James 2:17 faith and works in harmony

Some of the statements made by James, taken out of context, have given many Christians cause for concern.  Sometimes he appears to give good works a place in our justification before God, yet Paul shows that justification is by faith alone.  Is there a contradiction?  Luther, for example, tended to write off James’ letter.  To discover the truth of the matter we consider James 2:17 Faith and works in harmony.

1. Dead faith

In v14-26 James uses ‘faith’ in 2 senses: there is the faith which some claim, but which is unaccompanied by works, and saving faith which is always accompanied by works.  The ‘faith’ of v14 is a dead faith which has 2 characteristics:

            (i). Ineffective manward.  An example is one’s attitude to a Christian in need.  This person can use pious, high-sounding phrases (v15-16) which are in fact a hollow mockery.  There is no effort to provide help.  The attitude of such a person is a sustained and deliberate failure of love.  He claims he has faith and belongs to the people of God yet recognises no obligation to care for them.  James’ conclusion is ‘what good is it?’ (v16).  This is not real faith.  If real faith is present, we will not be able to contemplate need yet remain unmoved.

            (ii). Ineffective Godward.  The deficiency of this faith is shown in its full seriousness in v19.  We see a fully orthodox confession of truth – ‘You believe that there is one God’, yet this is no more than intellectual conviction, at best.  It is a shock to realise the company this man is in – ‘Even the demons believe that’.  They know that one true God exists, but they are devoid of trust in him.  This is not saving faith and their only response is terror.  Such faith is not really faith at all – it is dead.  Faith that does not result in works is spurious and deceptive and cannot give peace with God.  In living religion faith and works cannot be separated.

2. Living faith

James in no way undermines the place of faith in salvation (e.g. 2:1).  His concern is to show the nature of the faith that saves, a faith that always results in action.  Such faith is:

            (i). Effective Godward.  James uses the illustration of Abraham (v23), who showed his faith by his works (see Genesis 22).  The sacrifice of Isaac was the ultimate test of faith.  His actions proved what God already knew – Genesis 22:12.  By works faith is strengthened and brought to maturity – ‘his faith was made complete by what he did’ (v22).  Living faith results in a life of active consecration, shown in obedience to God that holds nothing back.

            (ii). Effective manward.  Living faith also holds nothing back from caring for human need.  The illustration is provided by Rahab who protected the Israelite spies from certain death (Joshua 2).  Her action resulted from her faith, which reached out in costly compassion.  The one who has faith will not shirk responsibility before God for others.  The physical and spiritual needs of others will move us, and not only the needs of believers (Galatians 6:10).  Only such living faith can save a sinner.  Here is a way to test the reality of our own faith.