a reply to: Heresiarch
In the second chapter of his New Testament letter, James asks the famous awkward question;
“What does it profit…if a man says he has Faith but has not works?” (ch2 v14)
We know from the rest of the letter that James values Faith highly- this was clear from the opening verses.
But this question is not addressed at the man who has Faith.
It is addressed at the man who says
he has Faith, which is not the same thing.
So the following question, “Can his Faith save him?”, really means “Can this merely spoken
Faith save him?”
In the previous chapter, James was explaining the need to be “doers” of the Word, not hearers only.
It seems to me that he’s making a similar point in this chapter, that we need to be “doers” of the Faith, not speakers only.
He illustrates the difference in the next two verses;
If you want someone to be warm and clothed, the “warming and clothing” which is merely said
is completely ineffective- “does not
The intention isn’t fulfilled until the “warming and clothing” is actively done
If we follow this analogy through, it leads to the conclusion that merely spoken Faith is ineffective, that Faith needs to be “done”.
So that must be the real meaning of the statement in v17; merely spoken Faith (“Faith by itself”) does not bring life (“is dead”). The only
kind of Faith that brings life is the ”done” Faith, the activated Faith which James calls “works”.
V18. which begins with a “But”, is not an objection to the previous verse, but another answer to v14’s “man who says he has Faith”.
“You say that you have Faith, but you don’t have works…
But someone will say…”
There’s disagreement among scholars about the speakers in this verse.
In one theory, there are three different viewpoints on the table.
There is the original spokesman for Faith, the “someone” who advocates works, and the middle ground taken by James at the end of the verse.
That’s implied, for example, by the RSV translation, which punctuates the first part of the verse as a separate speech.
One objection to this approach is that the hypothetical spokesman for works doesn’t really get answered.
In any case, the viewpoint expressed by “someone” is not the logical opposite of v14; he is NOT saying “I have works without Faith”.
His argument really extends to the end of the verse, and it’s taking the form;
“You say that you have Faith-
But I have Faith as well.
The difference between us is that I can prove it, and you can’t”.
The contrast given is between showing Faith without
[CHORIS] works, and showing Faith by means of
So the function of “works” here is to be the evidence for the existence of Faith, and what James is offering is another reason why “saying”
should be followed by “doing”.
V19 attacks the merely spoken Faith from a different angle.
Merely believing in the one God is not enough; even the demons know that, and it doesn’t do them any good.
But merely “believing that God exists” would not be an adequate definition of saving Faith anywhere else in the New Testament, either.
Admittedly Hebrews ch11 v6 says “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists”, but even in Hebrews this is only the beginning.
The essential ingredient of the word Faith is trust
, as that chapter of Hebrews is demonstrating, and this trust in God is what the demons
In the rest of the chapter, James claims to show that men are “justified by works”.
Yet the two episodes he quotes to illustrate this point are both cited in Hebrews ch11 as examples of Faith
The first episode is Abraham’s obedient response to the command to sacrifice Isaac.
In Hebrews, this is an example of Faith, a because “he considered God was able to raise men even from the dead” (Hebrews ch11 v19).
He had received the promise of descendants through Isaac, and his obedience implied a confidence that the action would not nullify the promise.
For James, the point is that his Faith was “completed” by his works- that is, he did not just believe, but acted on his belief.
The second episode is Rahab of Jericho, assisting the scouts who had been sent out by Joshua.
In Hebrews (ch11 v31) this is another example of Faith.
For James, though, she was “justified by works”, presumably because she did not just believe in the God of Israel but acted on that belief.
He repeats the claim that “Faith without works” is dead (v26), and adds the very suggestive analogy that “works” animates Faith in the same
way that the human spirit animates the body.
Perhaps the point is that the presence of life reveals itself by movement.
How can the same two episodes be examples of “Faith” in Hebrews, and examples of “works” in James?
I think we come back to the point that Faith hinges upon trust.
But “trust” is another quality which needs to be done
, not merely said
The man who walks across a bridge is showing a much more genuine trust than the man who says “I
believe that bridge will hold my weight”, and stays where he is.
These two episodes are examples of “trustful action”.
But Hebrews gives them a label (“Faith”) putting emphasis on the fact that “trust
While the label used in James gives the emphasis that “trust is acting
“Works” is the action
of trust, by which Faith is made real and “complete”.
Nevertheless, both writers are making the same point- that genuine trust involves walking across that bridge.
In the middle of his discussion on Abraham’s obedience, James claims (v23) that it fulfilled the scriptural declaration;
“Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Genesis ch15 v6).
Paul is using the same verse, of course, for his own teaching on Faith and works found in Romans and Galatians.
It’s noteworthy, and notorious, that Paul and James make opposite-sounding statements about this verse.
Paul relies upon it for his claim that Abraham was justified by his Faith.
Yet James is using the same verse as part of his argument that men are justified by their works
However, we mustn’t allow this verbal contradiction to prevent us noticing the extent of their agreement.
They both agree on the importance of that verse.
They both appreciate the significance of the fact that Abraham believed in
the promise God made him.
In short, they agree on the starting-point
of Abraham’s righteousness.
James is not going to accept that Abraham was justified “by Faith alone”.
Presumably this is because “Faith by itself”, in this discussion, has meant merely spoken
Faith, which James has been condemning as
insufficient, not the real thing.
His argument has been that genuine Faith needs to be carried forward into action.
But that’s exactly what Abraham has been doing, if we take these two Genesis chapters together.
In ch15, he believed God’s promise, which was the foundation of his righteousness.
In ch22, that belief was carried forward into obedience, in the matter of Isaac. That’s when he “crossed the bridge”.
That’s why James says that Abraham’s obedience “fulfilled” the scripture of the earlier chapter.
That’s when his Faith was actualised, “made complete”.
“Works” is not an alternative to Faith, in this teaching, but the active ingredient of genuine Faith.