Final thoughts on James 2:14-26
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 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 myworks. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 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. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. NKJV
In this passage, James deals with the relationship between saving faith and works. A better translation of the last sentence in verse 14 would be can that kind of faith save him? The verb form of the Greek word for faith is pisteuo which literally means to trust in, rely on , or cling to. True saving faith is not a passive acceptance of facts about Christ, but is an active dynamic in the life of the believer which reaches out and clings to Christ. The Hebrew word for faith, aymoon, was originally used to describe the “anchors” or “stakes” that were driven deep into the ground to hold the tabernacle in place. No matter how great a storm might arise or how hard the winds might blow, the Israelites were confident that when the storm had passed the tabernacle would still be standing, secured by the anchors that held it down. Likewise, when the winds of God’s judgment have come and gone, we believers can have complete confidence that we will still be standing, held up by Christ, who is the anchor of our souls (Heb. 6:19).
We see examples of this active dynamic of saving faith in the lives of Old Testament believers. When Jacob wrestled with Christ in human form, despite the agony of a withered thigh that would cause him to limp for the remainder of his life, he cried, “I will not let You go unless you bless me!” (Gen. 32:26). No matter how difficult Jacob’s circumstances were, he was determined to cling to Christ. Job, despite having lost his possessions, his children, and his health, refused to turn from Christ, and instead declared, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” (Job 13:15). Like Jacob, Job continued to cling to Christ no matter how bad the circumstances in which he found himself. When many of those who had been following Jesus departed from Him because of the hard things He said, He asked the twelve apostles if they would also go away. Instead of departing from Him, they clung to Christ saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life?”
Mere acceptance of facts does not produce works, but true saving faith does. In verses 15-17, James compares faith without works to words of compassion without acts of compassion. They are both worthless. In verses 18-20, James is being facetious. He knows full well that a person cannot show faith without works. In effect, he is saying, “big deal” to those who accept the fact of God’s existence. Even the demons accept the fact of His existence. Simply accepting the fact of God’s existence, and by extension the fact that Jesus is God’s Son, is not saving faith. The demons are well aware of who Jesus is (Matt. 8:29, Mk. 1:24), and yet they are not saved.
In verses 21-24, God uses Abraham as an example of how saving faith produces works. It is important to understand that neither Abraham nor anyone else is saved by their works. Verse 23 of our text (quoting from Gen. 15:6) declares plainly that Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” God made this declaration before Abraham ever offered up Isaac in obedience to His command. Abraham was saved by his faith, not by his works. The scripture states plainly that God preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand (Gal. 3:8, Jn. 8:56). Abraham believed God concerning His promise to send the Messiah who would save Him from his sins and his faith was charged to his account for righteousness. Likewise, we as New Testament believers are also saved by our faith in the Messiah (Gal. 3:6-7). Everyone who has ever been saved, whether in the Old Testament or in the New Testament, is saved through faith in Christ alone (Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12, 16:30-31). The only difference is that Old Testament saints looked forward to the cross, while New Testament saints look backward to the cross. Because we are all sinners, guilt of breaking God’s laws (Rom. 3:10-12, 6:23), none of us can ever be saved by our works (Eph. 2:8-9, Tit. 3:5). We are saved solely by the grace (undeserved favor) of God through faith in Christ alone.
Then what does the scripture mean when it declares that Abraham was justified by works? It means that his obedience to God demonstrated his faith both to himself and to others. His faith was justified or declared in the sight of men by his works. In verse 25, the Lord gives us another example of saving faith producing works. Like Abraham, Rahab’s actions demonstrated her faith, both to herself and to the Israelites. The Israelites believed her claim to have trusted in their God (Josh. 2:9-11) because she hid the Hebrew spies and obeyed their instructions in hanging the scarlet cord in her window (Josh. 2:4-6, 16-21; 6:17, 22-23, 25). Her works demonstrated her faith. The point of our text is that where there is no works there is no true faith (v. 26).
This passage is a call to self-examination for each of us. Do we have saving faith? Have we truly repented of our sins and trusted the Lord Jesus Christ as our personal Savior? If so, is our faith demonstrated in our works? Is it demonstrated our devotional life? Is it demonstrated in our church attendance? Is it demonstrated in our obedience to God’s commandments?