For as long as 127 Worldwide exists with its current name, our purpose is inseparable from the book of James. Our very identity announces with James 1:27 that “pure and undefiled religion before our God and father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” We exist as a nonprofit because we want to see the global church connected and equipped to practice pure religion that empowers vulnerable communities to flourish.
The book of James argues that obedience is evidence of authentic Christian faith. It encourages us to ask ourselves “is my faith real?” and puts real, genuine faith under a magnifying glass for closer examination. James lays out a pretty convincing argument that true Christianity is seen not just in what it believes, but in what it does. If our faith has caused us to love our neighbor, then there’s a good chance it’s the real deal.
Let’s look at how he makes his case. James 2:14 asks two back-to-back questions- “What good is it if someone says he has faith but doesn’t have works? Can that kind of faith save him?” James’ implied answer is “no.” That kind of faith is not good; that kind of faith cannot save. Instead of coming right out with his reason, he answers the questions with an illustration.
Imagine a church member, a brother or sister (v. 15), needs help with daily provisions. They’re lacking something to wear and something to eat, but instead of meeting the need, we dismiss them with a spiritual answer: “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well” (v. 16). The NLT translates this sentiment into the modern salutation “Goodbye, and have a good day.” We don’t mean any harm, but we certainly haven’t done them any good either. The verbs in James 2:16 could mean that we pray, hoping someone else will feed and clothe them, or that we just encourage the needy person to pull it together and feed and clothe themself. Either way, a fellow Christian is without food and clothes, and we sent them away with nothing but some good wishes.
The following verse sums up the example with this conclusion– “faith without works is dead.” The issue at hand is not just faith or just works, but faith that has works and faith that doesn’t have works. And James concludes that the latter is useless. You have done nothing for the guy who was hungry and naked by telling him to “keep warm and eat well.” What good is it, James asks? No good at all.
James isn’t the only author who measures Christian faithfulness by caring for the needy. Isaiah challenged the Israelites to prove their religious fervor by feeding the hungry, protecting the sojourner, and clothing the naked (Is. 58:7-9). Jesus declared that the inheritance of the kingdom belongs to those who feed and clothe “one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” (Mt. 25:31-46). John questions how anyone who ignores the needs of his brother can receive the love of God and writes that our love must be one of truth and action (1 Jn. 3:17-18).
James then comes back to his topic by addressing a question someone might raise. What if not everyone has the gift of good works? Maybe one has the gift of faith and another the gift of works (v. 18). But James clarifies that works are not a special gift or “optional” in the Christian life. He changes course like a skilled detective putting the final details of a case together and accuses that faith without works might have been a false faith all along.
Look at how he got to this plot-twist conclusion. He compares a “workless” faith to the kind of belief that demons hold (v. 19). Even they believe that God is who he says he is! If they believe, then surely mere mental assent can’t be saving faith. One step further, James points out that ironically the demons have more response to the gospel than those who claim faith without works. At least when the demons hear the truth about God, they shudder! Those without good deeds claim to have faith, but we can’t find a single shred of evidence for it.
As important as sound doctrine is, believing the right things without acting on the truth is worthless. Under James’ magnifying glass, we see true faith as that which has permeated our attitudes and our actions.
Exemplifying True Faith
James also looks to the Old Testament to support his claim that true faith is accompanied by good deeds. He’s argued that faith without works does not save (v. 14), does no good (v. 16), is dead (v. 17), and is useless (v. 20). But now he uses the lives of two Old Testament characters, Abraham and Rahab, to demonstrate that faith without works just doesn’t make sense.
In James 2:21, James reminds us that when God tested Abraham, he proved his faith by offering up his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. James skillfully sets up his audience with a question: “Was Abraham’s faith real?” And in answer he shouts emphatically, “Yes, look at his works!”
Remember that James is not contrasting faith and works, but faith that works and faith that doesn’t work. Abraham’s obedience proves that he had already been declared righteous on the basis of faith (v. 23). His faith was the exact opposite of the demons’ belief. It was a working, active faith. His faith was no one-time assent to the truth, but something he exercised daily in the outworking of obedience.
But James adds one final story to cinch his case. While Abraham’s actions might have seemed an easy response to someone whom God had promised a people, a name, and a land, Joshua 2:11 says that Rahab, a Gentile prostitute, had just become convinced that “the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” She was new to the faith and not part of the Israelite community. But Hebrews 11 tells us that because of her faith, she provided lodging and safe passage for the spies. She is singled out as a hero of the faith, and we cannot read James 2 without remembering that she showed hospitality to the spies because she believed in God. Even her infant faith resulted in good works.
Salvation by Works?
Some have tried to pit Paul against James on this issue. In Romans, Paul vehemently refutes any attempt to merit salvation through good works. But Paul and James undeniably agree that we are ultimately saved by work– Christ’s work on our behalf. When we were dead in our sins, destined for damnation, and hopeless to make things right, God had mercy on us. He intervened for us. Jesus Christ accepted our debt and paid with his life so that we could be united with him, receiving the righteousness that he earned for us.
How are the ungodly made right with God? James 2:23 tells us. Our faith in Christ’s work is credited to us as righteousness.
We’re dealing with two definitions of justification here. If by justify you mean “to regard as righteous and worthy of salvation”, then the whole counsel of the Bible opposes justification by works. But if by justify you mean “to prove to be right,” then just look to Abraham on Mt. Moriah. His works justified his faith like an air-tight alibi in a court of law. The testimony of his obedience was that he had already been declared righteous. Works will never suffice to earn salvation, but works do justify our faith by proving it to be true.
Martin Luther is remembered as a staunch critic of the book of James, once calling it an “epistle of straw” for what he perceived to be a lack of theological depth. We see quite the opposite though. James’ description of faith is robust and deeply profound. It’s an all-encompassing trust in Jesus Christ that can’t stop itself from working for the advancement of the gospel and the good of the kingdom. It’s an undeniable faith because it’s a visible and active faith. James calls Christians to live like Christians and by their lives to prove the gospel is at work.
Despite his criticism, even Martin Luther understood the necessary relationship between faith and works. This excerpt from his preface to Romans actually sums up James pretty well:
O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this, and is constantly doing them.
At 127 Worldwide, that is exactly the kind of faith we pray to have– a faith that blesses the orphan, the widow, the needy, the vulnerable. Lord, let not our faith be dead. Let it be alive in good works, active in participation with Christ, and useful for the kingdom.