“Show Your Faith by Your Works”
Lesson Text: James 2:14-26
Background Scripture: James 2:14-26
Devotional Reading: Luke 7:1-10
James 2:14-26 (KJV)
14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.
24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?
26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
To summarize James’ argument that faith and works are inseparable.
To demonstrate the reality of our faith by reaching out to others with the compassion of Christ.
To identify one way to put faith into action and do so.
Genuine or Counterfeit?
Have you noticed how much paper money (currency) has changed in the last few years? Designs have become more complex, colors have been added, special marks have been included. All these changes have one purpose: to make counterfeiting more difficult.
But even with all these changes, a skilled counterfeiter can still create a fake that can fool many people. It still takes experts to distinguish the genuine from some phonies. One becomes an expert in spotting counterfeit currency by studying the real thing. Skilled experts can see the subtle differences because they know the real article so well.
A parallel problem faced the Christians to whom James wrote. How could they identify true faith? While God alone can know what is in a person's heart, James says that we can identify true faith in ourselves by what it produces.
Time: A.D. 44
Evaluating actions in order to distinguish between genuine and counterfeit faith, the theme of today's text, is a well-established one in Scripture. The Old Testament prophets commonly condemned those who confessed faith but acted with disobedience to God (Isaiah 29:13; Ezekiel 33:31). Jesus famously condemned religious leaders of His time for their hypocrisy; they claimed to be faithful to God, but they disobeyed Him habitually (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16; 23:13-33). Paul pointed out at length that all claims to standing with God are empty without deeds directed by godly love (1 Corinthians 13). The Bible is filled with disturbing examples of those who claimed faith in God, but failed to put it into practice.
The context of today's passage gives us a clue about the circumstances that prompted James' discussion of faith and works. James' readers struggled to reflect God's mercy toward the poor (James 2:1-13, last week's lesson). The readers' faith in the God who graciously met their needs was not being expressed in their meeting the needs of others (compare 1 John 3:17, 18). Such a problem cannot go unaddressed!
Evaluating Genuine Faith (James 2:14-19)
1. What does James mean by “faith” (James 2:14)?
“Faith” (James 2:14) is a key word in James. “Faith” primarily refers to a person’s belief or trust in God. On the other hand, Faithless faith is mere belief in a creed. Right beliefs about things considered crucial and nonnegotiable are all some people think is required for a person to be right with God. God has never accepted loveless worship. Evidently, some among the readership of this letter boasted about their “faith,” but failed to demonstrate it through loving acts to the disadvantaged. For James, faith in the Son expressed itself in displays of charity toward the needy. The idea is not that people are saved by doing good works. Rather, the reality of their faith is proven by living uprightly and ministering to the disadvantaged. In the absence of these two factors, claims to faith are suspect. Genuine faith that leads to salvation obeys the scriptural injunction to love others unstintingly.
2. Why is faith that does not result in good works described as being dead? (James 2:15-17)
James moves to a hypothetical but very realistic situation. In this case, the person in need required food and clothing (James 2:15). If the religious individual merely left the destitute with a pious greeting, it did the person no good (v. 16). James points out the emptiness of words of faith that lack the deeds of faith. “Depart in peace” is a standard farewell in Jewish culture. It is a brief prayer that a person will continue to experience the harmony and wholeness that God gives. But where is the sincerity in that statement when the one making it has the means to relieve hunger but offers nothing but words?
We see sarcasm in the phrase “be ye warmed and filled.” Such words express a prayer that God will provide. The person claims faith, even prays that God will provide, but this person of “faith” takes no action to do God's will “in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Is that real trust in God's promise?
What Do You Think?
What is your church's policy and procedure for addressing the needs of those who request help? How can you help improve or streamline these policies and procedures?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Policy issues (what your church will and won't do)
Procedure issues (what your church does to implement its policy)
The words-only “faith” that James has discussed thus far can now be fully characterized. It is “dead,” without life at all (James 2:17). Dead faith is not what we find in one who truly belongs to the living God. An active faith, however, is vibrant, being characterized by compassion and concern for others.
Objections Anticipated (James 2:18, 19)
3. How did James make his faith point more clear? (James 2:18, 19)
Now James draws a contrast with a different point of view to make his point clearer still. He invites us to imagine two people. One has already said something like, “I am not really much of a ‘works person.’ I am more of a ‘faith person.’ Works are other people’s gift, not mine.” Then the second person speaks, the one whom James describes in this verse. That person says, “Really? You have faith, while I have works? Fine. Show me your faith without works. Then I will show you my works, and they will prove that I have faith.”
Of course, there is no demonstrating of faith without works. Faith is invisible in and of itself, but the works that James describes are the necessary product of valid faith. Such actions really do speak louder than words. The person who claims faith without works makes an absurd, empty claim.
James offers a second contrast that lays out the absurdity of claiming faith without works. The confession that “there is one God” (James 2:19). James affirms that the confession is correct. But then he points out that merely believing in the existence of God by itself does not result in eternal life. After all, the devils (or demons) believe the same thing! They know who God is; they recognized Jesus’ identity (Matthew 8:28, 29; compare Acts 16:16, 17). And even demons react properly regarding their belief about God: they tremble in fear of their coming destruction.
We might paraphrase James’ point with the common saying, “Talk is cheap.” Saying that we have faith is of no significance at all if we do not act in faith. If demons—who know who God is but refuse to submit to Him—can at least tremble, should not those who claim to belong to God act in ways that please Him?
Illustrating Genuine Faith (James 2:20-26)
4. What biblical examples did James use to reinforce his point (James 2:20-24)?
Does this matter require more proof? Are we not yet convinced that faith without works is dead? James reemphasized his original premise that “faith without works is dead” (v. 20). To lock down his argument further, James now begins a different approach to the problem: examples from the Scriptures. James presented illustrations from the lives of two prominent Old Testament characters-Abraham the patriarch and Rahab the harlot (prostitute) James introduced each example by means of a rhetorical question with which his readers were expected to give full and hearty agreement. In the case of Abraham, he committed himself to sacrifice his son Isaac as God directed (Genesis 22:1-10). God intervened to stop the proceedings (vs. 11, 12), but even before that point Abraham expressed his faith in God's promise when he told his servant that he and Isaac would go to the mountain and return (v. 5). Abraham trusted God's promise that through Isaac a great nation would come to be, so he held to the belief that if God commanded that Isaac be sacrificed, then God would raise him up again (Hebrews 11:19). Only faith could produce a response like this. Consequently, Abraham’s faith was “imputed unto him for righteousness.” Expressed differently, the Lord considered the patriarch’s response of faith as proof of his genuine commitment and evidence of his steadfast loyalty.
5. What did James say about Rahab’s faith (James 2:25, 26)?
James' first biblical example was Abraham, a man and the father of the nation of Israel. Now he turns to Rahab, a woman and a Gentile.
Rahab we know as a prostitute from ancient Jericho. Having heard of Israel's triumphs in earlier battles, she had come to believe that the true God was with Israel. She was therefore not only afraid of Israel's army, she was ready to assist Israel in its conquest of her city. That meant taking the dangerous step of hiding the Israelite spies who came to Jericho to assess its defenses (Joshua 2:1-13). In the end, she became a part of the Israelite people and an ancestor of King David and Jesus himself (Matthew 1:5).
A pagan prostitute became part of God's people by her faith in Israel's God. But her faith certainly was a faith that resulted in action, action that put Rahab's own life on the line (compare Hebrews 11:31). Without such actions, she would not have become part of Israel and the saga of salvation.
James offers a final illustration to drive home his point. Every human being is a unity of body (what can be seen) and spirit (what cannot be seen). When the two are separated, there is death. The same is true of faith without works. As the visible body is dead without the invisible spirit, so also invisible faith is dead without visible works.
POINTS TO PONDER
The Letter of James is primarily concerned with the practical outworking of Christian conduct. The emphasis is not on doctrine or theology per se, but on how the Christian faith should be applied on a day-to-day basis. James’ purpose was to provide his readers with concrete instruction on how to grow in Christian maturity and how to live a holy life. In short, James wanted his audience to know how to become doers of the Word, not just hearers of it.
Living, Working Faith
James takes his readers to school on genuine faith. He teaches them thoroughly what the real article looks like. Real faith, living faith, always works. It is always active. It never leaves a person or the world around the person the same.
If we want to recognize genuine faith, we should first look at ourselves. The assessment of genuine faith is a self-assessment. What actions flow from my faith? Is my life different from what it was before I came to faith in Christ? Do I make excuses about my lack of actions?
Perhaps we should remember that one of the works of genuine faith is prayer. We pray to God only if we know that we need His power to help, only if we believe that He can and will help. We begin by asking God to strengthen our faith and enable us to put it into action. Then we trust Him to sustain us in the adventure that follows.
O God, we praise You for Your patience with us, Your often workless people. Increase our faith, Lord! Gird us for action in Your world. Make us alive in our faith and works together. We pray in the name of Jesus, the faithful one, amen.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER
A workless faith is a worthless faith.