Pastoral Ministry
in the Real World Click Now to Order

A Faith that Works
James 2:14-26 


In verse 14 of James chapter 2, James asks a question that you'd likely answer one way without thought and another way after careful reflection, he asks: "What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?"

At first glance, it appears that James is teaching that faith alone doesn't save. Paul had the opposite view. In Romans 3:28, he wrote, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law."

In verse 21 of this chapter, James illustrates salvation by works by referring to Abraham, he writes, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?" And in Romans 4:2-4, Paul refers to Abraham too, but he says that Abraham was justified by faith, not works. He wrote, "If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about--but not before God. [3] What does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.' [4] Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation." (Romans 4:2-4 NIV)

Paul is consistent with his teaching. In Ephesians 2:8-9, he wrote: "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, that no one should boast."

Are these two teachings in contradiction? Is James giving a formula of faith + works = salvation? Does he contradict Paul's clear teaching of faith alone & grace alone for Salvation? Some have concluded that is exactly what James is doing. Martin Luther, in the introduction to a New Testament translation he published in 1522 called the book "a right strawy Epistle." He despised the book, and wanted to use it to light his stove.

Let's see if we can unravel this controversy. First, I want you to notice that James doesn't say "if a man has faith," he says, "if a man SAYS he has faith . . ." There is a difference. It is one thing to have a vital, life-changing relationship with God and another thing to agree to a set of beliefs, or worse yet, simply to say you agree to a set of beliefs. It is one thing to talk about faith and another thing to put it into practice. Talk is cheap. 

James is writing about a false claim to faith, he isn't talking about real faith here. And Paul isn't talking about a workless faith, he is talking about a real faith. Verse 10, very next verse after Ephesians 2:8-9 shows that. He wrote, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Ephes. 2:10 NASB)

Paul makes it very clear here, saving faith will be accompanied by godly works. In fact, that is the reason we were saved in the first place, to perform the good works God prepared for us to do.

It isn't that Paul and James disagree here, it is that they are using different words to talk about the same thing. Paul is criticizing legalism-a faithless work and James is criticizing creedalism-a workless faith. Both are anemic and neither can transform a life into a vessel God chooses to use for His glory.

James illustrates the uselessness of creedalism with a question that appeals to the common sense within most people. He asked, "If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, [16] 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? [17] Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself."

We had an expression back home that is fitting here, "that don't feed the bulldog." It is works, not words that meet needs.

James continues in verse 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.' [19] You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder." 

Understanding something, even believing something isn't enough, it takes action. In verse 19, James is repeating the core doctrine of the people's faith-it was taught to Jewish children by their fathers, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one." (Deut. 6:4 NIV) James says, worthless faith, even if the faith is in the right thing is dead-it is the same kind of faith demons have. They know God is one, and they shudder in the thought, but their belief hasn't changed them one bit. They are still demons.

James teaches that faith without works is useless in verse 20 "But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?" and illustrates his point from the life of a godly patriarch and a godless prostitute.

First he talks about Abraham. "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 had waited for years for God to open his wife's womb and give him Isaac. In Genesis 22:2 God spoke to Abraham, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about." And in verse 3, Abraham obeyed. "Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about."

Immediately, Abraham obeyed. His faith didn't just consist of repeating a creed, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one." (Deut. 6:4 NIV) His faith catapulted him into action, to do what the one God of Israel told him to do, even if it didn't make any sense to him.

In the same way, a godless woman found favor with God. James wrote, "And 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 didn't have a creed, but she did believe what the spies from the children of Israel told her when they came to her house. Joshua 2:1-4 says, "Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. 'Go, look over the land,' he said, 'especially Jericho.' So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there. [2] The king of Jericho was told, 'Look! Some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.' [3] So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab: 'Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.' [4] But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, 'Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from.'"

She protected the spies, and because of her protection, her life was spared when Jericho fell. Why did she hide the spies and enable them to capture her people? Because she believed them and in their God. Joshua 2:11 reports that Rahab said, " When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone's courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below." She did not mearly say these words, she risked her life to save God's soldiers that came to her home in response to her words of faith.

The writer of Hebrews included her in the hall of the faithful, he wrote, "By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient." (Hebrews 11:31 NIV)

James closes his thoughts by writing in verse 26 , "For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead." 

Life demands more than words, it requires action. Not action that is void of faith, but action born out of faith.

What kind of faith do you have? A lifeless, stale, dead faith that simply parrots what someone else has said. Or do you have a faith born not of words but of deeds? A faith that boils in your soul and propels you into action. A living faith that has changed your life, and is transforming you into the kind of person that helps others change their lives.

Impact Preaching: A Case for the
one-pointexpositiory sermon