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The Faith that Justifies | James 2:14-26

As preached by Timothy O'Day.

James 2:14-26 teaches us that true saving faith inevitably blossoms into obedience.

1) There are two kinds of saving faith: saving faith & dead faith (v. 14-17).

2) True faith is in separable from works of obedience (v. 18-19).

3) Only true faith justifies (v. 20-26).

Consider for a moment the following scene. A man walks into a hospital and is immediately greeted. Instead of being asked how he can be helped, the person at the desk simply says, “Just sit right down and the doctor will be with you shortly.” Eventually he is called back and the doctor comes in. He says, “Hi, here is our treatment plan!” And he starts to walk through the treatment plan: they will start with aggressive chemo and then perform surgery to remove the tumor. Eventually the man interrupts and says, “but I don’t have a tumor! I had a heart attack last week and was told that I need surgery to remove a blockage.” The doctor smiles and says, “No, this is way I treat all of my patients.” And he then rushed out to prep for the procedure.

That’s a ridiculous picture, right? We know that when it comes to hospitals and medical needs, there isn’t one cookie cutter solution. We can get sick in all kinds of ways and we need to pay careful attention to our particular illness in order to treat it correctly. Likewise, we can be spiritually ill in many ways and we need to pay particular attention to our soul sickness if we are to treat it appropriately.

I bring this up because James 2:14-26 is an often misunderstood passage. Many look at these verses and think that what is taught is contradictory to the teachings of the apostle Paul. After all, he wrote in Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” How can that be squared with what James says in verse 24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone?”

One of my tasks this morning is to show you how these verses do not contradict each other by walking you through James 2:14-26 and seeing what it says. But before we walk through these verses to see how, let me just summarize what we will see. James 2:14-26 is telling us that true saving faith inevitably blossoms into obedience.

In this regard, Paul and James clearly agree. But why, then, do they speak so differently? It is because they face different situations and different opponents. We could say they are facing different soul sicknesses and thus apply the same gospel in different ways because the needs are different. While Paul was dealing with the false teaching that one was made right with God, became part of his people and stayed part of his people, by his faith AND his works, James was dealing with the false teaching that said obedience to the Lord was optional for the Christian. The idea that obedience makes us right with God and the idea that obedience doesn't matter are both false teachings, but these false teachings manifest themselves very differently. If we do not differentiate them, then we will end up misunderstanding them.

But how do we see that this is the problem James addresses and the point he is trying to make? Let’s look at the text together and make three observations about what he is saying.

1. There are two kinds of faith: saving faith and dead faith (14-17)

Questions and Connections

I say that there are two kinds of faith, but that isn’t strictly true. There is a true faith and a fake faith; there is a saving faith and a saying faith. James begins this passage by asking his readers two questions about faith trying to show the fact that there is a true faith and a fake faith. He writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” The assumed answer is “It is no good; it cannot save him.” But notice the distinction James is making in these two questions. He is saying that there are two kinds of faith. There is a saving faith, which is assumed by his second question—there is a faith that can save. And there is a faith that cannot save. He says in the second question, “Can THAT faith save him?” Meaning, can that brand of faith, that kind of faith, that type of faith, actually save a man? This faith is just a mere profession, as James sees it. Again, look at the first question in verse 14, “if someone says he has faith…” This is a claimed, professed, but not a real faith.

Let’s make sure we see this from the outset of the passage: James knows that there is a faith that saves. He is calling us to question, though, whether or not a particular kind of faith is truly faith at all.

How do we know that this claimed faith is not real? James goes on to give an illustration in verses 15-16. He calls us to imagine, in verse 15, a brother or sister—so a fellow church member—being in need of clothing and food. So imagine one of our church members. You come across him or her outside and this person is not dressed appropriately. No coat, shoes with holes in them, and he or she clearly hasn’t eaten in a few days.

And in seeing this church member, “one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body.” In short, you respond simply by saying what you know is the right thing to say but not doing what is in your power to do. When confronted with a real need, this so called “believer” is able to express the right sentiment but then does nothing else. Earlier James condemned hearing without doing and now he indicts saying without acting.

Verse 17 brings us to the conclusion of what James is illustrating for us. He says there “so also,” meaning that we should draw a correlation with his opening questions and this illustration, and here is the correlation we are to draw: in the same way that these words are useless to help, so faith whiteout deeds is useless to save.

But why is it useless? Look at verse 17. It is useless because it is dead. How do we know it is dead? Because it does not have works. It is a faith by itself in that it is only words.

We need to be careful at this point though and remember that James is talking about two types of faith. He is NOT saying, “add works into your faith.” That isn’t the solution because the problem is NOT that the faith is missing works but that the faith is dead.

Imagine two trees outside. One is dead and the other is alive. You know the dead tree is dead because it is colorless, has no leaves, and has branches broken, thus exposing the dead wood inside. The other tree is full of life with leaves, color, and fruit. When I come over and say, “That tree has a problem. It’s dead. And I know it is dead because it has no fruit on it.” It would be foolish if you responded by saying, “you’re right. It does have a problem and I have a solution.” And then, going outside, you nailed apples to the tree. The main problem with the tree isn’t that it doesn’t have fruit. It is that it is dead. But one reason we know it is dead is because it doesn't have fruit.

James isn’t saying, “Here’s your problem. You lack works.” He is saying, “here is your problem, you do not have saving faith.” It isn’t faith; it is just words.

So the first thing we need to make sure we understand in this passage is that James is addressing two kinds of faith: real faith and fake faith; saving faith and saying faith; true faith and claimed faith.

Fake faith is no real faith at all, but James refers to it as faith because that is how his opponents are referring to it.

2. True faith is inseparable from works of obedience (18-19)

Answering an opponent: Isn’t Obedience Something Extra?

James next takes up a dialog partner in verse 18. In verse 18 he imagines what someone would say against what he is arguing. This person would respond to what James has just said (“Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead”) by saying, “You have faith and I have works,” meaning, “some people are good at believing and others are good at obeying.” This person is treating stated faith, profession, as one gift and works as another gift. They should not be put together, the opponent argues, but allowed to be separate. And you can probably see the thinking here: not everyone is the same. Some people are really good at obeying. "I’m just not good at that. I’m good at knowing things and believing them. That’s my gift," this person would say.

How does James respond to this argument? We see his response in the second half of verses 18 and on into 19. He says, “show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” In short, he is saying you cannot separate faith from works because, in both cases, phony faith and true faith can be seen in a profession but obedience, action, is the only way to show and demonstrate one’s faith. Faith cannot actually be seen only the works that flow from it can be seen.

Verse 19 carries this idea further. In verse 19 we see what differentiates claimed, fake faith from real, true faith. What is the difference? How one lives. James illustrates that for us in verse 19 by pointing out that all who claim the Christian faith believe that God is one. This is most likely a reference to the Shema, Israel’s confession of faith that comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” This was not merely a Jewish confession but was confessed by Christians as well (see 1 Cor 8:4-6; Gal 3:20; Eph 4:6; 1 Tim 2:5), meaning that it was not a mere expression of monotheism but came to actually be the foundational confession of faith. James commends them for believing this and confessing it. But there is one problem with their confession: it stops with words and in this sense it is no different than the demons.

When Jesus encountered demons in his ministry, they would cry out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God?” (Cf. Matthew 8:29). What James is pointing out is that the faith of those who disagree with him—saying that mere verbal expression and mental assent is saving faith—actually have a faith that is indistinguishable from the demons. Demons believe God is one. Demons know theology better than you probably. But what does this assent and knowledge do for them? Nothing—except make them shudder at the judgment to come.

If all that can be seen of your faith is indistinguishable from the demons, then you do not have saving faith any more than you can say the demons have saving faith because they say the right words sometimes. If that is you, then you have a claimed faith that is dead and good for nothing.

True Faith Needed, Not Merely Adding Works

Again, note something very important that James says about faith. James is saying that you are to “show” your faith by your works. James is not saying that you need faith plus works. He is saying that true faith is seen in and displayed by your works of obedience to Jesus. He is not saying you need two things (faith plus works) but that you need one thing: true faith which always includes good works. Genuine faith “has” works.


And let’s just pause for the moment and reflect on how Paul absolutely agrees with this. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul says that by faith we receive the Spirit of God and thus should expect to see the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. He writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

Can you imagine if someone said to Paul, “But I have faith, so I really don’t need to love my neighbor.” He would say, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” That means you are putting them to death. One way of living is dead to me and now I am going to grow by the power of the Spirit into these things.

Paul wrote earlier in Galatians 5:6 that working to attain God’s favor is worthless and counts for nothing. He wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything.” What does count? “But only faith working through love.” Faith works in that it produces obedience to God. It does not produce perfection but it does produce growing likeness to Christ.

3. Only true faith justifies (20-26)

What Abraham and Rahab Show Us

James continues the conversation with his imaginary conversation partner in verse 20 by asking him, “Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?” This is James’ introduction to his closing argument that he began in verse 14 and he makes it by citing two OT examples: Abraham and Rahab. These two are great examples for James to use because, as he says, Abraham was a father of the Jewish faith. He was the father in two senses. First, he was the father in that he is the literal progenitor of all of Israel. But he is also the father in that he trusted God and thus serves as the example of how to be in right relationship with God. He is the example of faith that Paul uses and he is the example of faith that James turns to as well. Rahab is also a good example for James to use because, unlike Abraham, she was not wealthy and revered. Instead, she was a prostitute. But like Abraham, she exercised great faith in God. Using Abraham and Rahab, then, allows us to see that anyone can have the faith that justifies. I'm going to treat these examples together because James uses them to make the same point. So what do we see in these examples?

In verses 21-23 he speaks of the example of Abraham. In looking at verse 21, we have to remember the context of this conversation James is having with his opponent. He is not arguing that Abraham was justified by straight works. Recall the distinctions he has made in talking about fake faith and true faith. Saying here that Abraham was justified by works is a shorthand way of referring back to verse 18, meaning that Abraham showed his faith by his works. Keeping this in mind, then, James is saying Abraham was justified by faith that works when he offered up Isaac. The word “when” in verse 21 is not saying that this was the moment that Abraham was justified (ie, counted as just before God's eyes) but was an act that displayed the true nature of his faith for all to see.

All of this is further explained in verses 22-23. We read in verse 22, “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works,” then in verse 23 we read, “and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God.”

Bear with me a moment whileI try to lay out for you what James is doing in these verses. If you look at the order of events that he gives us, he is actually working backwards. He starts in Genesis 22 talking of Abraham’s obedience in offering up Isaac, he speaks of Abraham’s active faith in verse 22, referring to his life leading up to Genesis 22, and then he speaks of the Scripture being fulfilled—referring to God’s counting Abraham as righteous by faith in Genesis 15. We are looking at a 40 year period of Abraham’s life and working backwards, starting with his mature faith and moving back to his initial faith. This is because James wants us to see that it all goes together.

James is displaying for us what true faith looks like and does in the example of Abraham and Rahab. What do these verses show us about true, saving faith?

1) Justification is "already-not yet" for the believer. There is a “when” of justifying faith that refers to more than the moment of initial justification. Paul speaks of justification being a moment when we believe. That is when we are made alive and we are counted as righteous before God. But there is another way of speaking of justification and that is the evidence and fruit that is pointed to when we stand before the Lord on the day of judgment. That’s what James points out to use in verse 21 with Abraham and in verse 25 with Rahab. Both of them are said to be justified “when…” but this is not speaking of the moment that they came into right standing with God but to the “when” of examples of faith that will be declared over us as our justification is pronounced on the day of judgment.

Recall what Jesus tells us about the day of Judgment in Matthew 25. On the day of judgment he will separate the sheep from the goats—those who are his and those who do not belong to him. And to the sheep, to those who are his, he will say, “‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40).

True faith manifests itself in good works that will serve as a declaration of the reality of our justifying faith on the last day.

2) True faith matures us into what we are supposed to be. You see this in verse 22-23, “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled…” that expression, “active along with…” is another way of saying “co-laboring.” That is to say, the things that Abraham did were informed by his faith and his faith was ultimately completed by his actions—which means his faith matured into obedience, not perfection, but growing obedience. This is also what is meant when James writes, “and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” What does this mean? As Abraham grow in obedience to the Lord, he was moving in the very direction that God intended to take him by declaring him righteous. In other words, God is not only interested in forgiving us. He is making a new creation. He will bring in the New Heavens and the New Earth. But he has already begun his new creation by calling people to himself, justifying them by faith through grace in Jesus Christ alone. So as we walk by the Spirit in newness of life, we are actually maturing into what he is making us to be. God justified Abram by faith not so that he would stay Abram but because he was claiming him as his own to change him.

These words of "completing, fulfilling, and co-laboring" are not additions to faith. They are inherent in it. Visible obedience springs forth from invisible faith just as fruits spring from a living tree. Did you know that I could hand you two seeds, one being a dead seed and the other alive. You probably would not be able to tell which was which. But if you placed them in the ground, you would soon know. The dead seed would not grow. The living seed would. And as you watch it grow, getting bigger and bigger, you could stand back, amazed, and marvel at the reality that what was inherently in that seed has come out. As the seed grows, sprouts, and bears fruit it was completed—matured—into what it is supposed to be doing.

3) True faith justifies immediately. In Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” This crediting of righteousness was God counting Abraham as having met his standard for righteousness. Abraham did not earn this status. It was credited to him by faith. You could not see his faith, but God could. But as time went on, because the faith was real, justifying faith, it was not alone.

But Doesn’t James Say Works Justify and Faith Alone Doesn’t?

And this takes us to James’ summary statement in verse 24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

Again, see what he is not saying. He is not saying, “A person is justified by works and not by faith.” Works, again, is shorthand for a living, active faith as opposed to dead, phony, fake faith. So he is saying, “A person is justified by a living faith and not by a dead faith.” By “faith alone” is is not quoting and refuting the Reformers. If we follow his whole argument, seeing what he is arguing against, then we know that by faith alone, he means a “claimed” but unreal faith (14), a faith that is dead (17), and a faith that is useless (20).

Faith alone is James’ summary of what fake faith is: It is a profession that is only ever manifested in words and not by obedience to the Lord. This is reinforced again by verse 26, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” It is useless.

What Should We Do in Light of This?

Who you are will determine what you need to do with this message. Here are some two simple takeaways.

Take sin seriously and do not trust in mere saying faith to save you or others. Be warned and warn others. Don’t be fooled by mere knowledge. You can go to seminary and then go to hell. You can know the right answers, have read the Bible, but then not have your name read out of the Lamb’s book of Life on the last day. If you say you have faith but have no intention or desire to obey the Lord, then you do not have a genuine faith but a dead one.

Take sin seriously and do not trust in works apart from faith to justify you. If you think today, “I have a dead faith,” the answer isn’t to try to do lots of good things. Like Abraham, you can become God’s friend by trusting him. And as God’s friend, you will grow in obedience to him. A dead and useless faith is not a faith simply in need of adding works to it. If you have a dead faith, you need genuine faith and not just works. By faith you receive the Spirit of God—and the word will be implanted in you (1:21). How do you receive the Spirit of God? Call out to God for the Spirit. Trust everything that Jesus says and fall fully into his grace for you.


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