Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: James 2:14-26
If there is anything we frequently associate with the book of James, it is probably based on this passage. James’ insistence that faith without works is dead is often contrasted with Paul’s emphasis on justification by faith. Martin Luther’s often quoted description of James as “an epistle of straw” that he would like to throw into the oven reflects his understanding of James as an opponent of Paul.
Much scholarly ink and many sermons perpetuate this caricature of James. However, Presbyterian Bible scholar Francis Taylor Gench says this is the most controversial and misunderstood passage in the book of James. Does this passage really teach that our salvation is based on our works and not our faith?
James 2:14-17 — Faith without works is dead
James uses a well-known Hellenistic form of argumentation that presents a hypothetical opponent by means of rhetorical questions. In this case, however, the opponent may not be merely hypothetical. Many scholars believe that James is quoting a distortion of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith.
James had probably encountered Christians whose idea of faith did not include acts of love based on faith. To make his point, James graphically describes a Christian who is not willing to provide for the basic needs of others. For James (and for Paul!), that person does not have true faith. Faith without works is not saving faith but a dead faith. The contrast here is between two understandings of faith, not between faith and works.
We can also see that Paul and James do not have opposing positions on the relationship of faith and works if we consider carefully what each writer understands by “works.” For Paul, “works” refers to acts of Jewish piety such as circumcision and obeying laws pertaining to food and other ceremonial occasions. Such actions do not earn salvation, Paul asserts.
James, on the other hand, is talking about a different kind of “works.” For James, works are acts of kindness or charity motivated by faith. They are an essential confirmation that one’s faith is real because it leads to action. In a nutshell, Paul is talking about specific “works” not being the beginning of faith, while James is talking about different “works” that are the outcome of faith.
James 2:18-19 — Even demons believe orthodox doctrine
James continues making his case with another example of faith wrongly understood as the opposite of works. This time, the hypothetical person claims to have faith by believing that God is one, the central truth of Judaism (Deuteronomy 6:4). Even demons have that kind of faith, James retorts. It only causes them to shudder, not to change and do good deeds. Again, faith that does not lead to action is worthless.
James 2:20-26: Abraham and Rahab demonstrated genuine faith
In contrast to the examples of faith wrongly understood, James now offers two examples of genuine faith. In both cases it is faith that led to action. Abraham trusted God, James says, and that led him to obey God’s outrageous command to sacrifice his own son. Only God’s intervention spared the life of Isaac. The point James wants to underline is that Abraham acted on the basis of his faith in God — even if God told him to do a terrible deed.
A second example of faith that includes action comes from the biblical story of the prostitute Rahab. According to Joshua 2, she sheltered Israelite spies and sent their pursuers on a wild goose chase. Her actions led the Israelites to spare her family when they conquered Jericho (Joshua 6:22- 25). Her deeds showed that she had faith in the God of Israel.
James cites the actions of Rahab and Abraham because they are examples of the inseparable link between faith and action. Again, faith without action is not true faith. As a final illustration of his point, James says that a body without breath (the Greek word for spirit also means breath) is dead. Likewise, faith without actions is a dead faith.
What should Christian faith motivate people to do on behalf of people in need?
What is the difference between orthodoxy (right thinking) and orthopraxis (right doing)? Can you have one without the other?
What faith-based actions does the Presbyterian Church (or your congregation) expect of its members in order to be in good standing?
JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va.