14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 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? 17 In the same way, faith by itself if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18 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. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that-and shudder.
James gives his answer here to the big question, ‘what does true, saving faith look like?’ Sadly, these verses have been some of the most controversial in the Bible for the past 500 years – since the Reformation! James implies here that without good works our professed faith in Jesus may not save us from our sins, whereas Paul in his letters stresses that we can be restored to God only through true faith. Compare James 2:24 and Romans 3:28. They are not disagreeing with each other, but they are answering the big question above in different places and contexts, in different ways, and with different emphases. In fact “Paul and James do not stand face to face, fighting against each other, but they stand back to back, fighting opposite foes!” (J. Vernon McGee). John Drane agrees that ”the reality is that Paul and James were both insisting that faith and works belong together, and the one without the other is worthless.” So they each view true saving faith as a matter of both faith and deeds, not either faith or deeds!
In Ephesians 2 Paul actually follows James’s earlier teaching. He warns against expecting good deeds to earn God’s favour and salvation. Self-sufficiently relying upon themselves rather than Jesus will not save us. But, just like James, Paul teaches that once we have true faith in God He wants us to do all the good works that He has already planned for us: “8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- 9 not by works so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Here is a helpful summary of all this by Revd Dr Matthew C McCraw: “Paul is addressing those who think they can earn God’s favour by carrying out good works. James is addressing those who think they can follow God without living changed lives that are demonstrated by good works. Good works do not make you a Christian. However, James is saying you cannot be a genuine believer without a changed life. James is not saying that these works will replace our faith. They are not a substitute for faith; they are the result of faith, they are the evidence of true faith! It is by grace alone, through faith! Real faith! Not words, but faith! There is a demand for genuine action, genuine good works, genuine godly living. Professed faith is not enough. Real faith is what we need.”
We have had centuries of theological arguments and disunity amongst and within churches, and even persecution of the Jews for their alleged ‘legalism’. It is vital therefore that we fully address the big question for us in 2021: ‘what will true, saving faith look like in our own lives and for St John’s?’ ThroughJames and Paul, the Holy Spirit is teaching us now:
i) to rely on God’s grace and mercy alone – not on ourselves or our assumed ‘good deeds.’ ii) to trust in Jesus in all things and to become more like Him (2 Cor. 5:17 and Gal. 5:22-26).
iii) to enjoy the fact that we are right with God (‘justified’) through the saving work of Jesus. iv) to steer clear of shallow, superficial ‘faith’ which is based on professed beliefs alone and is
not validated by Christ-like living.
v) to avoid ‘believing in vain’ (1 Cor. 15:1-2, Titus 1:16). False faith, shown by untransformed
lives which lack spiritual fruit, is not saving faith.
vi) to support each other and those in need in practical, self-sacrificial ways (James 2:15-17).
Like Jesus, our lives of service will speak the truth of the gospel as well as our words.
Today’s Prayer: We thank you Father that you are so patient with us when we struggle to
understand your word. Help us to trust in you alone for our eternal salvation. Thank you that we can please you by fulfilling your plans as Jesus did. We ask you Holy Spirit to produce your fruit in our lives each day. May our deeds always speak clearly of Jesus. Amen. (Mike W)