The clear theme of the second half of James chapter two is “Faith and Works.” Three times in that passage we are told that faith by itself, that is, faith without works, is dead (James 2:17,20,26).
When God speaks, humans need to listen. That is true whether God is supplying us with information, giving commands, or asking questions. In James 2:14-26, we read five questions that the Lord through James asked the early saints. What was the point of such inquiries? To help them understand the kind of faith that He wanted them to have. Just what questions did God ask them to get His point across? Let us take a look.
- “What does it profit?” (James 2:14). The full question is: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” When God asks us if something is beneficial/profitable, we need to pay attention.
Three times in this section we read the word “say.” A man says he has faith (2:14), a man says to those in need that he wishes good things for them (2:16), and a man says that he has works (2:18). Serving the Lord is more than talking! Peter talked (about not denying Jesus), but he failed to back up such talk with proper action.
Is it wrong to say that we have faith (2:14)? On the contrary: the Lord wants us to verbalize our belief. Is it wrong to wish others well (2:16)? No. Is it improper to talk about faith and works (2:18)? No. What, then, is the point of God’s “profit” question? Simply to show that faith must be put into action. If people lack adequate clothes and food, what they need are not empty words but to have their necessities supplied! (2:15,16; Matthew 25:31-46).
- “Can faith save him?” (James 2:14). This question comes on the heels of the previous one about the profit of having faith but no works. Does the Bible teach that faith saves? It does, indeed (Luke 7:50). What if a person claims to have faith, but he does not support such a claim with action? Can that kind of faith save him? No (2:14). Can the work-less, action-less person please God? No way.
The type of faith that avails is described as “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Once more, what is it that avails in the Christ? Faith – faith that works/acts – faith that is motivated by love. Those who “live by faith” are those who “believe to the saving of the soul” (Hebrews 10:38,39).
- “But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” (James 2:20). First of all, this is a question about desire. Do you really want to know God’s will about this matter? The Bereans searched the Scriptures each day in order to seek and sort out the truth (Acts 17:11). You and I need to emulate such a longing to learn God’s will. God asks, “Do you want to know?” There is absolutely no reason why a child of God should not desire to know that the Bible says about any topic.
A second reality that we see in James 2:20 is this: “faith without works is dead.” Who wants to live or stand in judgment before the God of heaven with a dead faith? It is possible to have a living name but be a spiritually-dead person (Revelation 3:1). None of us who seek to please the Lord want to fit into that category, correct?
- “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? (James 2:21). Yes, Abraham was justified, he was justified in God’s sight, and his justification came by works. As the question indicates, his justification was connected with his offering of Isaac.
When we examine the message of Genesis 22, we see that Abraham’s decision to offer Isaac as a sacrifice came in response to God’s command to do so. Thus, the “works” of Abraham by which he was justified were actions/works of obedience. No, the offer-Isaac-as-a-sacrifice plan was not something that Abraham came up with on his own in an effort to impress God or gain His favor. The man simply complied with what Jehovah told him to do, and James says that means he was justified by works.
“But I thought Abraham pleased God by faith?” He did – we learn that from Hebrews 11:17-19. Put that teaching together with James 2 and what do we get? Abraham pleased God “by faith” and “by works.” His faith caused him to submit to the Lord’s will. Surely the Lord wants you and me to have that same kind of faith today.
- “Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?” (James 2:22). Here is a personal question.
Do you see it? Are you willing to open your eyes and see it? God wants us to see it, understand it, accept it, and act upon it.
In the case of Abraham, what do we observe? He had faith plus action/works, and it was by his works that his faith was made complete. Because God saw Abraham’s heart (Nehemiah 9:8) and faith in action, He called him His “friend” (James 2:23).
We need to do more than memorize verses from James 2 about faith without works. We need to meditate on their real meaning and do our best to apply them in our lives. A lost world and lethargic children of God desperately need to hear the plain questions and points set forth in James 2:14-26.
— Roger D. Campbell