Study 11 Works
14. What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?
15. If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of 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 does it profit?
17. So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Let us start with these first four verses before moving onto the rest of the chapter. James asks three questions in this section and each of the questions revolves around the faith issue. This section (v. 14-26) is also the most theologically important and challenging section of the entire book.
At this point we should read the section as a whole starting with verse 14 and going through verse 26. You will notice that this section is set up as a diatribe. James has set up an imaginary counter figure to argue against his position. Note in verse 20 James calls this imaginary foe, “you shallow man.”
There can be no doubt about the theme of this paragraph. First, James argues faith by itself, if not accompanied by action is dead. (v. 17) Second, he states that faith without deeds is dead, (v. 20) and finally that faith without deeds is useless. (v. 26) So what are we to make of all this in light of our studies in Galatians?
Dr. Moo in his commentary on James helps us out with a very helpful reminder when reading this section. “Critical to understanding the argument of the section and integrating it successfully into a broader biblical perspective is the recognition that James is not arguing that works must be added to faith. His point, rather, is that works will inevitably characterize genuine biblical faith. Trying to add works to a bogus faith is an exercise in futility, for only by, ‘accepting the implanted word’ (1:21) and experiencing the inner transformation that it brings can one produce works pleasing to God. James, in a sense, proposes for us in these verses a test by which we determine the genuineness of faith; deeds of obedience to the will of God.” Moo, The Letter of James, p.120
I believe Moo has hit the nail on the head regarding this section and it is well worth our time to contemplate what he has to say. I grew up in a denomination that confused obedience that manifested itself in love for our fellow man with a series of do’s and don’ts. It seemed to me that they were saying that our faith was never good enough to enter into the kingdom of God, but instead we had to prove ourselves worthy (safe to save they call it) by our works. The problem was the works that they taught were not works of love and compassion but instead works that led towards perfection. A person was not considered a real Christian if they smoked, went to the movies, danced, played cards (with the exception of rook or some other type card game) or wore jewelry. Christianity became a series of negatives where I was always looking over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t breaking a rule. This form of religion destroys trust in Christ alone for our salvation and makes keeping the church rules every bit as important in our salvation. What was happening was that people believed that their obedience was what was important for salvation because they could control those factors. It is little wonder that that particular denomination is seeing almost one in every two children raised in the church leave because the church is totally irrelevant to their lives.
When I discovered Christ alone, faith alone, grace alone my life changed. As we Christians put our trust in the saving grace of Jesus our hearts are changed and we become new creatures in Christ. Our hearts overflow with thankfulness and wonder. We can hardly wait to tell others of this great joy that we have discover in the love of Christ. It’s amazing to realize that we are forgiven sinners and instead of facing judgment and destruction for our sins we are given free of charge the privilege of salvation and heaven. When that truth penetrates our heart we want to run out and share that good news with everyone we meet. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit we are born again and filled with the Spirit. Suddenly the plight of our neighbors and friends is important to us. I remember the excitement I had when I realized I was saved by the grace of God and not by works or trying harder. I told every friend I had, and pestered them non-stop to become Christian. (Having lots of zeal without much knowledge didn’t make my first attempt at witnessing very successful, but the point was I just had to tell them about God.)
I think what James is telling us in this section is that how we treat people is an outward expression of what is going on in the heart. A Christian who is in tune with the gospel will love the world around her and do what she can to be of comfort and support for the hurting of this world. There is no merit in these acts or deeds. They are just the simple response to the world of what God has done in her heart. On the other hand, when people try to earn merit in what they do by adding obedience to grace they disgrace what Jesus has done for them on the cross by thinking their actions can have the same merit as Jesus death. These people may be well meaning but they are wrong.
Over the years, people have tried to beat me up spiritually by swinging these verses in James at me as if these words can do away with the book of Romans, Ephesians, Hebrews, Galatians, the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. They have a heartfelt belief that somehow works have merit and earn points with God. The result is that, as Christians, we end up in debate over works, law and grace instead of loving the lost to Christ.
I think that many of these people who use these passages to force works upon their fellow Christians are afraid that those of us who see the gospel differently from them believe in something like “just believe and do whatever you want.” This is furthest from the truth. We believe that living the Christian life is important and if we are not living the Christian life, then we are not following Jesus. We simply see that life, however, as love and compassion towards others. We believe in witnessing and sharing Jesus with the lost world. So we all agree with James that the proof of our acceptance of Jesus is in our actions and obedience. Those Christians that believe those actions revolve around Church rules and regulations simply have a different perspective on the gospel than someone like myself. I see obedience as obedience to the gospel commission and love for the lost.
These verses (14-26) show us that true religion is based on faith and that faith manifests itself in obedience to the word of God that calls upon us to show love and compassion to the lost, the poor and the needy.
Verse 14 What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?
Faith that doesn’t express itself through love for others is defective and shows that the person has not fully understood the impact of the gospel in his life. That kind of selfish self-centered faith that focuses inward will not save the person because in reality it is no faith at all.
Verses 15 and 16 15. If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of 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 does it profit?
Once again James is using the illustration of how Christians should respond to the poor as a means of explaining the true nature of faith. A Christian can’t be so indifferent to the plight of others that he is unwilling to help someone who is without good clothing or food, and still be considered a believer. A faith that says all I care about is myself, once again, is not faith and thus puts the person outside of Christianity.
Verse 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
James conclusion is not that faith doesn’t save you. (see verse 23) Instead he is arguing that faith that is self-centered is not really faith and is dead because you don’t see the proof of faith in actions towards those in need. True faith always manifests itself in love towards our fellow man.
This is as far as we will go this study, because I wrote more in the introduction than I planned, but I hope it gives you an idea of what is going on in James. We should never take from this passage that James believes that salvation is a combination of grace and works, but instead see it for what it is. Faith that is genuine will radiate from the person towards others. Without compassion and love faith is only a word and means nothing. Works, deeds, actions; call it whatever we will, are always present when a person has surrendered all to Jesus. We are saved by grace alone and our faith alone responds to that grace. The result of that grace God lavishes upon us is that we reflect the love back to others. I believe that is what James is arguing in these passages and if I am right about our study in Galatians, Paul, would have no problem with James whatsoever. Thanks for being patient during the Christmas holidays and I hope to keep the blogs on a better schedule in the New Year.