“James isn't the only writer in the New Testament who championed a faith that works hard. For all his teaching on grace, and the foundational theology of salvation by faith alone, Paul was also committed to this idea. In perhaps Paul's most famous passage on salvation by grace alone (and not by ‘works’), he immediately describes a faith that will, indeed, be hard at work. Ephesians 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. –Andy Cook, lifeway.com
Paul uses the example of Abraham to show that justification is by faith, not by works. “What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt” (Romans 4:1-4).
Now James says that that Abraham was justified by his works. In spite of the apparent contradiction, Paul and James are looking at different sides of the same coin. Paul is writing of justification before God, James justification before men! A faith that produces no change is no faith at all!
It is a faith that shows itself through works. As has been said by others, “We are not saved by our works but rather by a faith that works.” This is an important point because so many satisfy themselves that they are saved simply because they have believed intellectually, but yet have not experienced the life-change that should accompany true faith. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
“Suppose you buy a tree on a plot of ground. The man who sold it to you told you that the tree is a fruit tree. You can't tell by looking; but you're assured that the roots of a fruit tree are truly in the ground. And you wait. And as the months and years roll by, and you never see any fruit, you conclude that the true nature of the roots of the tree are exhibited (or perhaps we should say ‘not exhibited’). In terms of what the tree was proposed to be, you find that it's useless because there is no fruit. Similarly, James asks what profit it is if someone claims to have saving faith, but has none of the fruits in the form of good works that such saving faith should produce. James says that such a faith is of no value. It may be like the tree - impressive to look at; but it will be of no value in the thing it was supposed to accomplish.’ –bethanybible.org
In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul just as clearly states that we were not saved by works, then he immediately adds that we are “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
James is not disputing that we are saved by faith alone. Rather, he is dealing with the question, what is true saving faith?
Verse 18: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
James here introduces an imaginary person who presents his objection to what has just been stated. James now sets out to demonstrate the vanity of believing that something is true without acting upon that belief. James replies that it is impossible to verify faith apart from works, since faith is a hidden attitude of the heart. The only way that we can see true faith is by the person’s works.
The works about which James is writing are not done apart from faith but done in faith, and because of faith. Faith is the underlying stance of the Christian life; works are a way of life for every believer. James contends for a showing of both faith and works, by saying, “I will show you my faith by my works.” He does not object to faith; he objects only to faith not accompanied by action. Simply stated, he wants Christians to have a faith that works.
“The burden of this section is not (as is often supposed) that we are saved through faith plus works, but that we are saved through genuine, as opposed to counterfeit, faith.” –John MacArthur
Verse 19: “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!”
Now James takes us right to the heart of Jewish belief, the Shema which means “hear,” the Hebrew word that begins the most important prayer in Judaism. It is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, this entire Shema prayer serves as the centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer services, and encapsulates the monotheistic essence of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
“‘Ah,’ says the first man solemnly, ‘I am a believer. I believe that God is One just as He told me to…’ ‘Well done,’ says the other. That puts you on a par with the Devil and his minions. For the demons also believe, and it makes them shudder.’ The thought is that it should make this man professing faith consider whether it should make him shudder too when he thinks how hypocritical he is being. We note that this man, like the Devil, is fully aware of the One God, but he makes no response to Him in his life. It makes him no different from those who have no faith at all. It actually make him no different from the Devil, for it produces nothing positive within him.” –Peter Pett
“James commends professing believers for holding to this truth: ‘You do well.’ Then he sticks in the knife: ‘The demons also believe, and shudder.’ The demons are doctrinally orthodox!” –Steven J. Cole
Belief in the One True God is good! 89% of Americans believe in God (Pew Research Center). If believing in God were enough, all the demons would go to heaven also. Because, as you know, they believe in God. But, if you merely accept the fact of God, and this belief does not translate itself into action in your life, you are really no different from the demons.
Verse 20: “But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?”
“O foolish man,” “foolish in Greek is, moros, meaning, stupid, vain, puffed up with pride, trusting to outward privileges, empty or without content.
In this passage, “dead” argos, the Greek meaning is, useless, idle, lazy, and thoughtless. Argos, literally means without work, without labor, doing nothing, as one not working the ground and so living without labor. So what James is saying is faith without works is non-working regarding salvation (it does not produce salvation).
So James concludes that faith without works…
•Does not save (James 2:14).
•Does not profit (James 2:16).
•Is dead (James 2:17).
•Is useless (James 2:20).
Verse 21: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?” (see Genesis 22)
The conduct of Abraham, when offering his son Isaac on the altar, sufficiently proves that he believed in God, and that it was his faith in God that led him to this extraordinary act of obedience?
Romans 4:1-5 NLT, “Abraham was, humanly speaking, the founder of our Jewish nation. What did he discover about being made right with God? If his good deeds had made him acceptable to God, he would have had something to boast about. But that was not God’s way. For the Scriptures tell us, ‘Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.’ When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned. But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners.”
Hebrews 11:17-19, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called,’ concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense.”
Verse 22: “Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?”
“Faith” is literally “the faith,” it has the definite article the in Greek. Obviously it refers to Abraham's faith which although not present in the previous verse was assumed present because without “the faith,” the deed would not have transpired. And this makes the point that James has been trying to drive home, that Abraham's “faith” was living as seen by the obedient action that resulted from it.
“The Bible recognizes no faith that does not lead to obedience, nor does it recognize any obedience that does not spring from faith. The two are opposite sides of the same coin.” –A.W. Tozer
“Working together” speaks of an intimate relationship, to be a partner in work, co-laborer, to cooperate, to assist. Here James uses it to show that faith works together with works and so it achieves visibility and hence fulfillment in the works.
“The saints of God are sealed inwardly with faith, but outwardly with good works.” –John Boys
Verse 23,24: “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.”
“And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God.” (Romans 4:3).
It needs to be noted that Abraham is the only person in the Bible who is called a “friend of God.” It is also notable that “friend of God” is the distinctive title for Abraham among the Arabs today.
2 Chronicles 20:7, “Are You not our God, who drove out the inhabitants of this land before Your people Israel, and gave it to the descendants of Abraham Your friend forever?”
Isaiah 41:8, “But you, Israel, are My servant, Jacob whom I have chose the descendants of Abraham My friend.”
“The obedient faith that James is describing is not just outward obedience to a list of commandments. It is certainly not a grudging obedience to a cruel taskmaster. Rather, it is an obedience that involves personal friendship with the holy God of the universe! So when you believe in Christ as the one who died for your sins, God not only declares you righteous. He also calls you ‘into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Corinthians 1:9).” –Steven Cole
Our Unfailing Friend – “As a young man, Joseph Scriven had been engaged to a woman he deeply love. But tragedy struck the night before their wedding when the boat she was in capsized and she drowned. In the hope of forgetting the shock, which he never did, Joseph left his home in Ireland and went to Canada.
There he taught school and served as a tutor. He chose to live very simply, spending his money and strength in generously providing for destitute people. At times he even gave away his own clothing. He was considered an eccentric by some, yet all he tried to do was obey God's Word as best he could understand it. In his loneliness, Joseph Scriven needed a steadfast friend. Having found that friend in Jesus Christ, he wrote these simple words, which movingly express his experience:
What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer!
Even if we have been blessed with deeply enriching friendships, we all need Joseph Scriven's Friend. But before we can know Jesus as our Friend, we must know Him as our Savior. Then, through all of our changing circumstances, He will be the One we can depend on–our unfailing Friend.” Vernon C. Grounds, Our Daily Bread.
Christ's friendship prevails even when human friendship fails.
Verse 25: “Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?” (see Joshua 2)
“Rahab the prostitute is another example. She was shown to be right with God by her actions when she hid those messengers and sent them safely away by a different road” (James 2:24 NLT).
Although James does not mention Rahab's faith as it did with Abraham, the writer of Hebrews does provide a record of Rahab's faith, “By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace” (Hebrews 11:31). The Implication is that her faith showed itself genuine in her obedience. Her courageous actions demonstrated her faith.
“Likewise,” meaning “in the same way,” (homoios in Greek) means Rahab was similar to Abraham in one important aspect, specifically that she, like Abraham was shown to be righteous by her actions. Her faith was conspicuous and she demonstrated it by receiving the spies and risking her life to protect them. James saw her actions as proof that she was truly a believer.
“Since Rahab's immoral past is not minimized, why would James illustrate his point in such a way? In Abraham's case one might reason that good deeds would be those expected from such a one who was called by God ‘exalted father.’ On the other hand, from Rahab the harlot good deeds would hardly be expected. James' juxtaposition of Biblical characters is his way of saying that from the best to the worst of saved sinners, good deeds are still an expected fruit.” –preceptaustin.org (edited slightly)
James assumes Rahab's faith and emphasizes that it was a genuine faith as evidenced by the deeds it produced. In New Testament terms Paul's description would be appropriate of Rahab the harlot who became Rahab the true believer: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Moral virtue may wash the outside, but faith washes the inside.
“For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”
“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
The supreme Creator of heaven and earth did two things in creating man. First, He formed him from the very dust of the ground, and, second, He breathed His own breath into the nostrils of Adam. This distinguished man from all of God’s other creatures.
A body without the spirit is just dust, it is dead and does not move, act, live, or work because it is empty, totally useless and worthless just like a faith without works. “An inactive faith, entombed in an intellectually approved creed, is of no more value than a corpse. A saving faith is an active faith.”–Hiebert
Conclusion: After reading this section perhaps you have questions about the genuineness of your faith. If so then consider assessing your life with the following 3 questions adopted from Dr Grudem's text on Systematic Theology… a Long-Term Pattern of Growth in My Christian Life? “1) Do I Have a Present Trust in Christ for Salvation? 2) Is There Evidence of a Regenerating Work of the Holy Spirit in My Heart? 3) Do I See a Long-Term Pattern of Growth in My Christian Life?”
Here are some questions we can ask ourselves as we examine our hearts:
1. Was there a time when I honestly realized I was a sinner and admitted this to myself and to God? “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
2. Was there a time when my heart was stirred within me to flee from the wrath to come? Have I ever considered the consequences of my sins? “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
3. Do I truly understand the Gospel, that Christ died for my sins and arose again? Do I understand and confess that I cannot save myself? “That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
4. Did I sincerely repent of my sins and turn from them? Or do I secretly love sin and want to enjoy it? “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).
5. Have I trusted Christ and Christ alone for my salvation? Do I enjoy a living relationship with Him through the Word and in the Spirit? “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
6. Has there been a change in my life? Do I maintain good works, or are my works occasional and weak? Do I seek to grow in the things of the Lord? Can others tell that I have been with Jesus? (2 Corinthians 5:17).
7. Do I have a desire to share Christ with others? Or am I ashamed of Him? “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
8. Do I enjoy the fellowship of God's people? Is worship a delight to me? “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25 NLT).
9. Am I ready for the Lord's return? Or will I be ashamed when He comes for me? “And now, my little children, stay in happy fellowship with the Lord so that when he comes you will be sure that all is well and will not have to be ashamed and shrink back from meeting him” (1 John 2:28 TLB).
To be sure, not every Christian has the same personal experience; and there are degrees of sanctification. But for the most part, the preceding spiritual inventory can assist a person in determining his true standing before God.” –Warren Wiersbe (Scripture verses added by author)
Unless otherwise noted, the New King James Version of the Bible was used. Also The New Living Translation (NLT); The New American Standard Bible (NASB); The Message (MSG); The New Century Version (NCV); The Amplified Bible (AMP); The King James Version (KJV), The New Life Version (NLV); English Standard Version (ESV); J.B. Phillips New Testament; Easy to Read Version (ERV); Common English bible (CEB); NET Bible (NET) and The Living Bible (TLB). Contemporary English Version (CEV).