By Pastor Glenn Pease
The passage we are looking at has been greatly misunderstood. Some have thought it contradicts what Paul says about being justified by faith. James says we are justified by works. They appear to be holding opposite views, but a close study of the words reveals that they are in perfect agreement. When Paul spoke of faith he meant a faith that works, and when he spoke of works he meant works before salvation trying to merit salvation. James speaks of faith as mere intellectual knowledge that even the demons have, and which is not saving faith. When he speaks of works he means those works after one is saved.
Let us not forget that the theme of James is always a practical faith. In chapter one he talked of the trial of faith, to pray in faith, and he begins this chapter withholding faith without respect of persons. Faith is the theme, but because of mistaken ideas on faith James stresses that true faith is a working faith. When Paul stressed faith he did not emphasize works because he wrote to those who were in danger of the deception that good works could save them. When James stresses works, he writes to those who are in danger of being so heavily minded they are of no earthly good. They are those who say they have faith, and that is all they need.
The proof that God knew what He was doing when He inspired two men to write about faith from two points of view is that two of the heresies that have plagued the church have grown out of extremes in one side or the other. Pelagians have said we'll work our way to heaven. Antinomians have said that we will ride on faith to heaven and do nothing. Paul and James are a team, and they strike down both of these heresies. Paul says in Eph. 2:8-10, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." Paul makes it clear we are not saved by good works, but for good works, and that is what James is saying. If your faith is true, it will show itself in works. James indicates that we can test the truth of our faith by asking two simple questions. First-
I. IS THERE ANY PROFIT IN MY FAITH. vv. 14-17.
James asks them what does it profit to have a faith without works? A faith that does not express itself in action is nothing but words. He gives a rather humorous illustration. The wind is howling outside as Christian A sets down by the fireside to eat a good meal. There is a knock at the door. Christian A opens the door, and there stands a member of his church, Christian B. He has no overcoat, but only a shabby light jacket. He tells Christian A of the fact that he lost his job, and hasn't been able to buy any groceries. Christian A, with all the compassion of a phonograph record says, "Well brother, you can count on me to pray for you. The Lord bless you. I will see you in church on Sunday." He shuts the door and goes back to his warm fireside chair and finishes his meal. Christian B continues to hunger in the cold.
Where is the profit in such foolishness says James. Can you really be so blind as to think that mere words can substitute for food? Do you think that a faith that is mere words can save your soul? The use of this illustration indicates that these Jewish Christians were giving a wrong meaning to faith in contrast with their old concepts of works. As Jews, before they became Christians, they thought alms-giving was a way to salvation. Ben Sirach wrote, "Water will quench a flaming fire, and alms maketh an atonement for sin." In Tobit we read, "Everyone who occupieth himself in alms shall behold the face of God, as it is written, I will behold thy face by almsgiving." This is why the Pharisees wanted everyone to see them giving alms.
What happened was that when the Jews accepted salvation by the free grace of God, they forgot the other half of the Gospel, and they said that since alms do not save us we can forget that aspect of our old faith. But James is warning them that faith without works is dead. We are saved by faith, but not by a dead faith. We are saved by a living faith that loves God and man, and desires to express the love of God to man by deeds of love and compassion. As Paul says, though I have faith to remove mountains and have not love, I am nothing. Why? Because God is not interested by moving mountains by faith, but in moving men by love. There is no profit in a faith that does not express itself and works of love.
Men of true faith have been men whose faith brought profit in the sense of meeting the needs of men. Evangelical Christians have often considered the so called social Gospel a nasty word. The causes for this are obvious. It was so abused that it came to be that mere humanitarian works became the essence of the Gospel. Salvation by faith in Christ was neglected. Evangelicals made the same mistake as these Jews to whom James is writing. They were saying, "Since alms do not save us then we can forget alms altogether." And evangelicals were saying, "Since the social Gospel did not save anyone, we can forget humanitarian works."
James is trying to get Christians to see that a true faith is of profit in all areas of life, because a true faith acts on what it believes. John Wesley made an amazing impact on the world by his preaching, but only because it was backed up by practice. When he was in Oxford College he began to give to the poor all that he did not need to live on. He made 30 pounds that year, and he lived on 28. He gave the rest to the poor. The next year he made 60 pounds and still lived on 28. He gave the rest to the poor. He kept on making more but living on the 28. God did not require that, but here was a ma whose faith did not just profess, but it also produced. There was none of this, "be warmed and filled," with him. He went on to start the medical dispensary in London. He founded a home for widows, and a school for poor children. He also founded a loan fund for the poor. He was so concerned for the sick that he studied the anatomy and medicine on the side. He even wrote a book called Primitive Physic that went through at least 23 editions.
Wesley's faith was a true faith, and all the world can tell, for he not only preached the love of Christ he practiced it. The result was great profit for the kingdom of God. Not all of the people he helped received his message of salvation in Jesus Christ, but then, how many of the 5,000 that Jesus fed became His followers? Jesus did not love and have compassion because He saw it would pay off. He loved because it was His nature, and a true faith in Christ will cause us to love that way as well.
It is hard for us to see this sometimes because of our background. I'll admit that I sometimes wonder about the value of meeting people's needs other than their spiritual needs. But then I read the books of Frank Laubach. He was a man so dedicated to the task of helping the illiterates of the world to learn to read. He helped millions, and his system is working around the world every day. Why all this effort to teach people to read? One short paragraph from his book The World Is Learning Compassion will explain why. He writes,
"The most bruised people on this planet, the naked, the hungry,
the fallen-among-thieves, the sick, the imprisoned in mind and
soul, are the twelve hundred million adult illiterates. At least
a billion of them are virtually slaves! Almost every illiterate is
in debt all his life, and his children, and his children's children
inherit the debt. He does not know how much his debt is, nor
whether the interest on it is correct. The money lender takes all
he can take and still keep his victim alive. It would be silly for
him to kill the animal that makes him rich. In one form or
another, this is the black sorrow of nearly every illiterate in the
As I pondered the labors of Frank Laubach I became convinced that he is demonstrating the faith the James is looking for. It is the faith that is of profit because it works and expresses the love of God. This picture of millions upon millions of enslaved people for whom Christ died is beyond us, but we ought to thank God for a man who has the power, skill, and compassion to reach them. How can we doubt that this man has a true biblical faith? Can our faith be true if it does not rejoice in the efforts to relieve the world of the miseries caused by sin?
James is trying to illustrate the fact that if our faith is not profitable for others, it is of no profit to us either. Can such a faith save you he asks, and he answers by his illustration-no! A faith that cannot even feed a hungry man can hardly be an adequate faith to save a man's soul. If a faith doesn't work it is dead, and a dead faith is not a saving faith. A work-less faith is a worthless faith. Therefore, a test of a true faith is found in asking ourselves-is there any profit in our faith? Is the world a better place where we are because we are men and women of faith? Leonard Ravenhill wrote,
Could a mariner sit idol if he heard the drowning cry?
Could a doctor sit in comfort and just let his patience die?
Could a fireman sit idol, let men burn and give no hand?
Can you sit at ease in Zion with the world around you damned?
If you can, James would have us consider, what does it profit brethern, can such a faith save us? Secondly, we need to ask-
II. IS THERE ANY PROOF OF MY FAITH. vv. 18-26
This amounts to the same thing really, but James handles it from the point of view of an argument here. He wants to prove that, not only from a practical point of view, but from a logical point of view, a faith without works is dead. In verse 18 he says, some man, that is a third party says, "Well here it is, you Jewish Christians have faith, and James has works." This man puts all Christians into these categories. Some are just people of faith, and others are workers. So this man is trying to throw a blanket over the whole thing, and just say, "Let's forget about the matter. To each his own."
James will not buy that theory. He says, "I have faith too, but I have proof of my faith in my works. How do you prove your faith without works? How do you know you have any faith at all? If you have no works, how does your faith differ from indifference and unbelief? Oh I see, you are Orthodox in your theology. You believe there is one God. Well, that is fine. It proves your good sense, and brings you as high as the devil's religion anyway, but that is a far cry from Christian faith. Let me show you from history that your kind of faith is dead."
He had been asking, where is the profit of such faith? Now he is asking, where is the proof that faith even exists at all? Someone said that faith is like calories. The only way you know they are there is by their visible results. We cannot see them, but we know them by their fruits, if you can call an expanding waistline a fruit. The point that James is making here is, you cannot show me that you even have faith without works, but by works I can prove to you that I also have faith. The invisible can only be known by its visible results. Power is invisible. No one has ever seen power, but all have seen its results.
Whether or not a battery has power in it can only be proven by putting it to the test to see if it can produce any visible results. Can it start a car, or turn on lights, or make the indicator on a meter move? This is true with all that is invisible. It might be love, hope, courage, kindness, or joy, but they are all known only by the visible results which they produce, and without those results there is no possible way to prove that they even really exist. Therefore, a faith without works is like a battery that will not do anything. The battery is dead, and so is the faith. You cannot have a kind man who never does a kind deed. Kindness can only be proven by some visible act that reveals its existence, and so it is with faith.
In verse 19 James says that even if you are orthodox in your theology, but you do nothing, you have no proof of your faith. Monotheism is a basic doctrine. The Jews quoted Deut. 6:4 every morning and evening, and the Orthodox still do to this day. This is called the Shema, "The Lord our God is one Lord." James would not deny that this is a basic truth that must be believed, but he wants to make it clear that if this belief does not cause us to serve this one Lord, we are deceived. The devil himself is a monotheist, and there are no atheistic demons. When Jesus cast them out they knew Him, and they said, "I know Thee who Thou art, the holy one of God." And, "What have we to do with Thee Thou Son of the Most High." Can it be believed for a second that a faith that goes no further than that of demons can save your soul? If there are no works growing out of your faith, your religion is lower than that of demons, for they at least tremble at the fact of one God. Their belief produces some results.
The demons are not better off for their knowledge. They are orthodox, and they probably have a better theology than anybody, because they know the facts about the realm of the supernatural. All of their good theology, however, does not cause them to obey God and bring forth good works, and so it is dead orthodoxy, and dead faith.
A man can say, "I believe the sun is 93 million miles away. I believe that friction causes heat. I believe that Christ died for sinners." They are all facts which he can believe and be none the better. James says the ability to produce certain sounds with your tongue has no power to save your soul. Many people say I believe in one God, and I believe in Christ, but James asks, "What difference is there in your life because you do?" If there is no difference, you haven o proof that you are a believer. John the Baptist said to people, "Bring forth fruits worthy of repentance." In other words, show some proof that you have repented.
When you stop and think about this, you can see how sensible the argument of James is. We don't think of people basically because of their theology. When you think of some Christian you greatly admire, you are usually thinking of their loving kindness and Christian actions, and not their views of the trinity. It is by behavior that we impress people with our Christian faith and not by our belief. It is what we do, and not what we say that will be remembered. What we do is the fruit of what we believe, and so belief is the root, but it is the fruit that is the proof that the root is there. If there are no fruits, James want to know how we can even prove there is any root at all.
James uses Abraham as an example. His faith was known to be real because of his works. He believed God's promise to make a great nation of his seed, and he proved he believed it by being willing to offer his son on the altar. That was God's test. Would his faith have been any good if he did not act on it? Not at all. By works his faith was made perfect. Faith is not complete until it acts.
James begins the chapter with a warning about respect of persons, and now he practices what he preaches, for he illustrates his point, not just from the great Abraham who was a good man even before he believed God, but from the lowly Rahab who was a wicked woman before she believed. He is illustrating that be it male or female, great or small, the same principle holds true that faith without works is dead. She proved her faith was not mere words by helping the messengers of Israel escape, and by later hanging out the cord on the wall of Jericho.
The great artist Gustave Dore lost his passport while traveling through Europe. When he came to a check point he was asked to produce the document by the officer in charge. Dore explained that he lost his passport but said he was Dore the artist. The officer said that people often parade under a false identity, and he would have to somehow prove that he was Dore. He quickly took out his work case and began to sketch the view from that spot. The officer looked at the sketch and said, "Now I am sure you are Dore. No one else can draw like that." Dore could back up his words with action. He had practical proof that gave validity to his claim. People need to look at our lives and see evidence in action that back up our claims to be Christian. The world is not looking for a definition of faith, but a demonstration of faith.
So if you want to know if your faith is a true saving faith just examine it, and ask, is it profitable and is it provable. If it works, it is alive and real. If it only moves the tongue to say the right things, but does not move the person to practical action, then, like the body without the spirit, it is dead. All of us need to ask God to help us practice what we profess, for only as we do can we know that our faith is true.