This last half of ch 2 is one which many want to put Paul’s teachings and James’ doctrines of faith and works against each other. But this is not the case at all. Paul speaks of the ungodly – the unbelieving sinner – being justified by repentance and faith in the gospel. James writes of the believer – the justified sinner through faith in the righteousness of God – proving his faith by his works. Paul writes much about believers needing to do good works, but those do not save him/her. They will certainly affect our eternal reward when Jesus gives to each of us according to our works done as believers – whether good or bad. (2Cor 5:9-11) James writes that works of faith, not merely good works, justifies believers before men. The Bride of the Lamb will be given fine linen to wear, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.
(Receiving “wedding clothes”, and not of our own, should give us something to consider even now with respect to how we dress and clothe ourselves. What we wear says something about who and what we are. [Rev 19:7-8; Mt 22:8-14; Is 61:10])
Religion is our way of living according to what we believe. The righteous will live according to his faith, and our faith is in the Lord Jesus Christ and in what God says. Jesus tells us that our good works done in His name will glorify our Father in Heaven. James tells us that our works of faith will demonstrate that our faith is genuine. Paul writes that without love, none of our works will make us okay with God. James writes that if we can not control our tongues from lying, cursing, vulgarity, threatening, then none of our works for God – none of our religion — will be acceptable.
Brothers and sisters, you can see that we are called to sanctify ourselves, to perfect holiness in the fear of God! (2Cor 7:1) Any one who has been born-again from Above by the Holy Spirit must have a “change of religion”: a repentance, with its fruit of a change of world-view, and a whole new way of living, as we return to — or come to for the first time — the true God of Israel Himself! (2Cor 5:14-21; Rom 6:1-14)
v 14 James asks us a question: what profit is it if any of us says that we have faith, but do not have works to show for it? Can such faith save us?
We have been called to be a blessing to others as those chosen by God to be His witnesses and family. If we say that we believe, but are not actively blessing anyone, can such faith save us? Perhaps, but there is no assurance without fruit. The thief on the cross did what he could under his circumstances: he confessed that Yeshua was innocent of any wrong-doing, that Yeshua is King and would receive the Kingdom; and that he (the thief) wanted to be with Jesus there. He could not get baptized, nor could he do any actual “work”, but he openly confessed with his mouth, and believed in his heart in the name of the LORD. (Rom 10:9-13) This is how that we know that he had the faith that saves.
v 15-17 Without active faith towards those brothers and sisters (first of all!) who are in real need, then our faith may not be saving faith. Remember that true and undefiled religion is to take care of the most dependent and needy. If we see the need of a family member – whether natural or in the faith – who is without clothing and food – and only speak nice sounding words to them, then our faith is dead. To say that we are believers, that we have faith, but not to be filled with compassion and to act to bless them in deed, and not with empty words only, we are of no use, and our faith is without life. The apostle John also writes that love is active in deed and in truth, not only empty words. (1Jn 3:16-21; Ja 1:26-27; Is 58)
v 18 We cannot demonstrate our faith apart from works. If I profess faith, my works of righteousness will prove my faith. God knows my heart; man will judge by what he sees and hears.
v 19 Speaking to his believing Jewish brothers and sisters in the dispersion (in exile), James says to them that they say that there is one God. He tells them, ‘Good!’ Even the demons believe that… and they tremble! Just believing that there is one God (or that YHVH is one) does not save them. (Even Muslims think the same thing about their god.) Demons are not saved by knowing and believing that. They actually rebelled against the one true living God, and still actively work against His righteousness and honor. All of the kings and people of Israel and Judah professed to believe in YHVH, but few of them lived as if their faith was wholly in Him. Most of them were unfaithful to Him and to the covenants, mixing their ‘religion’ with the ways of the Gentiles and their gods. Is this not also true today among many Christian leaders and people?
v 20 James says to such a person who does not really know God, but only professes to believe in Him, that he is a foolish man, ignorant of our own history with God.
v 21 “Was not Abraham our father (of the Jews, and also of Gentile believers in the God of Abraham – God Most High) justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?” (Gen 22:1-19; Heb 11:17-19)
v 22 James writes that Abraham’s faith was working together with his works, and by his works his faith was perfected. His faith and works together proved that Abraham feared, trusted, and loved the Creator who chose and covenanted with him to be a blessing to the whole world through his promised son, Isaac; and we know that this leads us to Yeshua. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his beloved son because of his confidence in the truth of the God who called him to follow Him. YHVH then confirmed His covenant promises to Abraham, and even revealed more to Him, blessing Abraham, and promising that in His seed all of the nations of the Earth. When we obey the Lord with faith, He will give us more of Himself to us. This is the call of Yeshua to those who want to be His disciples: deny yourself, pick up your cross daily, and follow Him.
v 23 This deed of Abraham proved the truth of the Scripture, which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. He loved God. (In the Hebrew, the word used says that God calls Abraham “lover of Me”.) (Is 41:8; 2Chr 20:7) He could never have done what he did if he did not love the LORD. Jesus tells us that if we love Him we will do what He says. We will keep His commandments with our faith in Him. (Jn 14:15; Jn 15:9-17)
v 24 James is telling us that it is obvious to see that a person is justified by works, and not by faith only. Our faith saves us; our works prove our faith is real.
v 25 James uses another example of someone that was known as a sinner – Rahab the harlot, and also a Gentile – to prove this point of works of faith proving our faith. She received the two Israeli spies, and made a Kingdom of God choice to protect them, even though this meant betraying her own pagan countrymen and culture, whom the God of Israel had pronounced judgment upon. (Josh 2; 6:15-25; Heb 11:31) Her loyalty to the people of the true God justified her faith in God and in His people, and the God of Israel honored her, giving her a place with His people and of the royal lineage of the Messiah. (Mt 1:1-6)
We see that there is a difference between good works and works of faith. What Abraham did with Isaac, and what Rahab did towards her own people are not given us as examples of good works. They would never be considered good works! But, they were works of faith in the true God and Redeemer. And by these works, their faith in the Creator and Judge of all was found to be genuine, justifying their faith before men.
v 26 James is very direct, telling us that just as the body without the spirit (breath) is dead, so is faith without works. There is no conflict between James and Paul.
A few simple examples of what could be works of faith for some of us in our country:
—baptism: Both Judaism and Islam, and also some Christian denominations, know that someone getting baptized in water as a believer is making a definitive public statement of identifying with Yeshua/Jesus the Messiah/Christ, who died for our sins, was buried, and rose again. We trust in God’s righteousness, not in our own, nor in our own customs and traditions. We can be ostracized by our families, friends, culture, and “thrown out of the vineyard”. (There is a spiritual dimension to this simple natural act of baptism of one who has faith, even though the baptism itself does not save.) For those who get baptized – the first commandment for a believer – under such circumstances is an act of obedience with faith. (Mk 16:16; Acts 2:38; Jn 12:37-45; Rom 6:1-11; Acts 16:29-34)
—assembling together: In a generation and culture where assembling together as a congregation/church can be “passe” to many, or dangerous in certain communities, making it a point to congregate together with other believers to worship our God and Savior, to bless and encourage one another, break bread together, to pray, to hear and respond to the Word of God is a statement of faith to our families and friends and to those who discourage physically gathering together as the Spirit of God calls us to do. He invites us, and goes with us. If we are there, He will do His part among us. The Lord calls us to corporate worship and relationship, not “keeping our religion” a private matter. (Heb 10:25; Acts 2:42)
—evangelizing: In a culture and a generation that discourages proclaiming the good news (the gospel) of salvation through Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of God, and that there is no other name (in whatever language) by whom any one can be saved, we are commanded and exhorted to tell others what we have freely received by the very Creator and Redeemer Himself. (Mt 28:18-20; 1Pt 3:13-17)
To sum up: the Apostle Paul teaches that we are saved by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died on the cross for our sins, was buried, and rose bodily from among the dead on the third day. This faith in God, and in what He says about His Son, justifies the sinner (all are sinners) before God. God reckons this person as righteous, and he/she inherits the Kingdom of God and eternal life.
The Apostle James here teaches that one who has repented from his unbelief to believe the gospel will demonstrate that faith by works of faith, and righteous fruit for God. The thief on the cross, who became a believer in a remarkable way, did what he could in his circumstances that proved his faith in Yeshua was true.
What James writes us is that both Abraham and Rahab both proved that their faith in the true God was real, alive by the works of faith that they did. By their works those in their day, and we today, see their faith by their works.
Both Jewish and Gentile believers often speak of their faith, and make that profession something special: “faith works”; “faith-based” whatever, justifying even unequally yoking with those of no faith, or those of other faiths. But faith in what? In whom? What life are they living that proves that their faith is in the true God – YHVH, the Creator of the heavens and the Earth, the seas, and all that is in them — and in His Word? This is the question that we need to ask ourselves. (2Cor 13:5; 2Pt 1:10-11; 1Cor 11:26-32) Our desire is to give glory to God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ – how great and good He is! — not to simply seek to save our own lives or reputations. (Mt 16:24-27) We must deny ourselves, pick up our [own] cross daily, and follow the Lamb, Yeshua, wherever He leads us.
Works of faith will risk everything in order to show that we fear the Lord and love Him above all, trusting Him for the outcome. When we do obey Him mixed with faith, His joy will fill us, and He will call us His friends, those who love Him. (Jn 15:5-17) How good is that!
This article originally appeared on Streams in the Negev, August 6, 2022, and reposted with permission.