The fundamental question in this section is found in 2:14. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” Before we can answer it, we need to get clarity on James’s definitions. For example, what does he mean by “save”? In 1:21, James says, “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” Later in James 5:20, he says, “Whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death.” So when James asks, “Can that faith save him?”, he’s asking, “Can that faith rescue the soul of the one who has it from final, spiritual death?” That’s the issue at stake in James 2.
The second definition that we need clarity on is faith. Earlier in the book, James speaks of “holding the faith in the Lord Jesus” (2:1). This genuine faith is tested by various trials that produce steadfastness. But in this passage, he specifically qualifies faith by saying that it lacks works: “faith by itself, if it doesn’t have works” (2:17); “faith apart from works” (2:18); “faith apart from works” (2:20); “faith apart from works” (2:26). So James is clear that in this passage, he is speaking of “work-less faith.” So his question then becomes, “Can work-less faith (faith that never produces works) rescue a man from final, spiritual death?”
Let’s outline his answer to the question. First, in 2:15-17, he uses an analogy and gives his initial answer. Then, in 2:18, he proposes an objection from a possible opponent. Then he responds to that objection using three illustrations: demons (2:19), Abraham (2:20-24), and Rahab (2:25), before returning to his initial conclusion.
Let’s begin with the initial illustration and answer. 2:14 begins with “What good is it” and 2:16 ends with the same phrase. James poses his question, “If someone says he has faith, but lacks actual, concrete good works, what good is that?” And then he answers with a rhetorical question: Well, if a poor brother or sister has concrete needs for the necessities of life, and someone sees the need and says, “Good luck with that,” what good is that? And the implied answer is “Not good at all.” Those words (“Be warm and well-filled”) are worthless apart from concrete action. They are dead words. And so, a faith that lacks concrete action—verbal faith by itself—is dead faith. And we all know this. Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words. Work-less faith doesn’t work. In fact, work-less faith is worthless. That’s James’s initial answer.
But James is a good teacher and so he anticipates an objection. But the way that he phrases the objection is a bit confusing. We would expect him to say, “But some objector will say, “I (the objector) have faith and you (James) have works.” But that’s not what he says. It’s flipped. “You have faith and I have works.” It sounds like the objector is saying, “You James have faith, but I have works,” in which case, his objection doesn’t make sense (and neither does James’s response). Now there are a lot of proposed solutions to this confusion. The one that makes the most sense to me is this: The Greek language does not have quotation marks. The addition of quotation marks is a part of the translation. The translators add them to clarify what the author meant using English grammar. So the confusion comes because the translators here treat the objection as though it’s a direct quotation. The direct quotation is what makes it sound backwards. But the confusion disappears if we take this as an indirect statement of the opponent’s objection. Instead of thinking in terms of two people in the conversation, think of three: James, his audience (“brothers,” 2:14), and the objector (“someone”). James is speaking to his audience, and then he adds an objector and says, “My opponent says that you (my audience) have faith, and I (James) have works.” “Someone (over here) says you (over there) have faith by itself, and I (James) have works, and they think that’s no big deal.”
So what then is the point? The objector is basically saying faith by itself and works are two alternative and legitimate ways of following God. “Some people follow God with faith by itself. Some people follow him with works. It’s all the same. There is no essential connection between a person’s faith and his works. So simmer down, James. Faith by itself is good enough.”
Now James responds with the words “Show me,” which underscores that the key issue in this passage is proof. It’s demonstration. “Show me.” “Show me this so-called “faith” without using works, and I will show you my faith by my works. What I believe and what I do are intimately connected. What I do shows what I believe.”
So we have a clear contrast between two visions of the Christian life—one in which faith and works are completely separate and unrelated and either one is good enough, and one in which faith and works are intimately and deeply connected to each other. And now James will show that his vision is biblically faithful through three examples.
He begins with a biting, sarcastic example. “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even demons believe—and shudder.” The statement that “God is one” is a reference to Israel’s fundamental confession of faith: “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one” (Deut. 6:4). Jews, unlike almost all other religions in the ancient world, were monotheists. They didn’t believe in a pantheon of gods. They believed in one, supreme, all-sufficient, absolute God, who is the Creator of heaven and earth. This is fundamental to the Jewish faith. And James says, “You believe that. Great. So do demons.” Demons have work-less faith, and it’s worthless. The only work that such faith produces is terror and horror, because you have made this single, all-powerful, sovereign God your enemy.
One way to describe the difference between demonic faith and real faith is that demonic faith believes that something is true, whereas genuine faith experiences the beauty and goodness of the truth. It’s like the difference between knowing that honey is sweet because you read it in a book, and knowing the sweetness of honey because you’ve actually tasted it. James is telling us, “Demons have accurate theology. They know what is true. They know that God is one, and powerful, and good, and sovereign, and merciful. They could pass any theological exam. But what they lack is a living faith that loves and delights in the truth of who God is.” So work-less faith is no better than demon-faith.
The second example is Abraham, and this is where we feel some tension. Put simply, in this passage, James says that Abraham is 1) justified by works (2:21, 24) and 2) not by faith alone (2:24). On the other hand, Paul, throughout his letters is adamant that we are justified by faith and not by works of the law (Romans 3:28, Galatians 3:10-11). And lest we think that Paul is only excluding works of the law from justification, in Ephesians 2, he says that we are saved by grace through faith; this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one can boast.” And again in Titus 3:4-6, he says that God saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy; we are justified by his grace.” And to make it even more confusing, Paul and James both appeal to Abraham to prove their argument. Paul says, “We are justified by faith; look at Abraham.” James says, “We are justified by works; look at Abraham.”
Now in this case, the fact that they both appeal to Abraham helps to resolve the tension. To understand how, we need to remember three key events in the life of Abraham. First, in Genesis 15, God appears to Abraham and says, “Fear not, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” And Abraham says, “God, I’m an old man, and I have no heir. You’ve given me no children.” And God says, “Look up at the stars. Count them, if you can. So shall your offspring be.” In other words, God makes an impossible promise to an old man. “And Abraham believed, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Abraham believed, and God justified him by his faith. That’s the passage that Paul quotes in Romans 4 and James quotes here. That’s Genesis 15.
The second event is about 20 years later (Genesis 17). Abraham still has not had a child with his wife Sarai, but they did try to take matters into their own hands, and Abraham now has a son from his servant Hagar. God comes to him again and says, “I am God Almighty. Walk before me and be blameless.” And again he makes great promises: Abraham will have many children; from him will come many nations and kings. He will be fruitful and God will give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants; and Abraham and Sarah will have a son. And now God seals this promise by commanding circumcision of Abraham and his descendants. In other words, he requires an act of obedience. That’s Genesis 17.
The third event is some time later, after Abraham and Sarah have had a son Isaac, and Isaac is grown up (old enough to go on a long journey with his father). This in Genesis 22. In this passage, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering. Abraham obeys God, prepares the sacrifice, and then God intervenes and says, “Don’t hurt him. Now I know that you fear me, because you didn’t withhold your only son from me.” That’s Genesis 22.
Genesis 15—impossible promise and simple faith. Genesis 17—command to circumcise and obedience. Genesis 22—Sacrifice of Isaac and amazing obedience. Here’s the simplest way to understand the difference between James and Paul here. Each of them is addressing different challenges to the Christian faith. Paul is addressing opponents who believe that obedience to the law of Moses is essential to starting the Christian life. James is addressing opponents who believe that works and faith are completely separate. So, for Paul, it is really important that Genesis 15 comes before Genesis 17. It’s really important that God justifies Abraham, accepts Abraham, approves Abraham prior to Abraham’s obedience to the circumcision command. God makes an unbelievable promise, and Abraham just believes it. And that’s all it takes to get right with God. You don’t have to get circumcised; you don’t have to have some record of obedience. You just need to sincerely believe the amazing promises of God.
For James, on the other hand, it is really important that Genesis 22 comes after Genesis 15. That’s why he says that Abraham’s actions in Genesis 22 are the fulfillment of God’s words in Genesis 15. Abraham demonstrated the sincerity of his faith by his obedience. His faith worked with his works and the works completed his faith (2:22). So Paul and James are not at odds; they’re simply addressing different challenges to the Christian faith. Paul doesn’t want us to think that we have to have a long record of obedience in order to be accepted by God. Abraham didn’t. He just believed the amazing promises of God, and God declared him righteous. James doesn’t want us to think that a bare profession of faith is able to save our souls, so he reminds us that Abraham’s faith was demonstrated (“Show me…”) by his obedience.
Think of this in terms of seed and harvest. Simple, childlike faith in God and his promises is the seed. A life of fearing and obeying God is the harvest. Paul wants us to know that God only needs the seed to justify you. When we receive the implanted word, when we trust in God in our hearts, God sees it and says, “That’s all you need. Because you trust in me and my promises, because you hold the faith in the Lord Jesus, you are righteous.” And James wants us to know that, if God plants the seed in our hearts, it will bear fruit. There will be a harvest of real, evident obedience. Imperfect obedience (Abraham wasn’t imperfect), but real, concrete life change.
Finally, James points to Rahab to demonstrate the same truth. Rahab lives in Jericho. When the spies came to Jericho to spy out their defenses, Rahab hid them from Jericho’s king. And she says that all of Jericho is terrified of Israel’s God. They’ve heard what God did to the Egyptians and to the Amorites, and they are filled with fear. But Rahab has more than terror. She has sincere faith. And she shows that faith by taking a risk, by switching her allegiance, by turning her back on her own people and their gods and casting herself on the mercy and kindness of God and his people. And because of that, she is justified, even though she’s a poor prostitute.
And so James’s conclusion is this: demon-like faith is not enough. You need faith like Abraham, faith like Rahab, faith that is completed and filled out by doing what God says, by valuing him above our children and our nation and showing our faith by what we do. In other words, just as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead (2:26). If you separate the spirit from the body, we call that death. You try to separate faith from works, and you get dead faith and dead works. And dead faith can’t save our souls from death.
Everyone Wants to Be Justified
Now I want to bring this home to us by applying this to our wider culture and then to us in this room. Everyone wants to be justified. Everyone wants to be declared righteous. Everyone wants to be considered and thought of as a good person. Everyone wants to be justified. The only question is before whom and by what? Justified before whom? Who is the judge? Who determines who is righteous? And the answer to that question dictates the second: by what? What do you have to do to receive a favorable verdict?
Justification always involves a Judge, a promise, and a response. That could mean God, the promises in his word, and the life of faith working through love. Or it could mean other things. In our culture, people are often the judge. We seek to be justified before men. What then are some of the promises of men? “If you are rich and famous and powerful, you will be accepted and approved. You will be righteous.” And so people will seek to be justified and accepted by their wealth and fame and success. They will work really hard to actually fulfill the requirements to be accepted and approved and justified. But, inevitably, some people will realize that it’s easier to pretend to be rich and successful than to actually be rich and successful. And so they will seek to save their souls from the death of insignificance by their Facebook profile, or their Instagram feed, or by putting on the trappings of wealth. In other words, instead of actually being rich and successful, they will say (in a variety of ways), “Look at me. Look at my social media. I’m rich and successful. I really am. Believe me. Justify me. Say that I matter.”
Other people have a different promise. “If you are on the right side of history, you will be righteous. So fight for the right causes. Sacrifice for victims and oppressed groups. Check your privilege. Then you will be justified.” And so some people seek justification before men by devoting themselves to causes—social justice, climate change, racial diversity, feminism, gay rights. And they work hard for these causes. They get “woke.” But, inevitably, some people realize that it’s easier to be “woke” online than to actually do the hard work. And so they seek justification before men through virtue-signaling. Virtue signaling is when we seek to acquire moral credibility and justification by showing that we “care” about the right things. We share the right articles on Facebook. We retweet the right opinions. We put the right bumper stickers on our car. We express outrage over the right issues. We do our best to be “woker-than-thou.” We show, in a variety of public ways, that we are “good” people who care about the “right” things.
Virtue signaling is a way of being justified by an empty profession, by what we say, rather than what we do. And it’s as old as dirt. The Pharisees learned that it was far easier to tithe out of their spice rack than to actually do concrete works of justice and mercy. It’s easier to pray loudly on the street corners than to give a cup of cold water to the poor. And we are a nation of Pharisees.
Wealth-signaling and virtue-signaling (like the faith-signaling in James 2) are ways of seeking justification. We want to be righteous. We want to be vindicated, justified, acquitted in the courtroom of the universe. And so we try to put out all the right vibes. We signal and signal and signal in hope that the judges we care about will pronounce us “Righteous.”
Now it’s easy to mock those kinds of attempts to get justification on the cheap. At the same time, we ought to recognize a hopeful sign underneath the attempts to be justified through wealth or social justice. Underneath all of those efforts is recognition of our inadequacy and the simple fact of “the persistence of guilt” (that’s the title of a very insightful article that came out last week). Our culture knows that something is wrong in the world, that evil exists. What’s more, it feels the force of this evil personally. And it seeks to deal with guilt through identity, through actions, and through signaling. And so as Christians, we should see the opportunity in the confusion around us.
And we should preach the gospel. Because here’s the reality: the fundamental problem with all of those approaches is that we seek to be justified before men. But justification before men can never deal with guilt and inadequacy. What ultimately matters is justification before God. And you will not be justified before God by your wealth and success, real or pretended. You won’t be justified by signaling your virtues or by being woke. You won’t even be justified by all of your good deeds on behalf of the oppressed. There is no justification there, because there is no gospel there. If you want good works, you must first have good news. Beneath the confession and beneath the action, there must be power, the power of God for salvation for all who believe.
It’s not enough to have a guilty conscience. Festering guilt—whether it’s sexual guilt, racial guilt, oppressor guilt—can’t save your soul from death. The guilt must be dealt with. And the only way for guilt to be dealt with is through the good news of Jesus. Jesus forgives sins. Believe the gospel. And not just with an intellectual faith, but with an active faith. Not just a verbal faith, but a living faith. Not just a demon-like faith that shudders in terror at God’s judgment, but a deep, Abraham-like, Rahab-like confidence in the sovereign goodness and mercy of the one God and Father of Jesus Christ, a confidence that inevitably produces a harvest of obedience and sacrifice.
The Lord’s Supper
This brings us to the Table. The message of James for us is that before you can do, you must receive. And once you’ve received, you must do. This Table is where we receive. We receive with meekness the implanted word made visible in bread and wine. We rest, like Abraham, in the unfathomable promises of God. We seek, like Rahab, the mercy and kindness of God with his people. We taste (literally) and see the goodness of the good news so that good works flow from the good word. So come, and welcome to Jesus Christ.