The Justification of Works

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. James 2:14-26 ESV

For James, faith in Christ was to be a life-transforming experience that manifested itself in tangible and practical ways. He opened this section with the rhetorical question: “how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?” (James 2:1 NLT). Saving faith should be sanctifying faith. It should change the way we live and how we interact with others. There is no place for favoritism or partiality in the life of a Christ follower.

James was concerned with the double standard that existed among his audience. As believers, they were claiming to “obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (James 2:8 NLT) But, in reality, they were guilty of favoring some people over others and, in doing so, they were guilty of breaking the law. In other words, they were practicing a hypocritical kind of faith. It was the same brand of faith Jesus accused the Pharisees of practicing.

“The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. Everything they do is for show.” – Matthew 23:2-5 NLT

According to Jesus, the Pharisees were guilty of being both law keepers and lawbreakers. They were looked up to for their expertise concerning the law of Moses but they regularly violated the very laws they were supposed to uphold. They said one thing and did another.

And James asks his audience a probing question designed to expose the hypocritical nature of their own relationship with the “royal law.” These people were familiar with “the golden rule.” They knew that they were expected to love their neighbor as they loved themselves. This was the clear teaching of Jesus. In fact, when the Jewish religious leaders had asked Jesus to expound on what He believed to be the greatest of all the commandments, Jesus replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40 NLT).

Love God. Love others. Those were the two “greatest” or most important commandments of God. They were inseparable and completely interdependent. It all begins with love for God. Once we understand who He is and what He has done for us, the natural response is to express our love and appreciation to Him. But one of the greatest expressions of our love for God is our willingness to love all those whom He has made – especially our fellow believers.

The apostle John described the symbiotic relationship between our love for God and others.

We love each other because he loved us first. If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. – 1 John 4:19-21 NLT

Faith is a lifestyle. It changes the way we live. It doesn’t simply save us from future condemnation and reserve a place for us in the Kingdom of God. Through the power of the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God, it transforms our behavior in the here-and-now. It frees us from our captivity to sin and empowers us to live as sons and daughters of God, exhibiting the new hearts and new natures He has bestowed upon us.

James believed that true saving faith would be impossible to hide. It would show up in everyday life and manifest itself through daily interactions with others. He even provides a hypothetical scenario where faith should show up but doesn’t.

Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? – James 2:15-16 NLT

What we have to understand is that, for James, love for others is a tangible expression of a believer’s faith in God. If someone believes in God and knows that God requires that His children love one another, that individual will express His faith in God through obedience to His commands. He will love as he has been loved. He will demonstrate His love for God by becoming a conduit of God’s for others. But that love must be practical and not just a form of lip service.

Words of love are important but they won’t fill an empty stomach or clothe the naked. To claim to love your neighbor while failing to lift a finger to assist them is the highest form of hypocrisy and a blatant display of faithlessness. Why? Because it reveals a lack of transformation and a glaring absence of sanctification. Someone who claims to be a follower of Christ but who fails to model his life after Christ is living a lie.

That’s what leads James to state, “you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless” (James 2:17 NLT). And James knew that there would be those who blamed their lack of brotherly love on their temperament or personality type.

Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” – James 2:18 NLT

But James wasn’t buying that excuse. He countered, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds” (James 2:19 NLT). Without the evidence of outward love, faith remains invisible to the human eye. You can claim to believe in God but, for James, that was insufficient. Even demons believe that God exists but they have no capacity to live godly lives. They can fear Him for who He is but they are incapable of showing love for Him or anyone else.

There are some who claim that James is contradicting the teachings of the apostle Paul, who proclaimed, “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV). Paul makes it quite clear that no one can earn their way into God’s good graces through human effort. Salvation cannot be attained through obedience to the law or adherence to a set of religious standards. And James would fully agree.

But James is simply suggesting that saving faith produces fruit in the life of the believer. It results in a radical transformation of the heart that manifests itself in tangible expressions of sacrificial love and service to others. Saving faith shows up because the life-transforming power of God can’t be held back.

And to prove this point to his Jewish audience, James uses two Old Testament characters as illustrations. First, he directs their attention to Abraham, the patriarch of the nation of Israel. He recalls the fateful story of when God ordered Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. And he notes that Abraham faithfully followed through on this difficult command, preparing to take the life of his only son and heir. But God intervened, sparing Isaac from death by providing a ram as a substitute. And James stresses that Abraham’s actions that day were an expression of his faith in God.

Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete. – James 2:21-22 NLT

And quoting Genesis 15:6, James concludes, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” Abraham’s faith in God showed up in an outward sign of obedience. He believed in God and was willing to do whatever God called him to do – even when it made no sense. And as James states, “his actions made his faith complete.”

Next, James uses the familiar story of Rahab the harlot. She was a pagan woman who expressed her belief in the God of Israel by providing protection for the two spies who sought refuge in her home. In return for her act of kindness, she asked that she and her family be spared when the city was destroyed by the Israelites. And what motivated her request was a belief in the superiority of Yahweh, the God of the Israelites.

“…the Lord your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below. Now swear to me by the Lord that you will be kind to me and my family since I have helped you. Give me some guarantee that when Jericho is conquered, you will let me live, along with my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all their families.” – Joshua 2:11-13 NLT

Rahab believed in God and put her faith to the test by trusting in the integrity and honesty of the two spies. She protected them and helped them escape and was rewarded for her efforts. Her faith had been accompanied by works, and she was saved.

And James sums up this whole lesson on faith and works with the statement: “Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works” (James 2:26 NLT). He is not suggesting that his audience is made up of non-believers. He is not questioning their salvation. He is simply stating that their faith in Christ should be accompanied by good works that evidence the transformative power of the gospel. A lack of fruit is evidence of death, not life. An individual who claims to have been transformed by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit but whose life fails to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit is as good as dead spiritually. He is like a physical body without breath, a tree without fruit, or a cloud without rain.

For James, it was simple. Faith, while invisible to the human eye, could be easily demonstrated by outward actions. That’s why he so confidently asserted, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds” (James 2:18 NLT). According to James, works may not earn your way into heaven, but they will prove you belong there because they give evidence that you are a child of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.