Works do not result in salvation, but salvation always results in works.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for James 2:14-26
There was a problem in the early church: people who claimed to be Christian but whose behavior ran contrary to the gospel. They were tearing churches apart. James insists that true faith always results in works of the gospel. When we miss that basic point, we tend to argue about the “fine print” of this passage.
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. James 2:26
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Empty Words and Broken Promises
Here’s one of my very favorite Snoopy strips. It cleanly captures the ridiculousness of saying something and then doing absolutely nothing about it. Do you have any stories about someone saying empty words to you and the impact that had on you?
Another approach would be recounting “broken promises”. Everyone has a good story about a promise they broke to their child or maybe that a parent broke to them. “But you promised!” is such a powerful line, and the faith we keep with the people we make promises to can learn a lot from the faith God keeps with us. Why do we have faith in God? Because He always keeps His promises. It works the same for us. If we want people to have faith in us, we need to "keep faith" (meaning keep our promises) with them. In our passage this week, we learn that keeping faith is even deeper than that -- whatever our "religion" is (in our case, the one true religion of Christianity), keeping faith with God means that our religion must be reflected in our lives.
Our Involvement in Disaster Relief at First Baptist Church
The beautiful thing about programs like Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief, the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home, and SafeHomes Augusta is they keep us doing what James calls us to do: meeting the physical needs of vulnerable people in our community. At the KBA annual meeting yesterday, we heard how many tens of thousands of meals, thousands of families and homes, and hundreds of gospel presentations our local Disaster Relief team was responsible for in 2018. Truly inspiring work (and they always need more volunteers!). Google “Southern Baptist Disaster Relief” if you want to see statistics. The picture below is of supplies our church sent to Albany this week in partnership with our Thomson Chamber of Commerce. We are constantly working on projects designed to help people in need. The point would be to help your class see that our church cares about meeting physical needs. However, make it clear that we always do so in the name of Jesus. The relief program is never an end in itself but always a means to building relationships through which the gospel can be more clearly heard. That goes for the people receiving it and the partners we work with.
This Week's Big Idea: Who Believes in God in America?
I shared these results from an early 2018 Pew Research Center a while back, but they are worth repeating. In our passage, James makes that point that anyone can claim to believe in God—what really matters is if we can back up our claim by the way we live our life. That’s certainly true today: 1/3 of all Americans who say they believe in God are clear that they not talking about the God of the Bible!
The table below has even more interesting information. In the first part of the table, the most important statistic is that only 80% of self-identified “Christians” actually believe in the God of the Bible. (Seriously?) The two biggest “offenders” are Catholics and Mainline Protestants (Mainline = United Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian USA, etc.). That makes sense: Catholics are not always encouraged to read the Bible; Mainline Protestant denominations tend to reject the idea that the Bible is actually the Word of God (only 29% of Mainline clergy believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God). My “ironic takeaway” from that chart is that (according to James), demons have a better understanding of who God is than a significant percentage of professing Christians! Anyone can say they believe in God; James reminds us that we should find proof of it in their lives. I’m additionally pointing out that in America, saying “I believe in God” doesn’t necessarily mean anything in the first place anymore.
Our Context in James
Our Context in James
There are two verses from last week that play well into this week: (1:27) pure religion is looking after orphans and widows, and (2:4) showing favoritism is nothing but discrimination that reveals your evil mind. In other words, “Only God knows your heart, but we can see your actions.” The word religion refers to how we organize our relationship with God. God is not impressed with our giant buildings or fancy services, but He does care about how we treat the vulnerable people in our community. If we show favoritism, meaning that we work harder on our relationship with people who can do something for us, then we are proving to the world that we do not understand Jesus’ mission. Favoritism is natural for people. It is also wrong for Christians. We are to treat all people equally.
The section that we skip (2:5-13) simply explains that in more detail. Rich people (at least in James’s day) didn’t really care about the poor because the poor could do nothing for them. The poor also could do nothing against them, which is why rich people would take every little slight to court. This is why James includes his snarky remark, “Why would you want to be friends with the people who throw you in jail?” Not only is favoritism sinful, but it doesn’t make any sense!
Our passage this week is about the expected response: “James, just leave us alone. You do Christianity your way, and we’ll do Christianity our way.” Does that like anything we hear in our country today? But according to James, that’s not how it works. God’s Spirit is active in the lives of Christians for the purpose of producing behavioral change.
The person who says that his religion is private (and thus there is no evidence of it at all) has misunderstood God. But equally, the person who engages in social causes that are outside of God’s will (like increased access to abortions) has also misunderstood God. Faith must be accompanied by works, but those works must be in keeping with the “royal law” of God.
Part 1: Dead Faith (James 2:14-17)
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, stay warm, and be well fed,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.
As you can imagine, the controversy surrounding this passage is the interpretation that works are necessary for salvation. I’ll prove in as many ways as possible that James is not saying this, but start with the basic question, “What do you think James means when he says that faith without works cannot save you?” You may have to clarify what James means by “faith” and “works”. In a nutshell:
“faith” = the belief that God has offered salvation to humankind through His Son Jesus Christ; in other words, James is talking about “the Christian faith”.
“works” = behavior in keeping with the Christian ethic; this is not religious rituals or law-keeping, but selfless actions like caring for widows, orphans, and the poor.
The word “claims” means “declaring over and over again”; i.e. talking about your faith constantly. Is it possible to talk about being a Christian without actually being a Christian? Of course it is! Just look at those charts to the left!
James gives the specific example of the person without clothes or “daily food”. This refers to the day laborer of James’s day; many people were paid at the end of the day for their work that day, and that’s how they paid for their supper (remember Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard, Matt 20). What happens if the worker was not hired that day? He (and his family) go hungry. What if the worker is sick for several days? That would be catastrophic for the family.
In James’s example the “Christian” sees such a person and says “Go in peace” (common for “be healthy and wealthy”), “stay warm” (lit. “warm yourself”) and “be well fed” (lit. “feed yourself”). In other words, gives a mockery and an insult, the equivalent of saying “you’re on your own”. Words that mean nothing, like saying “I’ll pray for you” when you have no intention of doing so. (It makes me think of the 80s classic "That's Just the Way It Is".)
Look, we all know what someone will say. There are professional beggars around us, people who manipulate the system, people who believe they are entitled to whatever they want without paying for it. And that is true. And that’s not what James is talking about. James is talking about the person truly in need. What would be your response to that person? If your heart doesn’t break for the helpless person in our world, then you do not understand what Jesus came to do.
Contact the church office for how to participate in SafeHomes Augusta for battered women, disaster relief, and the upcoming Operation Christmas Child collection. There’s a lot we can do to help people.
Aside: Wealth in the First Century
A few weeks back, I mentioned an article called “The Rich and the Poor in the First Century”. Here are some key points to remember. James speaks so badly about wealthy people because most wealthy people behaved badly in the first century. Wealth was concentrated in a few powerful families, and they maintained their wealth by manipulating the courts, the government, and the people around them. Poor people, including slaves, had no chance to win a case against a wealthy person and wealthy people (who did a lot of lending to poor people at exorbitant interest) could easily ruin a poor debtor. Wealthy people also lived extravagant lives, trying to “keep up with the Joneses”. They threw lavish parties, ate way too much food, spent lots of time at spas and whatnot. All the while, they would underpay poor servants and overcharge for goods (they owned all the land, so vegetables and grains and meats had to be bought from them) in order to keep up their lifestyle. That might help explain why James is so harsh towards them. Considering we still see such behavior today, it is clear that human nature has not changed. We can be grateful for the “good” wealthy people in our country. But we need to focus on how we use our own wealth. Do we help people in need? Do we pay fair prices and charge fair rates in our own businesses? Let’s not fool ourselves that James is talking to “someone else”.
Bonus Aside: Are Wealthy People Still Like That Today?
When James scolds the person who says “be warm” but does nothing to help the person in need, he’s talking about the rich person in his day who had no compassion for the poor people around him. What does that look like today? If you’ve been going through my class on denominational differences, you know that I dislike the terms “conservative” and “liberal”; the answer to this question is one of the reasons why. According to surveys, rich people tend to be socially liberal, meaning they support programs like socialized health care, access to abortion, more government programs, etc. This would seem like they are not like the rich person James complains about. (Indeed, people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are the most philanthropic people in the world. Of course, they give away a small fraction of their net worth, keeping for themselves countless billions. Just saying.) However, those same surveys show that rich people are economically conservative, meaning that they oppose wealth redistribution, expensive government programs, etc. The surveys show that a number of rich people will vote Democrat, but lobby for measures that are economically in the Republican sphere. In other words, we cannot pidgeonhole people based on their wealth. Just like the rest of us, rich people must be measured by how they treat the poor, how they treat their employees, and what kind of lifestyle they lead.
Part 2: Working Faith (James 2:18-19)
But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith by my works. You believe that God is one. Good! Even the demons believe—and they shudder.
Here, James gets up-close and personal. There are two ways to understand this. (1) He’s talking about the person who believes that “works” is a spiritual gift. Like some people have the gift of generosity, or evangelism, etc. If I don’t have that gift, I don’t have to do works. Well, that’s wrong. Or (2) He’s talking about the person who says “my faith is my business”. If I don’t want to do any works, that’s none of your business. And that’s technically true, but true faith always produces works. If you don’t have works, you don’t have faith. The problem you may have here is in James’s seeming boastful attitude (“my works are superior to your faith”). Just remember what James is talking about: sacrificial service, a humble attitude towards all people. Nothing boastful about that! He’s talking about people who have wrongly fooled themselves into believe they are saved when in fact they are going to hell. Should we not be loud about that?
James has a simple, powerful defense of his position: even demons “have faith”. In other words, demons know who God is; they know who Jesus is; they know what Jesus came to do! But that doesn’t save them. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others believe there is one G/god. Believing in god is not enough. There is a great illustration to the effect of, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” That is such a good make-you-think question, and I encourage you to think about it! However, we can also go too far down that road. Don’t we all know people who do good works but are not a Christian? There are lots of “good people” in our country. What makes a work a good work? Unfortunately, I don’t think we can always tell the difference. Biblical works are motivated by true faith, and we can’t see into a person’s heart. Suffice it to say that simply doing nice things for widows and orphans isn’t enough to “impress” God.
Aside: The Ivory Tower
Sometimes Christian institutions of higher learning are called “ivory towers” because people go into them, think about lofty things, and then never actually do anything about them to help the world. One silly extreme of this was a movement called “scholasticism” in which scholars would debate subjects like “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”. (Seriously.) And it is absolutely a problem in Christianity today, which is why we have groups like “pastor theologians” (which I am a part of) who try to focus on questions that actually affect churches and church members. What’s funny about James’s accusation is that people who try to separate Christian faith from Christian behavior (i.e. people who think they are very smart but don’t actually do anything about their knowledge) are the most senseless people in the world. Ha!
Part 3: Saving Faith (James 2:20-26)
Senseless person! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless? Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works in offering Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was made complete, 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 works and not by faith alone. In the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute also justified by works in receiving the messengers and sending them out by a different route? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
Here’s where things get controversial (this passage is a big reason why Martin Luther tried to kick James out of the Bible)—James seems to be saying that we are not justified by faith but rather by works. Read this whole passage closely; is that what James is saying? Indeed not. Abraham had righteousness credited to him because he believed God. That’s faith. But what kind of faith? Faith that worked. If you have time, read the Abraham/Isaac story in Genesis 22. What would have happened had Abraham said no to God? “I will not sacrifice my son.” Can you imagine that scenario? Of course, it wouldn’t have happened that way—God would not have chosen Abraham if Abraham would not have been that model of faith. But how many of us would admit “I believe in God; I say I trust God; but if God asked me for a great sacrifice like that, I wouldn’t do it.” Ask it this way: is it really faith if you’re not willing to carry a cross? Isn’t that a great question?
I watched a special about “SawStop”, a table saw emergency brake that keeps you from cutting off your finger. What amazed me was when the inventor of the technology put his own finger into the saw. Of course, the device worked. I was so impressed. It is one thing to say your device works; it is a far different thing to prove it on yourself. That’s what James is talking about here. If you believe that God loves you, and you believe that God has called you to do something, what does it say if you won’t do it? What kind of faith is that?
James also gives the example of Rahab (Joshua 2/6). Rahab demonstrated her faith in the Hebrew God by putting herself and her family at great risk. She became part of the family tree of Jesus! (Matt 1) But I think it’s also important to point out that her faith resulted in her family being spared from destruction. Her faith literally saved her.
Finally, James gives a mind-blowing analogy to hammer his point home. Can the body live without the spirit? No. (Do we understand how that works? No. Doctors are still trying to define it. “Brain dead” is a determination, but parts of the body can be kept functioning for a time after brain death. Unfortunately, we can’t measure when the spirit leaves the body.) James proposes that faith without works is like a body without a spirit. Everybody knows it’s a body, but it may take careful examination to know if it’s alive or not. So it is with faith.
So we end with the elephant in the room: the person with no evidence of faith—can that person be saved? See below. All we need to worry about is that in our life, our faith in Christ should result in our desiring to do good things for the people around us in the name of Jesus. If we do not desire to serve Jesus in our day-to-day life, then we need to spend some intense time with Him, asking Him to “search our heart”.
Closing Thoughts: Can You Have Saving Faith without Works?
We all know the person I’m talking about: the person who claims to be a Christian but demonstrates absolutely nothing in terms of Christian behavior (i.e. minimal commitment to church, uncouth behavior, doesn’t read the Bible, etc.)—is that person saved? James seems to be saying “no”. But let’s make sure we understand exactly what James is saying. He’s not saying that it’s possible to have faith and not be saved. He’s saying that “faith” that does nothing isn’t faith at all.
When Paul says that we are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8), he’s talking about an active kind of faith. For Paul, saving faith is one that says, “I don’t just believe that Jesus died on the cross, I trust in Jesus’ sacrifice and Jesus alone to be made right with God.” That is a faith that has acted in the most fundamental way—placing the eternal destiny of our souls in the sacrifice of a man who died 2,000 years ago. That is a faith that immediately results in action.
So, what about the person who claims to have done that but has no evidence of faith in his life? This is where we have to be very careful. We don’t know that person’s heart. We don’t know how much progress has been made, or if the evidence shows up in ways we don’t notice. Jesus says that we know people by their fruits, but He also tells us to remove the plank from our own eye before we go around judging every one’s specks.
Ultimately, a person who claims to have faith but has no evidence—that should be a red flag to us. If we really care about that person, we will talk to him about this. It could be someone who has grown up in church and not realized he is not a Christian. We should care. But we should also admit that we don’t know for certain who is and is not saved.