What good is faith without works? What good is doctrine without deeds? What good is Christian belief without Christian behavior? None at all, says James, none at all. He isn't just questioning the usefulness of faith without works; he's questioning the validity of it. "Can this sort of faith save you?" he asks. The implied answer is no. James strikingly suggests that faith without works is not saving faith.
In case we wonder exactly what he means by the term "works," James offers a concrete example. If a brother or sister is in need of clothing or daily food, and we say, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet do not supply their physical needs, what is the good of that? A kind word is not enough; an act of love is necessary. Likewise, faith is not just something we say, but also something we do. Faith is not just something we think, but also something we enact. Faith is not just a property of the mind, but also a property of the hands.
Years ago, a Christian friend explained to me that once we have faith, good deeds will follow. But that's not quite accurate, according to James. In James' view, if we have saving faith, there's no sequence of faith first and works second. They exist simultaneously. Faith and works are intertwined. Faith and works are integrated.
Works are not an addendum to faith, or a supplement for faith, or a product of faith. Works are a constituent element of faith. Works are part of what makes faith, faith. Faith without works is like chocolate pie without chocolate. Faith without works is like vegetable soup without veggies. Faith without works is like a turkey sandwich without turkey. It's something else entirely. Faith that does not work just doesn't work. Saving faith is working faith.
Now, as a good Protestant, I can't just roll with James here without raising a question. There's a question the size of a whale lurking beneath the whole discussion in James 2. People have been asking it for centuries, so we might as well ask it, too: Doesn't James contradict the apostle Paul here? Doesn't James deny the doctrine of justification by faith, a key aspect of Pauline theology and a cornerstone of Protestant doctrine?
Martin Luther, the great reformer, thought this is exactly what James does. In his "Preface to the New Testament," Luther wrote, "In direct opposition to St. Paul and all the rest of the Bible, [James] ascribes justification to works...St. Paul, on the contrary, in Romans 4, teaches that Abraham was justified without works, by his faith alone."
While I embrace many aspects of Luther's theology, this is an instance in which his biblical interpretation might be revisited. A close investigation reveals that the teachings of James and Paul concerning faith and works are not contradictory but complementary. Even more, they are mutually illuminating. Let me explain.
When Paul uses the term "works," he primarily means works of the Old Testament law that set Jews apart from Gentiles. These works include getting circumcised, following Old Testament food laws, and observing the Sabbath. So, when Paul says in Romans 3:28 that we are "justified by faith apart from works," he means that faith in Christ brings salvation, not getting circumcised or abstaining from pork. On the other hand, when James uses the term "works," he primarily means performing acts of mercy, helping people in need, and loving others in a concrete way. When James says faith without works is dead, he means that declaring faith in God without demonstrating love for people is a bogus faith that does not justify or save anybody.
I think Paul would agree with James on this point. Paul would agree that stated belief without embodied action is not saving faith. Paul says in Galatians 5:6, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love." Did you catch that? Paul says saving faith is working faith, a faith that loves others. Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 13:2, Paul famously says, "If I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." Faith without love is nothing. This is Paul's version of "faith without works is dead."
In the final analysis, the teachings of James and Paul differ in emphasis, not essence. Paul emphasizes justification by faith, while James emphasizes that faith without works is dead. We need both witnesses because they counterbalance and clarify one another. If not for James, we might mistake Paul to say that salvation is merely a matter of mentally agreeing with Christian ideas. If not for Paul, we might mistake James to say that we earn our salvation by doing good deeds.
James is not suggesting that salvation is based on our moral merit. To the contrary, James foregrounds divine grace, much like Paul does. Before all the talk about faith and works in chapter 2, James 1:18 says God "gave us birth by the word of truth." The idea is that we are born again by the gift of the gospel, or by grace. Even in James, salvation depends on God's grace, grace that precedes our faith, grace that enables our faith, grace that God extends to us before we ever make a motion in God's direction. We receive this divine gift of grace by faith.
However, genuine faith, true faith, saving faith, is more than mere intellectual belief. James drives this point home when he says in James 2:19, "You believe that God is one; even the demons believe - and shudder." This may be the most sarcastic moment in the whole Bible. "You believe that God is one? Well congratulations. Even the demons believe that." Demons, in other words, are orthodox theologians. Demons spout sound doctrine. In the gospels, we come across demons who declare that Jesus is the Son of God. James' point is that we, too, can believe the proper tenets of Christianity and still oppose God's will. We can make an A+ on our theology exam and still be God's adversaries. Christian belief without Christian behavior is not saving faith.
One limitation of the English language is that faith is a noun but never a verb. We don't say, "I faith in Christ." The verb we use in describing faith is "believe." "I believe in Christ." The problem with this is that the term "believe" has an overwhelmingly mental connotation. We need a term to signal that faith is an act of the hands as well as an affirmation of the mind; that faith is not only related to thinking but also to doing. We need a new term that makes the word "faith" into an action verb.
Picture a man hammering nails into boards to repair a homeless shelter for the coming winter. Someone walks by and asks, "What are you doing?" The man says, "Oh, I'm faithing."
Picture a lady leaving a building where she has been teaching English to newly settled refugees. She passes a friend on the sidewalk who asks, "What have you been up to?" "Faithing," she says. "I've just been faithing."
Picture a freshman sitting alone in the high school cafeteria eating a reduced-price school lunch. A senior gets up from where he is sitting with his friends to go over and befriend him. His friends say, "What are you doing, man?" "Faithing," he says, "I'm just faithing."
James teaches us that to believe in Christ is to take action in Christ. He insists that we cannot have faith without "faithing." Faith that is all talk and no action, all mouth and no hands, is like a $100 bill that does not pass the test of authenticity when held up to the light. James is holding our faith up to the light to see if it is a faith that works. After all, the Light of the World himself, Jesus Christ, once said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my father in heaven will enter."
Let us pray.
Most gracious and merciful God, we thank you for your gift of grace, for the gift of grace that enables us to have faith in Christ. We ask that you would help us to be people who are engaged in "faithing." Help us to believe with our head and our hands for your glory. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Martin Luther, "Preface to the New Testament," in The Basic Theological Writings of Martin Luther, 117.