s past when I bought one of the kids a toy that was supposed to make some kind of noise, or you turn it on and it would go around in circles on the floor, or something like that. And inevitably, the wrapping paper comes off and my son or daughter turned on the switch and set the toy on the floor and nothing happened. And after a minute or two I would feel a tug on my sleeve and look down at this little face that was puckered up about to burst into tears, and hear them say, “Not working.” The toy didn’t work. It was not designed just to look at, it was designed to do something, and it didn’t do it. So the question is, if it doesn’t work, then what use is it?
And that’s what James says here. Faith without works is dead. We were designed to work in response to our faith. Remember what Paul said in Ephesians 2 which we read earlier? “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” We are Christ’s special work of art, that was designed for good works. And we can only assume that when we don’t work, then we are not really Christ’s. We haven’t really been remade into a new creation.
We need a faith that works. A faith that transforms this dead natural man into a living spiritual man. And that transformation begins when you recognize that you are dead in your trespasses and sins, and you ask for forgiveness and to have the Lord give you new life in Him. But you have to really mean that; you must want to receive new life, recognizing your old way of life was the way of death. And because of your faith in what Jesus did to procure your righteousness, God will credit His righteousness to your account, and that righteousness which God gives you results in a regeneration of your spirit, so that you are a new creation, with new desires, and a new capacity for righteousness through the power of the Holy Spirit working in you. That’s a faith that works. It works out our salvation as we live in the power of the Spirit. I pray that you have a faith that works. A living faith that will be evidenced by your works.