Faith and works - James 2: 14-26
(James 2: 14-26) and that faith was perfected by works? And the Scripture was fulfilled that says: Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, and he was called God’s friend. You see, then, that man is justified by works, and not only by faith. Likewise also Rahab the harlot, was she not justified by works, when she received the messengers and sent them by another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead too. ” when he received the messengers and sent them another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead too.
This passage is key on the subject of faith and works. The internal literary coherence is now quite clear. We have already seen that genuine faith must be put into practice and that faith is tested and maintained in the midst of trials (1: 3). Now the need for faith to act is made explicit. From the exhortation to be doers and not just hearers (1: 22-25), we move on to the reality of a faith that works (2: 18-26). Likewise, visiting orphans and widows (1:27), an example of the religion that God approves, has its negative continuation in one whose religious language serves as an alibi to dismiss the poor without any help (2: 15-16).
Even more evident is the relationship with the first part of the chapter since, apart from the mention of an interlocutor (18), the parallels between both halves seem evident. RP Martín outlines it as follows:
- “My brothers ... faith”, v. 1 - “My brothers ... faith”, v. 14.
- The poor man in ragged clothes, v. 2 - A brother or sister naked and in need of sustenance, v. fifteen.
The poor man ... rich in faith ... loves God, v. 5 - Faith ... works (associated many times in this passage)
- “You do well” (kalos poieite), v. 8 - “You do well” (kalos poieis), v. 19
- The good name by which you are called, v. 7 - (Abraham) was called God’s friend, v. 2. 3
The story line is similar in both parts of the chapter. It begins with an initial question (1.14), followed by a hypothetical case (2.3; 15.16), which ends with a question (4.16). In one case we have the logical inconsistency of behavior (6,7), in the other the pretense of separating faith and works is reduced to absurdity (18,19). In the same way that (2: 8-11) alludes to faith that obeys the law of love, (in 2: 20-25) the examples of obedient faith of Abraham and Rahab are presented. The ending is similar with “so… so” (12) and “so too” (26).
James, who begins by speaking of the possession of faith (1), offers two dramatic descriptions of how “faith” should be understood: a) Faith cannot shelter the favoritism that flatters the rich and despises the poor; b) Faith reaches its true meaning only when it is accompanied by - and is expressed in - works of goodness and mercy, of which an example is provided (15,16). This faith is alive (26), not dead (17) nor ineffective (20), with respect to salvation (14). Faith cannot remain a sentiment that does not go beyond a mere pious expression (16). Nor is it the simple recitation of a doctrinal creed (19), which would not cease to be an entelechy (20).
The logical argument (James 2: 14-17)
The basic points of the passage are clear and consistent with the overall argument. It begins with the question of “profit” (14,16) but ends with the question of life and death (17, 26). Both questions are directed to the authenticity of the faith that is professed but is not demonstrated by works. Things act according to their being. Works never take the place of faith, but reveal the existence of it.
It is typical of Santiago’s style to begin this paragraph without a connecting word with the above, yet the absence of any link makes us think that the denunciation of the inoperative faith is in itself a matter of interest to him. It is legitimate to wonder about the relationship with what precedes, that is, is “faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1) being viewed from another angle? Or is there a relationship between the character that is proper to faith and the mention of the judgment (12,13)?
1. Faith without works, v. 14
The two rhetorical questions deliberately await a negative answer. The first of these involves the nonprofit of inoperative faith. The second, more specifically and categorically, affirms the inability of such faith to save. When both things are combined, the result is pathetic: It is a useless faith for salvation, which would be the result of true faith. In the first question we put the accent on “says” (the claim to have faith), and on the second on the word “la” (returning to faith without works). Looking at the future consummation of salvation and the judgment to come, the criterion will not be verbal profession, however sincere and insistent it may be, but faith that is expressed by something more than words (14) or mere pious feelings (15, 16).
2. An illustration of faith without works, vv. 15.16
Although the example is hypothetical, however, pictures of poverty such as those that James would have seen in Jerusalem together with the provision of that church to meet the needs, would have provided him with material for this illustration. The apostle John will say something similar (1 Jn 3: 17-18) , although with a different application. In the case of readers, situations as precarious as those described in this text are not ruled out.
The answer to the need (16) is so offensive and useless that it is enough to repeat the first question “What is the benefit?” (14). Actions of faith include provision for the material needs of others. In this case, there is no benefit for the needy since they do not receive any help. It is interesting to analyze the words of the “one of you” to the destitute: “Go in peace” are typical of a warm farewell among the Jews, they do not express contempt and Jesus himself used them, but after having listened and acted in favor of the one who received such words (Lk 7:50) (Lk 8:48). Undoubtedly, expressions of sympathy are valuable and can be of encouragement if this is all that can be contributed. However, “you do not give them what they need” seems to imply that those who profess do not meet the expectations that their words arouse. And it is noteworthy that caring for the needs “of the body” is not outside the “spiritual” activities of faith.
3. The conclusion to the above, v. 17
The description of faith without works is threefold: It does not profit, it does not save, and it is dead. In this way the force of its meaning increases and intensifies: It is useless, incapable of saving and, in fact, dead. It is not a true faith; although “one of you” (16) is mentioned, the point of the illustration is that such a result is unthinkable. The church must have channels of ministry for a life of faith thinking of ways to minister to the needs of others. Priorities must be chosen. Here is a message to convince and motivate those who could be people of faith.
Faith is the unifying theme of the epistle. It is by faith in God that we endure trials, ask for wisdom, resist temptation, control our tongues, care for orphans and widows, keep ourselves unspotted from the world, love our neighbor, and give for the physical and material needs of the poor. In short, we live as doers of the Word. Everything can be improved but these things point to the reality of a genuine faith. True faith submits to Christ as Lord because saving faith includes both trusting him as Savior and following him as disciples.
The answer to an objection (James 2:18)
What we are going to be taught is that faith and works are inseparable. This is the thesis of the entire passage. The answer plays with the double use of the verb show: The mere professing, who claims to have faith, must reveal his alleged faith without works; the other possibility is to demonstrate faith by the fruits that it necessarily produces and which are the only certain signs, that is, works. Works do not usurp the place of faith but the true nature of faith is highlighted by works.
The faith of demons (James 2:19)
Santiago takes the objector to his own ground with an argument that is devastating. The argument oscillates between the demons that tremble and Abraham who believed and was called the friend of God (19:23). This is the contrast between illusory and true faith. In the first case, faith produces fear, in the other, friendship.
Demons are in a unique position to believe certain true statements. The textual variants regarding the order of the words and the presence or absence of the definite article do not change our conviction that the reference is to the Shema (Dt 6: 4), the specific confession about the unity of God, which was recited daily by the Jews. Even more important is the purpose of the sacred writer to affirm that such a statement only receives intellectual assent, faith is reduced to a mere creed, a far cry from faith in action as a cordial response to God.
“Tremble” translates a word that means “rough, rugged, uneven on the surface.” It is often referred to as shivering, as in a fever, or a chill when the skin contracts, what we call goose bumps, or when the hair stands on end. It is a shudder from fear of judgment. The demons know that God exists but they are terrified before him. This fear contrasts with the confidence and peace of the true believer.
The example of Abraham (James 2: 20-24)
The importance of the subject is reflected in the appellation “vain man,” because it is certainly foolish who does not see the contrast between mere faith as a creed, and faith as a full response to God. This person should have filled his mind and heart with “the word of truth,” “the implanted word” (1: 18,21), to know what true faith is and not settle for a faith that is no better than of the demons.
With “you want to know” we go to another stage in the argument to endorse with the authority of Scripture the thesis that “faith without works is sterile.” The two examples of faith (14-17,18-20) lead us to two contrasting characters: One is the father of believers, the other a foreigner. Abraham was a respected figure, Rahab lacked reputation. Abraham was a man, Rahab a woman. So, a repertoire capable of covering very varied situations.
1. The sacrifice of Isaac, v. twenty-one
This moment is an act of supreme obedience performed by faith, and it fits the context of what readers should practice. Isaac’s offering is the ultimate test of Abraham’s faith (1: 3-4). Especially emphatic is (He 11: 17-19)which says: “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered Isaac ...”; that this is exactly the idea of Santiago is made evident by what follows. There is emphasis and pathos in the words “Isaac his son” since without him the previous promises could not be fulfilled. The method of justification is not being defined as carefully as Paul did, but rather it is trying to destroy the claim of those who imagined they had faith when the evidence was lacking in conduct. The person justified by faith will show it in one way or another. In Hebrews Abraham is part of the distinguished line of heroes, who, under great trials, never lost sight of the Invisible or the conviction that God would keep his promises.
I. The verb “justified” is a passive historical aorist. Had it been a middle voice, it would have been Abraham himself, out of his own righteousness, as a result of works, who would have become just. But it was someone other than the patriarch, God the judge, who gave his verdict of justification.
II. “By (the works)” does not translate dia, which would be the means, but ék, the source; In other words, it was not works that justified him but God who took notice of the fruits of faith.
IV. The aorist participle can indicate a simultaneous action or antecedent to the action of the main verb, that is, it was justified “when” he offered Isaac, but we could also translate by “having offered,” or “in which he offered.” Isaac’s offering was not the cause of the imputation of righteousness, since it occurred before a single work had been done (Gen 15: 6). What James thinks is that Abraham demonstrated a faith that was not sterile or dead (17,20). This useless faith does not really unite us to Christ; only works of faith attest that faith is genuine and it is this productive faith that clings to Christ.
The life of faith respects the glory of Jesus (1) who, out of obedience to God and love for sinful men, took the form of a servant (Phil 2: 7-8). Especially it is obedience to the royal law (8), obedience to the Word from the perspective of responding to the needs of others. The life of faith is one of consecration seen in obedience that does not bargain anything from God or deprive others of due service.
The offering of Isaac is the test of the reality of faith and this is the point where God’s verdict becomes clear, because as Abraham begins to offer his son, God intervenes and shows that he ratifies the covenant by forgiving life of the young man.
2. The explanation of faith, vv. 22.23
“You see” is singular pointing to the supposed interlocutor (“you ... you”, vv. 18,19), and he immediately draws the conclusion to the example he has presented (21). What does this act of Abraham mean? For “faith acted together with his works ...” (22). If the previous verse gave the impression of being interested in works, now we see that faith has been assumed in what has been said of Abraham, a faith that is not sterile (20). In synërgei the syn (“together”) explains the reference to friend (23), and the ërgei (“acted”) is a pun on argë (sterile, v. 20).
Faith was perfected. The patriarch’s faith was neither imperfect nor incomplete that left the moment of justification pending. The verb means to lead to the goal and the passive voice indicates that it was God who did this with the faith of Abraham. God asked him to show these works of faith. Abraham’s faith was aided through these works and thus God brought the patriarch’s faith to its goal as a result of works. What was the goal?
Scripture was fulfilled. The goal is the fulfillment of (Gen 15: 6), which, again, is passive voice, so it was a Scripture fulfilled by God. Since the phrase suggests a kind of prophecy or promise we wonder what it means. Abraham believed what God said many years before the sacrifice of Isaac, that is, the great prediction of (Gen 15: 1-5), and God counted his faith as righteousness. Although God’s command seemed to nullify (Gen. 15: 6), by preserving Isaac, he actually affirmed its fulfillment.
By offering Isaac, the faith of thirty years earlier was vindicated. God kept the prophecy and promise that rested on Isaac. God did not even let Abraham’s action go beyond binding the boy and did not have to raise him from the dead. Abraham still believed in what God had told him and put Isaac on the altar and God gave him precious words sealed with an oath (Gen 22: 16-18). This was a renewed assurance for the patriarch’s faith that what had been said thirty years earlier would be fully fulfilled. To this goal God brought Abraham’s faith.
He was called a friend of God. This is another result of the works of faith with a goal. “Friend” (phyla) derives from the verb fileö, to love. It is the love between two people who share common interests. In the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham demonstrated the coincidence with God in interests and will. True friendship never takes a bill for expenses because it doesn’t count the cost.
Abraham is the supreme example of “friendship with God,” instead of “friendship with the world.” Abraham represents above all the person of faith who is not double minded, who truly thinks and acts according to God’s measure. Had he been a friend of the world, he would have lacked the will to offer his son in sacrifice, because he would have seen life as a closed system where the future was determined by what he possessed. Although Isaac was a gift from God, he was now Abraham’s possession and his hope for future possession of the land.
In short, we have three ways that faith and works operate together:
- “Faith worked together with its works,” a play on words: “faith worked with its works.”
- “Faith was perfected,” because faith matures with practice.
- The Scripture was fulfilled… Abraham’s faith in God’s promise and his telling him this as righteousness (Gen 15:6) proved to be true and were carried out in works when Abraham offered Isaac.
These three things make faith a dynamic factor rather than a static condition. A continued life of works of faith is expected of the believer. You are probably thinking about the teachings of Jesus on how to recognize the tree by its fruits (Mt 7: 15-20). Three things: 1) Faith is the initial and ongoing context for relationship with God. 2) The faith that is genuine will be demonstrated by works. 3) Genuine faith is the basis for being declared righteous before God. James opposes a faith that denies the obligation to obey Christ as Lord. Roman Catholicism has made a caricature of the Reformed doctrine, because Protestants say that justification is by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone, which, incidentally, is not the same as adding faith plus works to achieve justification.
3. The final proposition, v. 24
The example of Rahab (James 2: 25-26)
This second example supposes a marked contrast (dé) with that of Abraham, but “likewise, in the same way” (homoíös) emphasizes that this illustration teaches the same truth. The construction runs parallel to the previous example since it begins, as in 2:21, with a question that invites the reader to careful consideration; while the negation with the question mark (“right ...?”) confirms the teaching of the entire passage.
No one would challenge the patriarch around his great renown as the father of believers. However, Rahab was not even Jewish but was Gentile. She belonged to the peoples of Canaan who were to be destroyed later for their wickedness. Regarding her personal history, she was a whore. Perhaps she had succumbed to the immorality of her Canaanite environment. There are many imaginations derived in various traditions about her as a person, but what is certain is that she is one of the links in the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Mt 1: 5). So, the universality of the principle defended in this section of the epistle is being affirmed.
The conclusion of the subject (James 2:26)
The final clause, “faith without works is dead,” forms an inclusion with 2:17 so that what is said in the intervening verses supports the main argument in 2: 14-17. The “because” (gar) implies that the point James wants to make flows from Rahab’s example, both her faith and her works.
Topics to ponder and reconsider
- Define faith and works and show how they are related, based on James’s argument in this passage.
- Explain the difference between the “faith” of the demons, the faith of Abraham, and that of Rahab. What “ingredients” have the faith of these two characters, which are completely lacking in theirs.