Genuine Faith Moves Us to Good Works
by Julian Russell
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead."
On the surface, it appears that James is at odds with Paul on the issue of saving faith, but both men share the same view on genuine faith. Here, James recalls the essential purpose of his epistle in 1:22, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
All Christians have been called by God to become a collective “womb of response” to the living Word. Christian ethics must be seen as a response to God’s grace. We can either adorn the Gospel or become a disgrace to it. James’ ethic is found in Matthew 5:20, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” James’ overriding question is this: What kind of faith unites anyone to Christ so that he/she receives eternal life? He responds with a four-step definition of faith:
1. Dead. Faith does not promote Christian brotherhood (2:15-17)
2. Barren. Faith acknowledges God but is useless (2:18-20)
3. Living. Faith justifies (2:21-24)
4. Genuine. Faith extends the Kingdom of God (2:25-26)
Is James contradicting Paul on the matter of saving faith? I believe these brothers represent both sides of the same coin—genuine faith. The main issue for both Paul and James is how Abraham was justified. Both men point to Genesis 15:6. James also references Genesis 22:1-18, when Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice to God.
Paul, writing to a largely gentile audience (see Romans 3:28; 4:1-3; Galatians 2:16), insists that Abraham was declared righteous by faith alone. Now remember that first-century gentiles were pagans who sought to placate their gods with sacrifices, performances. These gentile converts needed to see the sovereignty of God in all facets of life. On the other hand, James’ audience was mainly Jews who had embraced Jesus as the Messiah. So for James, Abraham was vindicated by working faith (James 2:22-24).
The Covenant community has always had two kinds of committed believers: Those who struggle with guilt and those who struggle with self-righteousness. The former needs to be reminded of God’s immeasurable love for His children while the latter urgently needs to see God’s sovereignty, because self-righteous people tend to exclude themselves from His amazing grace.
So what is James saying to us today? James calls us to act.
Words could be useless.
“When we as Christians behave badly, or fail to behave well, we are making Christianity unbelievable to the outside world.” C.S. Lewis
Genuine faith expresses itself in works of the Holy Spirit.
“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer should stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace make men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures.” Martin Luther
Christian love of others is the work of genuine, living, fruitful faith.
“The life of faith is more than a private…transaction of the heart with God. It is the life of active consecration seen in the obedience which holds nothing back from God and the concern which holds nothing back from human need.” J.A. Motyer
May the Holy Spirit enable you to serve the Lord as you serve others.