James 2:14-26



1.                  It turns out that one of the most familiar passages in the Bible is also one of the most controversial.

a.                   It is familiar because what it says is so practical and important.

b.                  But it is controversial because at the least it contradicts a basic assumption of evangelical groups, and at most it seems to conflict with another New Testament passage.


2.                  That’s surprising for a text which has as its central invitation, “show me your faith.”

a.                   James 2:14-26

b.                  Faith, works, and what saves or justifies a person.  Obviously, we’re dealing with weighty matters here.  What are we to make of this teaching?


3.                  Problems at the extremes.  It would be good for us to start with some awareness of the mishandling of this text that church history has seen.  Sometimes it has been the bat that has been used on people, and sometimes it has been the ball that has been knocked all over the field.


a.                   There have been times when what James says here has been misused to pressure people in ways that have not helped them to be what God wants us all to be.

i.                    I’ve known some good and sincere people who, partly in view of this passage, have lived in fear that they “haven’t done enough.”

ii.                  One fellow said he believed James 2:10 to be the most important verse in the Bible: whoever fails in one point becomes guilty of all.  That, of course, place all of Christian living in a context of duty with no security and no joy.

iii.                Human beings have also always had a tendency to engage in outward works that have no inward substance to them. 

(1)               That can descend into a ritualism which has no sincerity and communicates no love for God or compassion for people.

(2)               In its worst form, it becomes the kind of hypocrisy which is ugly to people and disgusting to God.


b.                  That partly explains the other extreme in how our text been abused.  There have been times when people have basically rejected it because they have considered it to dishonor faith.

i.                    In Martin Luther’s day, for example, the medieval Roman church allowed “indulgence” salesmen to peddle religious relics by promising their customers a divine reprieve from the pain of a supposed “purgatory.”

(1)               One of the worst of these was a man named John Tetzel, who worked the territory around Luther’s hometown.

(2)               He would arrive in an ornate carriage, emerge from it in his flowing clerical robes, display a small red cross, and begin his pitch.

(3)               It is said to have gone something like this: “This cross I now hold before you has ll the forgiving power of the cross on which Jesus died.  Think about your sins.  This cross even has the power to secure pardon for sins which you will commit in the future.  Think about it, my friends.  You can receive letters which are properly certified to assure you of the deliverance of your father, your mother and ll those dear departed loved ones who now writhe in the pain of purgatory.  All that stands between them and deliverance from their agony is alms – a few trifling alms.  Oh, if you could only hear your good mother as she pleads with you, ‘Have pity, oh my child!’  Will you let your own mother, your departed brother, your child, agonize in their tormenting flames?  Remember my friends, ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.’  (Quoted by Norman L. Bales, How Do I Know I’m Saved?  92)

(4)               That’s the kind of environment that provoked Luther and turned him into the reformer who nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg church building on October 31, 1517.

ii.                  But one of the ways in which he reacted to the terrible practices he had seen was to insist that people are justified by faith alone, and that no work of man has anything to do with it.

(1)               He translated Romans 3:28 to read “a man is justified by faith alone,” though there is no textual support for that last word.

(2)               Since James emphasizes works, Luther referred to it as a “right strawy epistle” and suggested it didn’t properly belong in New Testament.

iii.                Now so many people think a person is saved at the moment he believes – without any obedience – and what is written about James 2 is more about what it doesn’t mean that what it does.


4.                  Points that may encourage.  Our text actually addresses both these extremes.  James reminds us that faith and works are necessarily part of each other.  A few reflections on his argument will make the strength it offers apparent.


a.                   James is writing to brothers and sisters in Christ about how they should behave in a social setting (v. 14, 15).

i.                    The whole letter is very practical in nature, and what James says about faith and works is offered in a very real context.

ii.                  He has been urging his readers not to dishonor people by being respecters of persons, but to speak and act mercifully and responsibly.

iii.                He saw these kinds of things as essential to pure and undefiled religion, and he understood the loving actions which are called for must be produced and motivated by faith.

b.                  He intends here to correct anyone who may have assumed he did not need to do anything like that because he had faith (v. 16-18).

i.                    His point is that faith will not look something that God says to do right in the face, something one could do,  and say, “Goodbye.  Go see to it.”

ii.                  Faith goes with works which obey the commands of God; it cannot exist without them.

iii.                If it doesn’t, James says, it is dead, useless, and it cannot save.  Faith works through love (Gal. 5:6).


c.                   This text is not about whether one has “done enough;” it is about whether his faith is of the active kind that justifies a person (v. 19-20).

i.                    The most basic conviction of the faith is that “God is one,” but even that knowledge will not justify anyone without trusting, obedient action.

ii.                  It is the same quality of which Paul spoke in Romans 3 and 4, but there Paul was addressing those who may have thought they could have earned justification for themselves through the works prescribed by the law of Moses.  In that letter he called for obedient trust in Christ (cf. Rom. 6:3, 4).

iii.                James is addressing those who were inclined to take their salvation for granted, and he tells them that trusting, obedient action must continue.


d.                  The persons James uses as examples of the faith he is speaking of were not flawless individuals, but their faith was completed by works (v. 20-25).

i.                    They are from two different ends of the social ladder, but, as if to show that there are no exceptions, they were justified through the same kind of faith.

ii.                  Abraham was justified when his faith cooperated with his works and completed by them.

iii.                Rahab was justified when her faith active along with her works and was completed by them, too.


e.                   The activity of faith James described is not frenetic activity nor superhuman achievement, but practical action in trusting response to God.

i.                    He was no advocate of do-it-yourself salvation.

ii.                  But he is saying that faith has to be expressed in action.  There is no other way for it to be alive, useful, and saving. 

iii.                Thayer said faith is “a conviction, full of joyful trust...joined with obedience.”


5.                  J. W. Roberts concluded his comments on this section of James this way: “Let us all take heed to James’ admonition.  Let the sinner respond to the commission to heed what Jesus says to those who ask, ‘What must I do to be saved?’  And let the Christian (to whom this is written primarily) remember that a life of genuine obedience to the will of Christ in worship, service, and morality is necessary to perfect the faith with which we began to live for Christ.”