Faith Without Works is Dead

Sermon preached on James 2:14-26 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 03/21/2021 in Novato, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

James has been getting us to consider our faith in relation to our practice. As we said in our introductory sermon on James, this letter has us consider the relationship of orthodoxy with orthopraxy. Today’s passage is at the heart of such matters asserting that true, saving faith will have a lively practice that flows from it. Let us be blessed as we consider this important biblical teaching about how one’s true faith is seen their living. This truth also carries with it several important applications, including a call to examine that we are in the faith.

Before we really dig into the details of our text for today, I’d like to begin in our first point by addressing the question of how this passage relates to the Apostle Paul’s teaching on justification. This passage in James has been a challenge to many in trying to reconcile it with Paul’s teaching, especially passages like Galatians 2:16. There Paul says, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” We can’t help but notice a certain similarity Paul’s language in Galatians with James’ here. They even both use the example of Abraham. Some critics have claimed Paul and James contradict each other and use that to try to discredit the Bible. Others, like the Roman Catholics have tried to use James here to argue against the Protestants, arguing that one is justified by faith and works. Yet I would submit to you that neither things are true. We will see today that there is no necessary contradiction here between James and Paul. We will also see that Paul’s teaching in the technical sense on justification through faith alone is not in any way diminished when we understand what James is actually addressing here when he distinguishes between living faith and dead faith.

So then let me challenge the presumptuous assumption that James and Paul were in conflict with each other. You see an assumption is an assumption. To look at the similarity of these passages and to assume a conflict certainly is not how God would have us to operate when we come to his Holy Word. Unbelievers often approach God’s Word with suspicion and assuming conflicts. However, we should approach God’s Word in faith and look for how passages can be harmonized before just asserting a contradiction. In this case, there are certainly alternative explanations for why Paul and James use some similar concepts here in their writings even while making different points and addressing different concerns. One alternative is that James as one of the earliest books written in the New Testament may have been responding to people who were out misrepresenting Paul’s teachings in some antinomian way, maybe even before James even met Paul. Since there are people today who still misrepresent Paul like that, such is not inconceivable. It is also possible that the similarity in content and language was simply coincidental. But as we’ll see today, the actual content and theological points that James and Paul respectively are making do not contradict each other despite superficial similarities between the two passages.

To further make this point, I refer to what the New Testament tells us about Paul and James’ relationship as it developed. Nowhere is there a recorded conflict between the two. Rather, in Galatians 2:9 it describes how Paul met James and he approved of Paul’s ministry and message. That section of Galatians is so helpful because Paul describes there how his doctrine was against someone trying to be circumcised as a work of the law in order to be justified. Paul’s point in meeting with James and the other “pillars” in Jerusalem was to make sure everyone agreed together on this point. In fact, they were all in agreement in that point, recognizing that they all were teaching the one and the same gospel, Galatians 2:7. But then James and the other pillars gave Paul this exhortation: “But remember the poor”. And Paul said he was eager to do so. That passage in Galatians shows that Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone has no place to require a work like circumcision to be saved, yet it absolutely has a place for doing the work of caring for the poor. Of course, Paul would say that helping the poor isn’t what justifies you before God. I believe James is in agreement in that truth, even while James here makes the point that true justifying faith yields a concern to want to bear fruit of godliness like in wanting to help the poor.

So this first point in our sermon is to challenge the presumption that Paul and James were in conflict or that James here is teaching that one is justified before God through some works-based righteousness. The reality is that Paul and James are dealing with different concerns. Paul’s doctrine on justification through faith alone was speaking against any teaching that would want to make one’s righteous standing before God to be on the basis of your works and thus nullifying the grace of God and making unnecessary the cross of Christ. James, on the other hand, addresses a different concern altogether – that someone who would claim to have faith but their faith is fruitless with no evidence that their faith is actually true and alive should not think they are saved simply because they outwardly claim a profession of faith. So, Paul is speaking against various forms of moralism and Pharisaical religion and Judaizer concerns, while James speaks against various forms of dead orthodoxy and antinomianism.

So let’s now dig into the details to see what James does say about faith here. In our second point, I will now take us through a survey on what James says about faith in today’s passage. We’ll see that James concern is to understand what kind of faith is the true faith that saves us.

We begin our survey on faith then in verse 14. James speaks there of someone who has faith but not works. But notice he then asks, “Can that faith save him”. James doesn’t deny the role of faith as the instrument of our salvation. But he says there is a certain kind of faith that doesn’t save, implying that there is also a certain kind of faith that does save. You see, James is speaking against a certain kind of faith. J. Gresham Machen put it, “The faith that James is condemning is not the faith that Paul is commending.” Likewise, John Murray said about this, “The faith that does not work is not the faith that justifies.” And so, James here says there is a kind of faith that isn’t saving faith. Such a faith is identified, according to verse 14, by its absence of the fruit of godly works. Verse 17 restates this point. He describes a certain kind of bare faith that shows by its lack of works to be a dead faith. So, this is the point here. James doesn’t deny that a true, lively faith saves. Rather, he critiques any who claims faith when actually it is not a true, lively faith, but a fake, dead faith.

Verse 18 goes on to further clarify this. James imagines a conversation where it is suggested that some people have good deeds while others have faith, as if it could be one or the other. But James pushes back on that idea. He says there is no way to see someone’s faith except as it is demonstrated through their works. This gets into how we might recognize the credibility of someone’s faith. This is in fact a task Christ has assigned to the elders of the church who exercises the keys of the kingdom. Elders can only bring people into communicant membership in the church via discerning a credible profession of faith. The fruit that flows from someone’s faith has to be discerned by the elders in that case. Likewise, Jesus himself taught in the sermon on the mount that you can discern the state of people by their fruit (Matt 7:15-20). Or Paul talks in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 that good works flow out of one’s faith – they are a fruit of faith. So, again, verse 18 makes this important distinction that James isn’t denying that we are saved by faith, but he is concerned that we have real, genuine faith. Discerning such a lively faith is not just the job of church elders. It also is something that we should do ourselves in the form of self-examination. We want to see that we are in the faith and to make our calling and election sure, as Paul and Peter call us to do respectively (2 Cor 13:5, 2 Peter 1:10).

Verse 19 further adds to James’ definition of living, saving faith when he references demons. He noted that there can be truth that is believed without it representing the kind of faith that saves. Demons are fully convinced of various doctrines like monotheism. But they hold such doctrine in fear amidst their ongoing rebellion and hatred of God. So too, saving faith is not mere orthodox knowledge of God. For example, you could imagine someone who can answer all the doctrinal questions correct in a membership interview for the church but then when asked why God should allow them into heaven they say something like, “Well, I have lived a pretty good life, doing lots of good deeds.” Such an answer would show that no matter how much they knew the right doctrines, when it came to application they still were putting their trust in the wrong place, and such shows that they don’t have a true saving faith. Likewise, James points out here that there could be knowledge held like the demons do that doesn’t represent a faith that savingly trusts in Christ.

Verse 20 further expands on this by saying that such dead faith is useless. It is faith that does not accomplish anything; faith that does not have any value. See how he addresses this point in verse 20 to the foolish man, or it could be translated as the vain man. The idea is that the person who has such useless faith holds their faith in vain. How many people today have something they think to be a faith, they think to be a religion, but it is not true faith, not true religion, and we pity them because their false faith has been in vain. It won’t save them.

Verse 22 sees James describing how faith can be active and completed in someone’s works. The idea there seems to be bringing out how one’s faith is at work in and through their good works and that one’s works are a culmination or outcome of their faith. To say it another way, works that are truly good are only going to come from someone who has a true faith. Yes, an unbeliever might do things that are outwardly in conformity to God’s law. But only the believer can do good deeds in the motivation to do them in service to God, in obedience to God, for the glory of God. So, such truly good works can only flow out of true faith being put into action. And so, such good works are a culmination of our faith. God’s gift of faith in our lives culminates in bearing a mighty harvest of righteousness. That’s the point of the parable of the sower, where the Word fell on different soils, but only among the true believer did the Word take root and produce a harvest.

In verse 26, James then gives an analogy of the relationship to faith and works. He says it is like the relationship to the body and the spirit. Take away the spirit, the body is dead. Likewise, take away the works, the faith is dead. I wouldn’t overly push the comparison, because it is a simile not an identical relationship. But the point is you can’t separate faith and works in your practical living. They go hand in hand. If you had some supposed faith absence any fruit of works, James says you really don’t have real faith.

So then, what I’ve taken us through on this second point was a survey of what James teaches here about faith. I hope it has become clear that James wasn’t speaking against faith saving us. He was rather combatting those who would have a false faith, a faith in name only, a faith that was only lip service – such people have a dead faith, a counterfeit faith. That kind faith is not a saving faith. Here he combats any who would reduce the gospel into a salvation of easy believism – someone who thinks that faith has no need to look to live a godly life. Instead, James gets us to analyze the faith within someone’s profession. True faith, alive faith, faith that saves will manifest itself in various wonderful ways that can even be seen by someone’s works. And so, while Paul’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone is so essential for us to continue to hold, we agree with James that we don’t hold that doctrine in a sense that would remove an obligation for God’s people to live out their faith unto the Lord. The distinction is that our works are neither the grounds nor the instrument for our justification before God. This distinction might seem subtle, but it is an extremely important nuance. If we mess up this distinction, we can error on either the side of moralism or antinomianism. We want instead biblical doctrine of justification that holds these things in the right relationship.

This brings us then to our third point to see how James uses this language of justification so we can understand what James is talking about when we see him say things like verse 24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Let me start with a premise. Just because Paul and James both use the same word of being justified here does not mean they are using the term in the same way. Many quarrels about doctrine today in the church come not out of actual disagreement but by failing for each side to understand when the other side is using the same terms with different definitions. When we actually look at the points that James makes here about justification we see that he is talking about something different than what Paul is talking about. Paul is using the language of justification to refer to how someone can be considered righteous in God’s sight. James is using the language of justification to refer to how someone’s claim to faith is actually judged to be a valid claim of true faith. So, Paul and James use the same word of justification but to talk about two slightly different things. James usage is clear when we analyze the three examples he uses in this passage.

His first example about how the validity of our faith can be justified is in verses 15-16 with the analogy of interacting with a poor Christian. Verse 15 imagines a scenario where a poor Christian has real needs and someone claiming to be a believer says “Go, in peace, be warmed and filled,” but doesn’t give them the things needed for the body. The assumption is that this believer who says such things has at least some ability to help the poor Christian in need. Yet, James asks what good is that? You see, if you say “I hope your situation get better” but you won’t then help the person’s situation get better, then apparently you don’t really hope their situation gets better. You are just being superficially nice but don’t actually mean what you claimed to mean. James then applies this example to faith in verse 17. The point should be clear. You might claim faith but your actions might demonstrate that you don’t really believe what you claim to believe. So, someone’s claim to faith might not be justified or vindicated when actually put to the test.

James’ second example about how one’s faith can be justified or vindicated is in the example of Abraham in verses 21-24. James points to how Abraham was justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar, verse 21. He says that was proof or confirmation of what Scripture said that Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness, verse 23. But recognize the timing here to understand James’ point. The reference James makes to Abraham believing God is in Genesis 15 long before Isaac was even born, let alone almost sacrificed by Abraham in Genesis 22. Paul says this reference in Genesis 15 to Abraham’s faith is how God reckoned Abraham righteous – in other words it teaches Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. Nothing James says here would disagree with that, in fact James acknowledges that in the reference in verse 23. James’ point is that how Abraham was reckoned righteous by faith was later on confirmed or validated or justified by how Abraham demonstrated his faith. When tested by God if he would sacrifice his son, Abraham passed the test. This showed that Abraham’s faith in God really was true. Hebrews even says that he believed God could raise up Isaac from the dead because he believed God when God said it would be through Isaac that his covenantal promises would come to pass. But do you see how these details show that Paul and James are not in conflict but are actually talking about two different albeit closely related ideas? Paul makes a Genesis 15 point about Abraham being considered righteous in God’s sight through faith alone. James makes a Genesis 22 point that Abraham’s faith is confirmed to be true when it is tested and shown to be a lively and true faith. James even says that the Genesis 22 event was a confirmation and fulfillment of what Genesis 15 said of Abraham’s righteousness. And so, Abraham was righteous in God’s sight through faith alone, and that faith later showed it was a true lively faith by a fruit of a good work that came from that faith. Hypothetically, if Abraham had not passed that test and in general did not demonstrate in how he lived that his faith was genuine, then Genesis 15 would never had made the statement that Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteousness, because indeed Abraham would not have actually truly believed God.

James’ final example is with Rahab in verse 25. There it focuses on her actions during the conquest of Jericho when Israelite spies came to check things out and she aided them. But the background of this in Scripture is that Rahab had faith. When the spies came, we read why she helped them in Joshua 2. There she professed her faith in the God of Israel when she recounts how she had heard the reports of things like God parting the Red Sea and how God had been giving Israel victory over all their enemies. Rahab recounted those things for why she wanted to change her allegiance from her own wicked Canaanite people and put her hope in the LORD God of Israel. That was what Rahab said. What she said spoke of her faith. But if her faith wasn’t real, if it wasn’t genuine, then she would have shown that by betraying the spies and turning them over to the Jericho government. But because her faith was genuine, she helped the Israelite spies. Her helping of the spies justified her in the sense of showing that her faith in the God of Israel was genuine. On a related note, we can also recognize, in Rahab’s case, Paul’s point on justification too. God had said that the Canaanites were horribly wicked and he had decreed their complete destruction. Israel was to utterly wipe them out. So here you have Rahab, not only a wicked Canaanite, but even a sinful prostitute. Her one-time good work of helping these spies couldn’t erase a lifetime of sin so as to make her able to be declared righteous in God’s sight because she helped the spies. No, she was declared righteous in God’s sight by grace through her faith. That would be Paul’s point about her. James’s point about her is that her faith is confirmed by her actions and her confirmed faith vindicates her to show that she truly is one saved by God’s grace through her true faith in the LORD.

In conclusion, I hope today I’ve been able to help us understand how James and Paul are not in conflict. But to be clear, today’s passage is not about Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. We’re studying James today not Paul. Today’s passage is about examining our faith to see that we have a lively faith. James doesn’t want us to deceive ourselves into thinking that our Christianity is just about merely affirming a set of doctrinal questions or walking down onto a stadium and filling out a response card that says you give your life to Christ. Rather, Christianity is how Christ has come to save us from our sins. Our faith is to turn to him and look to him to forgive us, and also look to him to change us. And so, we rightly affirm again today that our faith has set Jesus as both our Savior and our Lord. And may we as those saved by grace look to live out what our faith holds to be true and bear fruit in keeping with our repentance. Amen.

Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.