14-17 Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?
As we dive into the printed lesson text, it’s important to understand the previous portion of the pericope, for verses 14 and following build on the first 13 verses. In verses 1-13 James warns against partiality—that is treating “important” people, better than those deemed “unimportant”. According to James, God’s royal rule of love (as characterized by Eugene Peterson’s) must always prevail: we must love others (our neighbors) as ourselves. If we seek to love like God and live faithfully in the same manner that God is faithful to us, then we can’t cherry pick who we love and how we love them. In verses 14-17 James basically says: faith that talks, but doesn’t walk is of no practical value to anyone. If faith does not serve, it does not save, and unused faith is useless. We have to have active faith and consistent love. The two go hand in hand.
James then provides us with a practical example of the royal rule of love as faith in action. He describes a person who is in great need—no proper clothing, and hungry. Instead of providing this individual with what they need, we speak words which sound compassionate and caring, but are not accompanied by compassionate and caring action. The naked and hungry person is turned away as we usher them out the door with fake sounding “Christian” sentiment: “be clothed in Jesus,” or “stay full on the Holy Spirit.” We issue fake blessings with our mouth, while having nothing in our hand. This is especially cruel and deeply hypocritical, because our selfishness and lack of empathy is couched in benevolent terms. Whether or not the lack of action and the hypocrisy is willful matters little to the one in need. Because once we have talked a good game, the person still goes away with their needs unmet. Words don’t warm cold bodies, nor fill hungry bellies. The seemingly “holy” words are worthless and wasted breath!
James asserts the words that proceed out of our mouths provide snapshot of what flows from our hearts. If our words are empty, so is our faith. James will not permit us to minimize the poisoning effect of vain words and empty promises. If our profession of faith is merely empty words—without corresponding works—then our profession can’t be trusted nor believed. God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense.
18 I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.” Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.
19-20 Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That’s just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands?
In verse 18, James places what sounds like an opposing argument—that works can live without faith—in the mouth of fictional conversation partner. The partner surmises that one can handle doing good works, while someone else keeps faith. This comment underscores the aberrant theological principle that one can do one without the other, and ultimately through the response, James reinforces the indivisibility of faith and works. “You claim to have faith, but you have no accompanying deeds to verify that you really possess true faith. I, on the other hand, have works. Is it not right to assume that my profession of faith carries much more weight if works accompany it?”
Professing to believe that there is one God is good; it’s orthodox. The Jews professed faith in one God. But their faith stopped there. Again, profession does not prove that one has salvific faith—which is faith that compels one to action. Even demons believe that God exists, but clearly we don’t affirm that they possess genuine faith.
21-24 Wasn’t our ancestor Abraham “made right with God by works” when he placed his son Isaac on the sacrificial altar? Isn’t it obvious that faith and works are yoked partners, that faith expresses itself in works? That the works are “works of faith”? The full meaning of “believe” in the Scripture sentence, “Abraham believed God and was set right with God,” includes his action. It’s that mesh of believing and acting that got Abraham named “God’s friend.” Is it not evident that a person is made right with God not by a barren faith but by faith fruitful in works?
In these verses, James invokes Abraham as a witness to underscore his theological doctrine that a profession of faith is evidenced by works. In Genesis 15:1-6, Abraham believes that God’s promise of a son will be fulfilled, despite evidence to the contrary. And God credits him with righteousness because of his faith. Then in Genesis 22 when Abraham’s faith is tested with the Adeka, (also called the Sacrifice of Isaac), the patriarch’s faith is demonstrated by faithful obedience to the Word of God, and his works of laying Isaac upon the altar. Abraham’s obedience is an act of faith.
The justification that James speaks of here is not the “justification” of salvation by faith, as Paul teaches, but rather the justification or validation of his profession of faith in the sight of others. Unlike God, people do not know the hearts of other men. Therefore, our works, as justification of true faith, provides a visual witness to that faith. As yoked partners, faith and works must work together, lest they both be barren.
25-26 The same with Rahab, the Jericho harlot. Wasn’t her action in hiding God’s spies and helping them escape—that seamless unity of believing and doing—what counted with God? The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse. Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a corpse.
Again James cites Torah teaching to highlight how Rahab’s faith was justified by her works. As the tribes of Israel commenced with possessing the Promised Land, word of their intent filtered to the people of Jericho. Because the Israelites were the enemy, and anyone who aided or protected them would be considered a traitor. Rahab knew that God was with His people, and that the Israelites would defeat the people of Jericho. Therefore, when the two spies came to her house, and the king of Jericho sent word for Rahab to surrender the men, she resisted through subterfuge. Hiding the two spies under piles of flax on her roof, she saved their lives.
Confessing her faith in the power of Israel’s God, “For the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below! (Joshua 2:11), Rahab insists the spies pledge spare her and her family when Jericho fell. Her profession of faith was justified (demonstrated) when she followed through with her verbal promise by letting the men down the wall of the city with a rope, and sending Jericho soldiers in the wrong direction. Because Rahab is an outsider and a harlot, she should not have been accorded a second look from Israel, let alone a place within their community. Yet, her faith and works declare her acceptable to God.
James sums up his theological argument in verse 26. Words without works are worthless; a profession of faith is useless without putting faith into action. This reminds contemporary Christians that our “walk” must match our “talk”. Failure to exercise consistency brings into question the authenticity of our professed confessions of faith. Further, James admonishes the faithful to reject pious forms of orthodoxy (so called “right thinking”) and ritual (so called “right action”) as dictated by convention. Rather, James says we should, like Abraham and Rahab, open ourselves up to radical mindsets and unconventional partners, as authentic demonstrations of true faith. According to African American New Testament biblical scholar Dr. Gay Byron, one can only truly understand James’ theological doctrine of faith and works within the context of a faith community seeking to become “mature and complete in their faith.” Abraham and Rahab remind us that those type of Christians—those striving for maturity—can be “perfected or made mature by works.”
4) See Luke Timothy Johnson’s “The Letter of James: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections” in The New Interpreter Bible Commentary Volume X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015) p. 635 and Gay Byron’s discussion in True to Our Native Land, p. 461.
5) Byron, p. 467.