This morning we are in James 2:14-26.
This passage has quite a history in Christian tradition. James 2 is at the heart of disagreement between orthodox Protestant Christianity and the Catholic Church on one hand and sects like Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses on the other hand.
It’s a passage that is used by opponents of Christianity to support the claim that the Bible is full of contradictions.
And it’s a passage that has caused difficulty for many believers, leaving them confused and sometimes demoralized.
Now that we have properly hyped the passage, let’s take a look.
If you are not a Christian, you may be thinking, “what does this have to do with me? How does this religious controversy have any bearing on my life?”
Don’t give up on me yet. There are two questions that will come up in this passage that you may find very relevant.
The first is – Why are there so many people who call themselves Christians but live lives that are ugly? Does the Bible say anything about that?
Second – if you are exploring Christianity, eventually you’ll have to deal with the question – How do I have a relationship with God? What do I have to do? What does success look like.
Okay, here’s what we are going to do this morning. First we are going to read through the passage and get a handle on what James is saying. We are going to see an apparent contradiction between James and other portions of the New Testament.
During the rest of the sermon I want to share 3 options for dealing with the apparent contradiction, 2 keys to understanding a Bible text and 1 reason why the differences between James and other portions of the New Testament are good and necessary.
James begins with a question – “What good is it my brothers if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” In other words, “what good is a mere profession of faith?”
Six times James is going to reference faith which has no works. He begins with the question, is it worth anything?
He follows that question with another one that is more specific? Can that faith save him? Does the kind of mere profession of faith that has no works have any power to save someone?
Let’s take a minute and explain that for those of you who are not familiar with what exactly James means by save.
Last week we talked about judgment. The Bible speaks of a judgment that is coming in which all people, small and great, will stand before God. The Bible tells us that all of us have a record attached to our name. We may be better than most, we may have a reputation as good and decent people – but when you compare me not to other people like, say Hitler, but with a holy God my white doesn’t seem so bright any more. In contrast to perfect truth and purity and love and compassion and goodness and righteousness, I look a lot more like the shabby yellowed undershirt at the bottom of my drawer. Our hearts are crooked, at our best we are tainted by self-interest and some day we will be judged by our actions, out thoughts and our words.
God is just and he will punish sin.
That’s the last thing any of us wants is to stand before a holy God with our entire lives exposed before him.
The incredible news of Christianity is that God is not only just, he is merciful. And in his mercy, the Son of God came into our world to stand as a substitute in our place. He died on the cross to receive the sword of justice which was aimed at our hearts.
The message of Christianity is that anyone who turns from their sin and their self-righteousness and places their faith in Jesus can receive mercy and be saved from the coming judgment and from the stubborn power of sin in our hearts.
Christians have gone out into the world for 2,000 years proclaiming this message, which we call the gospel. There are question that arise naturally in response to that message. Does this mean that Hitler can just say a prayer and put his faith in Jesus as he is dying in the bunker and he will be saved and go to heaven?
This is what James is getting at.
When James says, “can a mere profession of faith save you?”, that is what he is talking about.
He follows the question with an illustration in verses 15-16. Imagine that a family at church shows up after quarantining at home for several months. They look much thinner than the last time we saw them, their kids toes are poking through their threadbare shoes and we find out that they have both lost their jobs and have spent their last penny. They have been surviving on the dried goods they have scrounged up at the blessing boxes in their neighborhood. Now imagine that we said to them after the service, “we’re so sorry about losing your jobs, we’re going to pray for you and we hope you have a good week.” Be warm and well fed.
What good is that? Those words are dead, they are empty.
In verse 17 he brings it home. In the same way, faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead. The person who says they have faith but shows favoritism to the wealthy and attractive people at church, who won’t lift a finger to help the poor, who is always losing their temper at home with their family. That stinks. That faith is dead and rotten.
In verse 18 James imagines someone hearing him and countering him.
“Someone will say, you have faith and I have works.” In other words, “some people have faith and some people have works, what’s the big deal? To each his own. Don’t be so hard on the one who just has faith.”
James responds – show me faith apart from works, I’ll show you my faith by my works. There is no faith if there are no works.
In verse 19 James continues to draw out his argument:
“You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder.”
God is one is a phrase that rings in the ears of ever Jewish person. It comes from Deuteronomy 6:4 – Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. That is called the Shema and is recited on countless occasions by Jewish people.
It was the quintessential statement of Jewish belief and identity. You recite the Shema and you are in.
James demonstrates how valuable that statement of faith is by putting it in the mouths of demons. You believe God is one, that’s great. You know who else believes that? Demons.
The only difference is they shudder at the thought. It actually has an effect upon them.
What James is implying is that the belief in the living presence of a Holy God has no effect on the person who professes faith but has no works.
In verse 20, Paul continues to dialogue with his imaginary conversation partner, do you want to be shown you foolish person that faith apart from works is useless? Here’s some examples.
The two examples he gives are Abraham and Rahab. Abraham is a traditional and expected example of faith and good works. Rahab is very non-traditional. Rahab was a Canaanite and prostitute. It’s quite remarkable that she has any place in the history of the people of Israel, let alone this kind of influence.
In both cases, James points to a person who believed God and demonstrated that belief through action.
Here’s the structure of what we read – there are 3 propositions James makes:
Verse 17 – So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Verse 24 – You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Verse 26 – For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
The rest of the passage is support material for these statements.
If you are familiar with the New Testament, you might read verse 24 and think of something you have read in the book of Romans.
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
That sounds a little different than James, doesn’t it? What do we do with that?
Our first option is to conclude that James and Paul contradict each other. This is the view of some commentators. It is possible that James was aware of Paul’s work among non-Jewish converts to Christianity. He had heard that Paul was teaching a righteousness that was by faith alone, apart from works and he disagreed. So he wrote his letter to combat Paul’s teaching.
If this is correct, than we are forced to concluded that either James, Paul or both were wrong. This calls into question the reliability and the canon of the Scriptures. If James and or Paul was wrong, what else is wrong in the Bible?
The second option is that James and Paul did contradict each other, until James’ theology matured and he came around to Paul’s way of seeing things. James may have opposed Paul at the time of this letter, but after meeting with Paul in Jerusalem he adjusted his theology.
If this is correct, we have the same problem as the first option. We have a Bible that includes underdeveloped and incorrect theology. It’s up to us to discern the truthfulness of each text in the Bible.
The third option is that James and Paul don’t contradict each other, that a careful look at the context and language of each writer shows that the two were not fighting each other, but were standing back to back fighting enemies threatening a common theology.
If this is correct, there is no contradiction. I want to show you to keys to reading the Bible well that I think demonstrate the third option as the most reasonable.
In order to understand another person we have to have some context to understand what they are communicating. Without that context, understanding is very difficult.
Here’s an example: years ago the British PM David Cameron tweeted this statement: “I don’t like blacks.”
Wow. What does that tell us about Cameron? That he is a racist, right? And a bad person.
But there is some context to that statement. The tweet was a response to a question he was asked on Twitter: David Cameron – “what is your least favorite outdoor equipment store?” In Britain, there is a outdoor outfitter called Blacks. Taking the time to consider context saves us from a false conclusion about the man.
Trent Hunter and Stephen Wellum wrote a helpful book about reading the Bible called Christ From Beginning to End. In their book they outline 6 important contextual environments to consider in reading a passage in the Bible.
- Historical – Who is the author? Who is the audience? What circumstances did they share?
- Cultural – What cultural circumstances gave rise to the book? What are the cultural features of the place and time of the book?
- Literary – What is the genre of the book? Is it poetry? Prophecy? Historical narrative?
- Look down at close context. Read the words as human writings in the close context of what the author intended.
- Look back at the continuing context. The Bible is not a collection of verses, doctrinal statements or moral creeds. It is one continuous story. Creation. Fall. Redemption. Restoration.
- Look ahead to the complete context. The story of the Bible culminates in the revelation of the person and work of Jesus.
Let’s consider some context for Paul and James.
- Paul was a trained theologian, using precise terms in carefully crafted arguments.
- Much of Paul’s letters were devoted to defining and defending doctrine.
- Paul wrote to believers in mixed, Jewish/Gentile congregations.
- Paul wrote against the heresy of Jewish influencers who sought to bring new converts over to the Jewish religion and emphasized the necessity of works for salvation.
- James was a blue collar man, raised to carry on the trade of a craftsman.
- James letter was written to establish Christian practice.
- James wrote to Jewish congregations.
- James wrote against the hypocrisy of believers who professed faith in Jesus, but whose lives were unchanged by their ‘faith’.
Now let’s zoom in a little to the context of words. Let’s consider the connotation of three words central to both James and Paul.
The three words are: faith, works and justify. If you want to understand these two verses in this apparent contradiction, you’ll have to spend the time learning what each writer means when he uses them.
Paul: There is only one kind of faith in Paul’s writings. It is a living and active trust in Christ which is the only way a person can be saved and is a gift from God.
James: For James, faith is a claim of trust in God which may or may not be living and can only be proven through works.
Paul: In Paul’s writings works are acts of obedience to God performed in order to attain right standing with God which can never attain right standing with God. They include circumcision, the observance of special holidays and dietary restrictions.
James: For James, works are acts of righteousness and good deeds which prove the reality of true faith. They include care for the poor, acts of obedience to God and hospitality shown to strangers.
Paul: In Paul’s letters, the word justify is a precise theological term. It means to pronounce, accept, and treat as just – on the one hand not penalty liable and, on the other, entitled to all the privileges due to those who have kept the law.
Another way the word is used in the New Testament is more general. Justify can mean to vindicate or prove true.
That’s the way Jesus used it in Matthew 11:19 – Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds. Wisdom is proven true or right by the actions it produces.
James: This is the big question. In which sense does James use the word?
While Paul contrasted faith and works as paths to salvation and peace with God, James contrasts authentic faith with a mere profession of faith.
How is faith proved to be authentic? By action. Genesis 22 tells us that Abraham was tested by God. He professed faith in God. How do we know it was real? When he obeyed God by taking Isaac up the mountain to be sacrificed, his profession was justified. “Now I know that you fear me.” (Genesis 22:12)
These definitions provide a great deal of clarity in the confusion around James 2 and Romans 3.
Paul is writing to fight the heresy that we must add our faith works of the law in order to be justified or made right with God.
James is writing to fight the hypocrisy that results when we believe that merely professing faith is enough to prove that we are right with God.
Paul is writing to establish the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works. James is writing to establish the practice of justification of faith by works.
Both Paul (Ephesians 2:4) and James (1:18) taught that salvation is an act of God which regenerates the spiritually dead.
Both Paul (Romans 2:13) and James (2:24) taught that faith must be put into practice.
Both Paul (2 Corinthians 13:5a) and James (1:26) taught that people who claimed to have faith, but whose behavior did not match their beliefs should reconsider the authenticity of their faith.
Reading the two in context shows us a harmony between the two. Here’s how that harmony is expressed by the Westminster Confession of Faith:
“Faith is the alone instrument of justification, yet is it not alone in the person justified.”
So why did God allow the Bible to develop with this apparent contradiction? Couldn’t he have made it easier on us?
Martin Luther used to say that the church can be like a drunk trying to get on a horse. He climbs onto the horse’s back only to fall off the other side. He stands up, climbs on and drops to the ground where he first started.
Isn’t that true? We are prone to extremes.
The philosopher Aristotle observed that truth comes in tensions between wo extremes. He called that the golden mean. For example – courage is the mean between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness. On one end of the spectrum is cautious wisdom, on the other is fearless boldness. Alone they are problematic, in tension they create strength.
Paul and James create for us a balance or tension that keeps us from extremes.
“Just as Christ was crucified between two thieves, so the gospel is crucified between these two thieves, the thieves of license on one hand and legalism on the other.”
When we are complacent in our past profession of faith, James challenges us to action and work. When we are burdened by our failures, Paul comforts us with the finished work of Christ.
As we take communion, I want you to listen to this word from Charles Spurgeon:
“Remember, sinner, it is not thy hold of Christ that saves thee – it is Christ; it is not thy joy in Christ that saves thee – it is Christ; it is not even faith in Christ, though that is the instrument – it is Christ’s blood and merits; therefore…look not to thy hope, but to Christ, the source of they hope; look not to thy faith, but to Christ, the author and finisher of thy faith, and if thou doest that, ten thousand devils cannot throw thee down.”
– Charles Spurgeon
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown