Verse 17 is the position statement of James on this matter. James has just told us that if a brother or sister comes to us for warmth and we give the traditional farewell or the formulaic response, without ever really helping them with warmth then our words are no good. James listed a specific situation and then gave his position on the matter.
The NIV does a good job of rendering his words, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Many in the time of James knew the will of God about certain things. Many, schooled in the principles of the OT knew that God desired attention to the poor. However, what good is that knowledge if we do not allow it to move us to positive action? None. This is a faith that has neither physical benefit for others nor the benefit of personal salvation.
It is interesting to remember that Paul’s use of works is different from that of James. Paul mainly speaks of “works” in a negative way to describe actions done apart from a genuine faith. This type of work is rooted in human boasting and is a human attempt to gain favor with God based upon merit (See Romans 9:32). Conversely, James references a work that naturally develops from genuine faith (2:21-26). “When Paul speaks of faith, he speaks of it as including the works of faith. When James speaks of faith in this instance, he speaks of false faith that does not result in the works of faith. When any apostle speaks of works resulting from faith as saving anyone, inherent in those works is included the faith that is the only way whereby those works can be produced.”
Argument from Reason - James 2:18-20
Before we approach the text further consider vss. 18-20 rendered by the NET:
But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith without works and I will show faith by my works. (19) You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that and tremble with fear. (20) But would you like evidence, you empty fellow, that faith without works is useless?
The meaning of the objector here can vary according to commentarians. However, what is most crucial is that, regardless of the argument from the hypothetical objector, no one can demonstrate their faith apart from works. To compound the absurdity of the antithesis to this position James says that the demons believe in one God, and even tremble. The one who simply says he believes is worse off than the demons because they do more than believe this fact, they shutter at it.
The claim of the objector has been seen as empty. Thus James rhetorically asks if more evidence is needed. The NIV uses “empty” and the NKJV “foolish” in describing the person who simply says they have faith, but is never demonstrated. The Greek word here, kene, means hollow or empty. If the empty person still desires evidence that works validate faith, then familiar figures of OT history will be presented, e.g. Abraham and Rahab.
Argument from Torah - James 2:21-25
The use of Abraham here is brilliant. The Genesis account of Abraham says, “Abraham believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6, NKJV). At this particular time Abraham did nothing but believe and continue his life of obedience. God made Abraham a promise and Abraham sincerely believe the promise and because the faith was genuine, it was accounted to Abraham for righteousness, even though it was impossible, for the moment, to demonstrate the genuineness of his faith in a tangible way. God in his omniscience and power knows full well those who have genuine faith or no. We are justified by faith even though the person has not yet lived out their faith over time.
The dichotomy of the works of some and those of Abraham is that Abraham did not offer his son in an attempt to earn favor with God. Therefore it was not a work done for human merit, but done in loving obedience to the Almighty.
In Genesis 15:6 the Hebrew verb translated as “believed” (Genesis 15:6) simply means that Abraham trusted God. This believing on God was continual and it was imitative of God. This principle is “most famously expressed in Leviticus 19:2, “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (for NT formulations of this principle, see, e.g., Matt 5:43-48; 1 Cor 11:1). It is no surprise, therefore, that if Yahweh is faithful, it is expected of Israel that they should be faithful too. Abraham then was committed to God; his live would be a life of living by faith (Habakkuk 2:4).
The faith of Abraham was not merely mental assent, as demonstrated later in Abraham’s life (c.f. Genesis 22:1-14; James 2:21-23). Genuine faith, necessarily, is transformative. Those who believe will make their faith evident. This does not mean, however, that the only faith that is valid is faith demonstrated. The fact that genuine faith will be demonstrated does not make it invalid simply because it was not demonstrated. Abraham was to trust and believe that God do as He promised.
The genuineness of Abraham’s faith was later demonstrated in a tangible sense when he offered Isaac, (c.f. Genesis 22:1-14; James 2:21-23) but it later serves to prove that Abraham was justified apart from and prior to works. Although faith results in obedience to God’s commands, justification occurs at the point of faith.
The use of Rahab is brilliant as well. Rahab put her faith in action. Not only did she profess to be on the Lord’s side, she demonstrated it by lending the Israelites spies lodging and sending them in a different direction. It is also interesting to note the difference between Abraham’s situation and that of Rahab.
Apparently Abraham obeyed a direct command from God. Rahab, on the other hand, did what was seen as the right thing to do. She heard no explicit commands from God, as did Abraham, but she acted upon her faith in a practical way. A way, that in principle, many of us can use every day.
From divine perspective, faith seen with action is foreknown by God. From human perspective faith and action are anticipated almost simultaneously since the former is not seen by the human eye—only its works.
Conclusion: A Body Without a Spirit - James 2:26
No analogy is perfect, especially when we look for the weakness. It is wise, then, to be cautious with this example since it can be read so that works are THE animating cause of salvation. This is not so. Faith must come before any work. It is the job of faith to produce good works; it is not the job of works to produce faith. The point is simple, the result of removing works from faith is like removing the spirit from the body; it is dead.
Neither soul nor body is desirable alone; a body without its life-force is simply a rotting corpse. Likewise, says James, faith is useful when joined to works, but alone it is just dead, totally useless. Dead orthodoxy has absolutely no power to save and may in fact even hinder the person from coming to living faith.
James reminds all of us about the pressing and continuing concern for the thoughtful treatment of the poor (2:15-17). James also spurns the one who would say they have faith but never demonstrate said faith. He also reminds us of two very important figures in OT history—Abraham and Rahab. The use of these two figures demonstrates for us that that genuine faith results in tangible demonstrations of compassion for others. True religion lives. It is not dead and stale. The Letter of James relevantly demonstrates to us that that doctrinal purity alone is merely dead orthodoxy (verses 19-20).
Many have and still do point to such events as the Inquisition, or other blights upon Christendom historically, and measure our faith accordingly. A fresh observing, interpreting, and applying of this text can only serve to revive the doctrine of good works. Jesus said that we should let our “light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16 NIV)
James encourages us to leave a “pretended faith that does not work.” Since “the hypocrite merely “says” that he has faith (James 2:14). A searching, groping world is looking for relevance and answers it seems only right to demonstrate a Christ and a church, full of believers, who are energized and activated by love and through faith.
“Unproductive faith cannot save, because it is not genuine faith. Faith and works are like a two-coupon ticket to heaven. The coupon of works is not good for passage, and the coupon of faith is not valid if detached from works.” (Ryrie Study Bible, p. 421 2:24)
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