What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?
Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.
You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. (James 2:14-26)
This is often regarded as a problem passage, but it is in fact an aid to the cause of the gospel of faith. It advances the truth about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and it installs a roadblock against the imposters that attempt to infiltrate the church. When dealing with this text, there is no need to devote most of our effort into defending Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith, since James is asserting a valuable lesson of his own, and a lesson that we also find in Paul.
Back in 1:22, James writes, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.” A man can think and claim that he has given God’s word the proper attention when in fact he has not. And in 1:26, James writes, “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” That is, a man can consider himself religious or spiritual, and he can make this claim before others, but this does not mean that he is indeed religious or spiritual. His claim is exposed as false if his life contradicts it. His action does not make him irreligious or unspiritual – it does not transform him from a spiritual person into an unspiritual person – rather, he is already unspiritual when he makes the claim, only that the claim is exposed as false by his action.
Now, in 2:14, James does not say, “What good is it, if someone has (true) faith but does not have works?” Rather, he says, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” (ESV), or as the NIV reads, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” If you can physically pronounce the words, you can say anything you want to say, but you might not mean what you say, or what you say might not be true. All this means is that it is possible to lie about being a Christian. It has nothing to do with earning salvation by works. James defines the issue in verse 14, and it does not change into something else in verse 19 – he is not saying that demons have true faith.
Then, in verses 15-17, James says that suppose someone is without clothes and food, if you say, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? This continues the thought from verse 14, that a person can claim to have faith but does not in fact have faith, and that a person can lie about being a Christian. It is not very different from what Jesus teaches in Matthew 25:31-46, where he says that the righteous, by caring for the Lord’s people, are regarded as having provided him food and drink and clothing, showed him hospitality, and visited him in prison. In contrast, the wicked denied help and mercy to the Lord’s brothers. He says that they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. As he says elsewhere, “Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17), and also, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).
Likewise, John the Baptist realized that people can lie about their relationship with God. So he said, “And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.'” Rather, he commanded the people to “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). Among other things, this means “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same” (v. 11). The fruit is not something foreign to repentance, but it is something “in keeping with” it. All James is saying is that a person who has true faith will produce fruit “in keeping with” faith; otherwise, although he claims that he has faith, he does not. The teaching contains nothing strange or surprising in comparison to the rest of the New Testament.
Verse 19 says, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” This is often used to devalue orthodoxy or the insistence on orthodoxy. As they say, “It is not enough to believe the right doctrines. Even the devil knows theology!” It is also used to argue that faith is more than an intellectual assent to revelation. These are two widespread abuses; indeed, it is difficult to find those who read the text another way. However, this interpretation is so shallow and amateurish, but persistent, that it must be regarded as an exegetical conspiracy. In this context, if faith is more than assent, then this something more is not the “trust” or “commitment” that people allege, but the added factor can only be works. This alone frustrates the second abuse. The passage does not fit the point they wish to make. James has something much more profound in mind, and his coming sections on Abraham and Rahab should utterly embarrass the standard interpretation and show that by it the scholars make themselves look like uneducated children and inferior believers, if believers at all.
In Romans 4, Paul cites from Genesis 15, and writes, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about – but not before God. What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works” (v. 1-6). So Paul’s doctrine is that a man receives righteousness through faith – not by works, and apart from works.
James also cites from Genesis 15, but he adds that it was “fulfilled” by what Abraham did in Genesis 22, when he offered his son Isaac on the alter. Since James accepts Genesis 15 as it is written, he agrees when it says that “it was credited to him as righteousness.” And if God already credited righteousness to Abraham in Genesis 15, then it is impossible for James to think that he did not attain it until Genesis 22. Rather, as James refers to Genesis 22, he says that it “fulfilled” Genesis 15, or as the NLT reads, “And so it happened just as the Scriptures say.” In other words, James regards Genesis 22 as the inevitable result of Genesis 15. If we have in mind the justification that refers to the crediting of righteousness through faith and in contrast to works, then both Paul and James agree that it happened in Genesis 15, since this is what Genesis 15 teaches even prior to and apart from Paul and James. But James is focusing on Genesis 22, and his point concerns the fulfillment, or the inevitable result, of Genesis 15.
Paul teaches the same thing. He urges sanctification as the reasonable and inevitable consequence of justification by grace through faith. As he writes in Romans 6, “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?…Just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life….Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness,” and in Romans 12, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.” God’s mercy does not lead to licentiousness, but holy living. Holiness is a natural outcome of faith.
Then in Galatians, he writes, “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature….But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” In this same letter where he argues so vehemently for justification by faith, he also stresses that faith leads to the fruit of the Spirit. In Ephesians, he writes that we are “saved, through faith…not by works,” but “to do good works, which God prepared in advanced for us to do.” And so he says, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received….So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking….For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.” This is not different from what James teaches. Yet we know that Paul affirms justification by faith without works and apart from works.
Now, James uses three examples in the passage, and he chooses ones that fit his point, or that are able to illustrate what he wishes to convey. Thus one way to attain a better appreciation of what he means is by considering the hypothetical scenario in verses 15 and 16, then what Abraham did in Genesis 22, and what Rahab did in Joshua 2. We may quickly pass over verses 15 and 16, since we examined them when we noted their agreement with the teachings of Jesus. We acknowledge that the deeds James has in mind include charitable works, such as feeding and clothing those in need. This is not in dispute, and it is often the kind of works that interpreters and preachers emphasize. We shall advance in understanding by considering Abraham and Rahab.
Abraham’s action was not a case of charity. God had promised that Abraham would become a father of nations, and that this would happen through his son Isaac. But some time after he was born, God commanded Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. This meant that not only would Isaac be killed before he could marry and produce offspring, but that he would be reduced to ashes. Still, Abraham believed God’s promise. The only way for Abraham to obey the command to sacrifice Isaac and for Isaac to live and produce children would be for God to raise Isaac from the dead, even from the ashes. Although God was to stop him at the last moment, Abraham did not know this beforehand, and he was prepared to do what God commanded. Therefore, the Bible says, “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death” (Hebrews 11:19). Thus Abraham carried to the alter of sacrifice this well-reasoned theology of divine omnipotence, of covenant promise, and of the resurrection of the dead. His doctrine was integral to his action – this is the Bible’s own explanation.
When I talk about theology, or doctrine, or orthodoxy, this is what I mean. If James cites this incident in 2:21, how is it possible that he intends to belittle theology in 2:19? We cannot even soften this to say that the verse intends to prevent an overemphasis of orthodoxy. What overemphasis? Abraham’s theology was extensive, and it was integral to his action. Which part could you take away? Which part could you reduce in emphasis? Which part could he have denied or erred in, and still produced the same action? His faith and his deed were distinguishable, but one in agreement. Then, if verse 19 indicates that there is more to faith than assent, the additional factor cannot be “trust” or “commitment,” but in this context it can only be works. But if works becomes an essential part of faith, then how can James distinguish the two? Yet he does make a distinction, judging from the way he uses Genesis 15 and Genesis 22.
Rahab’s action was not a case of charity. Israel had commenced the military campaign to conquer the land that God had promised. Joshua sent spies into Jericho, and their adventures took them into the house of Rahab. The king of Jericho was informed of this and commanded Rahab to hand them over, but she hid them and helped them escape from the city.
She said to the spies, “I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and that you will save us from death.”
She had an extensive theology. She believed that God worked signs and wonders when he brought the people out of Egypt. She believed that God had given the land to Israel. Thus she believed God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Israel. She believed that, unlike what was assumed about the heathen gods, the God of Israel was not local or limited, but he was “God in heaven above and on the earth below.” So she believed that God was willing to do it, that he was able to do it, and that he would succeed – the Israelites would indeed invade Jericho and slaughter its people.
Now, if James cites this incident in 2:25, how is it possible that he intends to belittle theology in 2:19 or to warn about its overemphasis? What overemphasis? Rahab’s theology was extensive, and it was integral to her action. Which part could you take away? Which part could you reduce in emphasis? Which part could she have denied or erred in, and still produced the same action? Her faith and her deed were distinguishable, but one in agreement. And again, if verse 19 indicates that there is more to faith than assent, the additional element cannot be “trust” or “commitment” or any such thing, but in this context it can only be works. But since the passage itself would not allow a confusion or mixture of faith and works, the conclusion is that the verse does not introduce some additional factor. Things like trust and commitment, as elements additional to belief, are introduced to the discussion by force, since the passage itself suggests nothing about them.
You say, “Orthodoxy is not enough. You can believe all the right things and still do the wrong things.” Can you? Even if this is true, James is not making this point, since he only says that you can claim to have faith and not have deeds, because anybody can tell a lie. You say, “Orthodoxy is not everything. Many people who err in doctrine live wonderful lives.” Do they? Are you only looking at charitable works, and only those that are common to unbelievers? With God, doing good works involves much more than feeding a widow here and clothing an orphan there. Abraham’s and Rahab’s deeds were not charity, and both of them required a definite and extensive set of doctrines to have naturally produced the actions.
It is essential to acknowledge that James is not referring only to works of charity, and that the kinds of actions he has in mind are inseparable from sound doctrine. Only then can we grasp what he teaches and correctly apply it. Suppose a person claims to have faith, but he votes to ordain a homosexual as minister, can this “faith” save him? Or, what if a woman claims to believe the gospel, but she murders her own child by abortion, can this “faith” save her? What about those who call themselves Christians, but who encourage religious tolerance, diversity, dialogue, and mutual respect? Even non-Christians sometimes claim to tolerate the Christian faith – and shudder, if only in disgust. And what about those theologians who wish to be known as Christian scholars, but who deny biblical inspiration and inerrancy, or the resurrection of the dead, or the reality of an everlasting hell? They claim to have faith but have no deeds. They are liars. They are not really Christians, and when they pass from this life, they will suffer the torment of hellfire. This is the significance of what James teaches.
What does James mean by deeds? Or, what does he include other than the ordinary works of charity? Think about it. What did Rahab really do? For the sake of Jesus Christ, she betrayed her nation, her race, her religion, and her culture. She knew that there would be genocide, but she aided the spies who planned to slaughter her own people. This is what she did. Those who use James to devalue orthodoxy and to urge a little charity have no idea what they are talking about. They are dealing with holy things that are too great for them. They have no concept of how much strong theology and strict orthodoxy it takes to propel this kind of spectacular heroics. They so readily condemn theology and orthodoxy, or those who in their opinion care too much about these, but they probably would not even turn against their football team for Jesus Christ, let alone their entire nation, race, religion, and culture. The truth is that, like Rahab, if a person is to have such a power to act, it is going to take some extreme conviction in some serious theology.
Jesus Christ has commanded us to invade all nations with the Christian faith, not by military might but by spiritual power. He has led his people out of spiritual bondage with mighty signs and wonders. He has defeated all demonic powers and the forces that enslave. All authority in heaven and on earth belongs to him, and one day this will become manifest to all. He is coming, and when he arrives, all who oppose him will be thrown into hellfire. This is Rahab’s theology for Christians. Anyone can claim to believe in Jesus Christ, but if he refuses to aid in the annihilation of national, racial, sexual, professional, and denominational identities (multitudes call themselves Christians but love these things more than Christ), of beliefs, lifestyles, cultures, and religions that are contrary to Christ, and if he refuses to consign unbelieving friends and family members to the flames of hell, can this “faith” save him? He is no Abraham. He is no Rahab. His faith is false. Perhaps he will donate a few dollars to a cancer society, but God is not deceived.
Rahab wished to save her immediate family, but she explicitly agreed that they would be killed unless they remained in her house under the protection of the scarlet thread. Likewise, we wish to save those who are close to us, but if we have true faith, we will readily agree that those who refuse to come under the blood of Jesus Christ would be burned and tortured in hell forever. As Jesus said, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37-38). Although Jesus Christ will triumph whether or not we participate, if we have true faith we will turn against all non-Christians and do our part to advance the Christian faith, and to quicken the demise of their cultures and religions. If we do not, then we are counted among those whom Christ will trample under his feet when his reign comes to full manifestation.
True Christians acknowledge that the Christian faith will take over the whole creation, that we will be vindicated, and that non-Christians will suffer in hell forever. This is our theology, and it is integral to our action. Those who belittle theology and orthodoxy can never hope to attain this kind of faith, and they probably do not want it. But if their lives demonstrate neither the theology of Abraham nor the “treachery” of Rahab, how dare they lecture me about what James means, or about theology or orthodoxy or spirituality, or whether faith is mere assent? They claim that there is something more but they have no idea what it is and they do not have it themselves. It is not a trivial matter to kill your own son and burn him to ashes, or to aid foreign spies who intend to wipe out your race and your nation along with the people, religion, and culture. Actions like these demand extreme conviction, and as illustrated by Abraham and Rahab, this conviction is in turn based on a theology that is sufficiently profound to sustain and energize it. When faith is true assent to a full doctrine, then faith and deed are one, and there is nothing more. Let us, therefore, shake off a shallow interpretation of religion, but rather mature in Jesus Christ, and into an intelligent and triumphant faith.