What good is it, my brothers, and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. (NIV)
Genuine authentic faith is more than mere sentiment and head knowledge. Faith without works does not work. Strong robust faith is active and can withstand adversity.
The rhetorical questions the Apostle James asked were meant to awake his readers to the reality that true faith is always active. In other words, inactive faith is not really faith at all. In his letters to the churches, the Apostle Paul typically talked about the relationship between faith and works before a person converts to Christ, whereas the Apostle James emphasized the role of works after a profession of faith in Christ.
St. James was getting at the heart of how a believer in Jesus ought to live. And he did this by giving an illustration of the relationship between faith and works: If someone is in need and a person expresses a sentimental feeling, even if that feeling is sincere, without backing it up with action – the expression is merely an expression, nothing more.
I once came home after a long day at work on a Valentine’s Day several years ago. I had picked up some flowers at a drive through flower shop. I walked into the door and handed my wife the flowers with an “I love you.” Then, I sat down in a heap and turned on the television. My dear wife’s response was not so favorable to my sentimental overtures. I did not really put any thought or action behind Valentine’s Day, and she knew it. My words of “I love you” just did not sync with my actions.
Just so you know, I redeemed myself the next year by winning a contest on a local radio station for a spouse’s best love note, and it got read on the air several times throughout the day for my lovely wife to hear. My commitment and actions were were nicely aligned so that when I said “I love you” at the end of that workday, there was no doubt about it.
Faith requires that actions sync with words. For example, when we say “I will pray for you” it needs to be more than an expression of concern – we need to spend the time and commitment it takes in praying for them.
Faith involves emotions yet ought not be limited by them. Faith can neither exist nor survive without deeds. Christian works are not an added extra to faith any more than breathing is an added extra to the body. Both faith and action is needed for the Christian life.
True faith is shown as the genuine article by how it acts in real life situations. Faith is more than a checklist of right beliefs to sign-off on, as if it were some fire insurance policy against hell. Frankly, as a Pastor, I have heard some pretty lame justifications over the decades for failing to help others, give to the poor, be involved in justice work, and just plain serve in the church, like, “I’m not wired that way,” “That’s not my gift,” “That’s what we pay you to do,” and the ever-prolific, “This church is not meeting my needs.”
Those in the habit of complaining without an intent to boots-on-the-ground helping do not yet have an active faith. Each person is to do their part in serving the common good of all. And we all suffer when that does not happen. Bifurcating faith and action leave us with a false faith.
If faith without action is okay, then so is the entire demonic realm. The glimpses of Satan we get in the Bible leads me to think that the devil has the entire thing memorized and knows it well from Genesis to Revelation. Yet, knowledge puffs up but love builds up. Information by itself is useless unless it is accompanied by gracious and loving action. (1 Corinthians 8:1)
Salvation is a term Christians are familiar with. In the Christian tradition, it refers to being saved from sin, death, and hell. Sanctification is another term most Christians recognize. It means “to become holy,” or, “to be set apart” for God. Sanctification is not an event but a process. Whereas saving faith is a gift given without works, sanctifying faith requires a great deal of effort. A lot of energy is expended to live the Christian life. The late Dallas Willard used to often say, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action.”
The Apostle James dealt primarily with the sanctifying faith every Christian needs to exhibit. It is as if we have been graciously granted a full-ride scholarship to a university (salvation) but now the real work begins (sanctification) to learn, grow, and obtain the degree. And, just as a student will surely become discouraged at some point throughout their education and wonder if they ought to drop out, so the Christian will face tremendous adversity and challenge. Indeed, a lot of blood-sweat-and-tears goes into our spiritual studies so that our faith will be strengthened for a lifetime of active loving service.
For example, the Old Testament character Abraham was saved from an empty way of life in a pagan country and given a gift of grace to move to the country God would show him. Abraham did nothing to earn this favor. God just chose him (Joshua 24:2-3). Abraham sojourned as a pilgrim throughout the land God gave him, which mirrored his spiritual sojourning and learning to be a follower of God. Abraham faced a monumental test of faith when asked to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19).
Abraham’s faith was made complete by what he did. Testing of faith is necessary so that we become mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:3-4). The way for authentic faith to develop and grow is in the fiery trial of adversity and hardship. Spiritual maturation, holiness, and a well-rounded faith come by means of difficult life circumstances.
To press the significance of faith and works, the example of the Old Testament character Rahab is highlighted. Rahab was a prostitute who lived in the red-light district of Jericho. St. James was doing something profound and important – he took two extreme examples, one a giant of the faith, and the other an almost overlooked example of faith, to demonstrate we all are candidates for real faith.
Rahab’s faith and actions worked harmoniously. She genuinely believed the city of Jericho was going to be overcome by God’s judgment, and, so, she housed the visiting Israelite spies (Joshua 2:1-11). Methinks we must expand our understanding of faith to include persons others might exclude. Some may be quick to judge those with dubious lives and backgrounds, as well as the poor and needy. The bald fact of the matter is that we cannot sanitize Rahab as something other than what she was – and because of her faith she ended up being an ancestor of Jesus himself (Matthew 1:5).
From the standpoint of faith, Abraham and Rahab are on the same level. In Christ’s new egalitarian society, all are welcome, all are equal. Together, we work on our sanctifying faith by submitting to adversity as our teacher; finding solace in God’s Holy Word and Spirit; praying for and with others; worshiping God like there is no tomorrow; leaning into faithful relationships; keeping our eyes open to what God is doing; being patient with the process of sanctification; and embracing unwanted change as our friend.
Faith works, my young Padawan. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Energize it.