Faith is Active
Doctors tell us that one of the best things we can do for our health is to get moving. In other words, stop the sedentary lifestyle and start skipping rope, skiing, swimming, or the like. Similarly, James tells us that the best thing we can do for our spiritual health is to get going (Jas. 2:14-26). A faith that stays alone is not genuine faith. Good works flow from saving faith. The apostle Paul tells us this as well: “For 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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10).
James seeks to awaken his readers from spiritual sloth with two piercing questions: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (Jas. 2:14). James is clearly concerned that some of his readers are deceived about what true faith is and isn’t. We can summarize his questions like this: Is faith without works saving faith?
James illustrates his teaching by first giving an example of words without works (Jas. 2:15). If someone comes to us in need of clothing and food, and we pay them lip service without hand service, we have done them no good. They didn’t just need our kind words; they needed clothes and food! In other words, we can have all the religion in the world, but if it doesn’t manifest itself in tangible results, it is rotten religion. Jesus made this same point when He spoke of the final judgment to His disciples. It is those who clothed, fed and gave a drink to those in need who had true saving faith (Matt. 25:31-46). He made a similar point when He told His disciples, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8). Just as a tree is known by its fruit, so faith is known by its fruit. James’s first example displays that saving faith loves our neighbor in both word and works.
Next, James uses the example of a foolish person who treats faith and works as if they were separate (Jas. 2:18-20). James responds that far from being separate, they are inextricably linked. We show our faith by our works. We can believe doctrine, but without deeds that glorify God flowing from that doctrine, we are deceived. After all, even the demons believe that God is one, but they stand condemned. James’s second example displays that saving faith loves the Lord in both word and works. Together these first two examples remind us of Jesus’s teaching, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-39).
James’s third example is Abraham (Jas. 2:21-24). After waiting many long years for the promised one, Isaac, to be born, God asked Abraham to take Isaac and sacrifice him on an altar on top of Mount Moriah (see Gen. 15 and 22). Although sacrificing his long awaited son would have made no logical sense to Abraham, he believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. His work of faith (binding Isaac on the altar) proved his word of faith was genuine. James’s third example, like his second, reveals that saving faith loves the Lord in both word and works.
The fourth and final example James uses is Rahab (Jas. 2:25-26). Appropriately, after teaching on the importance of showing no partiality (see vv. 1-13), he juxtaposes Abraham, the friend of God, with Rahab the prostitute. Rahab had heard about the God of Israel while she was in her homeland, and she displayed her faith by her actions toward Joshua’s messengers. She showed them kindness, and respect when she hospitably received them into her home, and revealed to them a way of escape that would preserve their lives (see Josh. 2). This final example, like the first, reveals that saving faith loves our neighbor in both word and works.
These four examples should lead us to examine our own hearts. Are we most like the person who wishes people well with our words, but never follow through with our actions? Or are we like the person who has head knowledge (doctrinally sound), but fails in doing good works with our hands? I hope we are more often like Abraham, who loved the Lord in word and works, and like Rahab, who loved the Lord’s people in word and works. If we’re honest, we all fall short of glorifying God in our words and our works. Therefore, we are in desperate need of God’s grace in order to show our love for Him and our neighbor in both our speech and our actions. Thankfully, “he gives grace to the humble” (Jas. 4:6). “Submit yourselves therefore to God” (v. 7).
Sarah Ivill (ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a Reformed author, wife, homeschooling mom, Bible study teacher, and conference speaker who lives in Matthews, North Carolina, and is a member of Christ Covenant Church (PCA). To learn more, please visit www.sarahivill.com.