James 2:14–26 (NKJV)
James continues the discussion of being doers and not just hearers of the Word with a discussion about faith without works. The premise is that both are essential in the life of the believer. Having faith will produce works, or it is not faith at all.
14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.James 2:14-17
This opening statement sets up the tone for the entire teaching: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? This is the thesis, or an opening question for the argument given by James. In his mind, one cannot say he or she has faith without having works to demonstrate that faith. If someone does not have the basic staples by which to sustain life, such as clothing and food, and someone declares a blessing over them that they be warm and fed, that could be considered a statement of faith. However, if you have food and clothing that you could provide, your faith is proven by your works. While faith is a powerful tool in the hands of a Christian, faith without works does not always demonstrate the power of Christian faith and love. Faith should be demonstrated by our good works and benevolence toward others. James even goes so far as to state that faith by itself, without the works to demonstrate it, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.James 2:18-26
25 Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?
26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
James then begins to explain his rationale. Although someone may say they have faith while another has works, James challenges that thought by saying that when looking at both things, faith and works, one cannot demonstrate faith without works. Faith in God produces action. Faith alone can simply be defined as a belief in God. James states that even the demons believe there is one God, and they tremble at the thought. Yet, those demons are not believers in the true sense. A true believer will believe and act on that belief. Abraham believed, and was justified by his works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar atop Mt. Moriah. The Bible describes Abraham in Genesis 15:6 as believing God and having it accounted to him as faith. However, his faith was demonstrated as it worked together with his works, and by works his faith was made perfect. Abraham was called a friend of God from that point.
James argues that a man is then justified by works, and not by faith alone. While this seems to chafe against the idea of faith alone (sola fidei, according to Martin Luther) as a salvific response of man to God’s grace, it really does not. Faith will produce fruit, or salvation is not complete. Fruit of repentance are called for in the life of the believer (Luke 3:8), and religious heritage is not enough. One cannot point to their religious pedigree, or their ritual of saying certain words to prove religious affiliation. Instead, a true faith brought alive in the heart of the believer will elicit a change of heart and a change of action. James refers to Rahab the harlot being justified by works when she aided the Israelite spies at Jericho. He then completes this part of his discussion with a summary statement: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” I do not believe that James is proposing a works-based salvation in this passage. It seems to me that he is addressing a widespread problem of individuals simply professing faith without any behavioral change. This is simply empty words and wind coming from a person who does not show those fruit of repentance. Do not be a word-only believer. Put legs and arms to that faith. Be the hands and feet of Christ in the world and show your faith by your works. This is God’s will and the way to demonstrate real faith in a dark and loveless world.