James 2:14-26 – Faith Is Active

My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.

Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action.It’s good that you believe that God is one. Ha! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble with fear. Are you so slow? Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all? 

What about Abraham, our father? Wasn’t he shown to be righteous through his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? See, his faith was at work along with his actions. In fact, his faith was made complete by his faithful actions. So, the scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and God regarded him as righteous. What is more, Abraham was called God’s friend. So, you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone.

In the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute shown to be righteous when she received the messengers as her guests and then sent them on by another road? As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead. (Common English Bible)

There is a difference between intent and impact.

A person may have a sincere and heartfelt intention of wanting to see another have their needs met. Yet, if it is only that, there is no impact on actual offerings of resources, friendship, or help.

Genuine authentic faith is more than mere sentiment and head knowledge. Faith without works does not work. Conversely, a strong robust faith is active and is able to withstand adversity.

The rhetorical questions the Apostle James asked were meant to awake his readers to the reality that true faith is always active – and that 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. 

If a person asks you for something, give it to him. Don’t refuse to give to someone who wants to borrow from you.

Jesus (Matthew 5:42, NCV)

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. 

I learned from my experience. 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 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.

Upholding justice with words (which is very important) but without translating that language into concrete action which truly helps others, ends up speaking into the wind.

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.

“In God’s eyes our words have only the value of our actions.”

St. Ignatius of Loyola

Frankly, as a Pastor, I have heard some pretty lame justifications over the decades for failing to help others, giving to the poor, involving oneself in justice work, and just plain serving 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 bogus faith. 

If faith without action is okay, then so is the entire demonic realm. The glimpses of Satan we get in the Bible lead me to think that the devil has the entire thing memorized and knows it quite well. Yet, knowledge puffs up, whereas 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’s 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.

Furthermore, 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.

“Each activity of daily life in which we stretch ourselves on behalf of others is a prayer in action.”

Richard Foster

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 comes through suffering.

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. 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 have equality in God’s kingdom.

Holy and active God, I submit to the adversity you bring as my teacher, and I choose to find solace in your Word and Spirit. With the grace, enablement, and resources you give me, I freely give to others in need, through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

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