James 2:14-17 (ESV)
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Now we come to the Faith and Works section of James. It is amazing to me that when people think of James they almost always think of the last two paragraphs of James 2. James is much more than these two paragraphs, and they are written in the larger context of the whole letter. Observe three things about James 2:14. First, these verses are preceded by a discussion about the Law of Liberty. James 1:24 instructed us to be looking into the Law of Liberty and be a doer, not a forgetter. Not doing results from forgetting who we are in Christ. James 2:12 carries this thought even further by challenging the believer to speak and act “as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” Verse 13 goes on to clarify that the Law of Liberty is about mercy, not judgment. “Mercy triumphs over judgement” (Jas 2:13b). These verses on faith and works are rooted in the discussion of the Law of Liberty.
Second, notice that the worthless faith described in the verses above is a faith of words only. “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, …without giving them the things needed.” The illustration of worthless faith is a faith that speaks, but doesn’t translate into action. The problem isn’t with the lack of action. The problem is that faith is understood simply as words. Unfortunately, we have promoted the gospel that way. We don’t care what a person’s heart condition is. We only want to know if they prayed “The Prayer.” We act as though there is some magic prayer that automatically saves someone just by uttering the words. But, if you go back and look at John 3:14-16 you will realize that belief involves desperation. Belief comes out of the depths of the heart. It is not just empty words spoken in the heat of an emotional church service. The problem with faith that did not translate into works is that it wasn’t faith in the first place. It was just words.
Please don’t misunderstand. A person can be a genuine believer and still struggle with depression, mental illness, or even a habitual sin they can’t seem to break. James is not talking about perfection here. But, genuine faith changes us, particularly in the area of how we treat others. That is the third observation, faith changes the one who has faith. Too often, we read James words about faith without works, and misapply them.
We interpret them to mean that in order to have real faith we must stop doing “bad´ things. Every community interprets bad differently. For some it means that if a person claims to be saved, but can’t seem to stop drinking, then they must not be saved. For others it means that if a person claims to be saved, but can’t stop smoking, or looking at pornography, or gambling, or speaking harshly, or… “Works” are somehow translated into our favorite virtues, and “Sin” becomes our favorite vices to condemn. That is hardly what James is talking about.
James is talking primarily about how we treat other people, particularly how we treat the less fortunate. The typical evangelical response to poverty is, “Go get a job.” But it is not that simple. The typical Liberal response is, “Redistribute the wealth and give the poor all they need.” It is not that simple. Conservatives and evangelicals need to understand poverty. They need to learn how to truly help the poor. Liberals need to understand poverty as well. The solution is not just to pass out free stuff. This is a discussion for another time, and other Scripture texts, but, it is important for us to note that when James talks about works, he is primarily thinking about how we treat those less fortunate. He is not primarily concerned here with whether we stop swearing, or drinking, or whatever favorite vice we like to castigate.
Bottom line? James is saying that when individuals truly believe and understand who they are in Christ, they treat other people differently. Mercy begins to characterize their lives. Deference to the wealthy no longer drives them. Compassion for the less fortunate begins to grow. Genuine faith translates into mercy toward others. It emulates God himself, who became a man in order to save us, his enemies. What an incredible truth!