Amazing Grace Baptist Church, Hamburg
Bible study material on James 2:14-26
As our previous studies have shown, one of the main emphasis of James is practical righteousness in the Christian life. This lesson looks at James 2:14-26 by focusing on James teaching about the relationship between faith, works and justification (salvation).
Faith and deeds in the teachings of Paul and James
James 2:14-26 has historically created many difficulties in the history of interpretation. Some scholars who follow Martin Luther, for instance, are of the view that this passage, especially James 2:24 contradict Paul’s teaching in Romans 3:28. To them, both James and Paul used the example of Abraham to illustrate these apparently opposite points (Romans 4:1-5; James 2:21-23). However, this lesson follows the view that there is no contradiction to Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone as described in Romans 4:1-8 and James 2:14-26. For in the teaching of James, faith produces works. It is not faith and works that save/justify but for James, it is the works that proceed from faith. Works for James are good deeds done to one’s fellow or other brethren. These works are the sum of a changed life that is brought about by faith. Faith that does not inevitably result in good works and a changed life is considered dead faith.
It is worth noting that the differences between Paul’s teaching in Romans 4:1-8 and James 2:14-26 is an emphasis not in the message. James and Paul had a different set of false teachers in mind which they addressed. Whereas Paul’s opponents were the Jewish legalists, James’ opponents were the Jewish aristocrats. The legalists way of salvation was “works.” This has to do with the moral and ceremonial acts performed in obedience to the law. On the other hand, the aristocrat’s way of salvation was “faith.” This faith was mere orthodoxy of belief. That is literal and intellectual adherence to Judaism without any clear practical obedience.
To the legalists, on the one hand, Paul teaches that we are justified not by our own good works but through faith in Christ. To the aristocrats, on the other hand, James explains that we are justified not by mere confession of faith (barre orthodoxy) which even the demons possess and shudder (James 2:19) but works especially care for the needy. Paul adds that saving faith inevitably results in good works (Ephesians 2:8-10; Gal 5:6). James, however, affirms that works which save is naturally derived from true faith (James 2:15) and the absence of good works evidences the absence of true faith (James 2:17).
Negative examples of faith that does not save (James 2:18-19)
James demonstrates that there is faith that someone claims to have (James 2:14) which is not a true or saving faith. Thus, James gives two examples of faith that could be described as a false faith. That is faith that is separate from works and a faith that is the mere intellectual assent to a certain creed (2:18-19). These could be described as a faith that is totally weak in regard to salvation. It is likened, in the first place, to empty words of a well-wisher who when a poor and destitute brother asks for food and clothing, says, “go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and does not give the person in need the things necessary for the body (2:15-16). These words are totally useless and of no profit to the poor and destitute person. To James, the same is true for a faith that has no works.
James also observes, in the second place that such a situation is likened to demons. To him, demons believe and tremble. The trembling denotes the fear which stands in contrast to the peace of salvation. And a faith which brings about only this type of fear is a barren faith.
Positive examples of faith that saves
This is the final section of the passage and James identifies two examples of genuine faith namely the case of Abraham and Rahab. In the first place, Abraham was shown to be righteous by works when he offered up his son Isaac upon the altar. Abraham was already declared righteous by God many years previously to this action as seen in Gen 15:6. In this regard, Abraham’s subsequent works proved or demonstrated the righteousness that he had previously attained by faith alone. This perspective fits the context of James’ argument as well since his primary theme has been that faith without works is dead. Thus, true faith will evidence itself in works and these works demonstrate or show that one has already been declared to be righteous.
The second positive example relates to Rahab. One thing that is special about Rahab is that she was a prostitute. That shows that God justifies people by faith (in the Pauline sense of the word “justify”). God then changed Rahab into good works (James 2 sense of the word). From this example, James paints the picture that even a harlot can demonstrate herself to be righteous by works which are produced by faith.
In the teaching of James, we are in fact, saved neither by dead faith (James 2:17) nor by dead works (Hebrews 6:1; 9:14), but by a living faith which results in “love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24). It is worth noting that we cannot be saved by works. Instead, faith that saves leads to works. The role of works is not to earn salvation but to demonstrate it. It is meant not to procure salvation but to prove it. Significantly, the reality of our faith is revealed in how we live our lives. In this light, both Paul and James wholeheartedly agree by referring to Abraham who trusted God’s promises and therefore obeyed God’s command.
Questions for application
1. How is James’ teaching about faith and works different from that of Paul in terms of their opponents and emphasis?
2. How does the example of Abraham demonstrate true faith?
3. We cannot be saved by good works, instead a faith that saves results in good works. Explain.
4. State three examples of false faith in the contemporary church.