Practical Faith – Works (James 2:14-26)

Bible Passage: James 2:14-26

This passage gets right to the heart of the message that James is trying to get across in his letter – that faith and works are both needed in the Christian life, and they fit together in a very particular way. Paul also addresses a similar point, and his teaching complements that of James to explain how it all works. Paul writes to those who look to works instead of faith for their standing before God, and he debunks it by saying “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God- not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) James is dealing with the opposite problem, people who claimed to have faith but this so-called faith did not make any difference to the way they live. About such faith, James writes “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:17)

In order to illustrate his point, James provides three examples for us of what he is talking about. Two of them are positive examples and the other is negative.

The Example of Abraham (v21-24): James refers to two different incidents from Abraham’s life. The first is from Genesis 15:6. God had promised Abraham as many descendants as the stars in the sky. Abraham believed God and because of his faith, Abraham was credited with righteousness. The promise seemed impossible because Abraham and his wife were both way beyond the age to parent children, and yet Abraham believed. God can see the heart and he knows the difference between true belief and merely claiming to believe. What demonstrates whether belief is real is how we act. Because Abraham believed God that he would have billions of descendants through Isaac, he was able to act when God asked him to offer up his son. He knew that God would not let Isaac be harmed on the basis of the promise. Faith and works both stem from the same thing: taking God at his word.

The Example of Rahab (v25-26): Rahab is a great example to use as she does not tick the boxes of somebody you would expect to receive the favour of God. She was not part of the Jewish people, but a Canaanite who lived in Jericho before it was conquered. In the time James wrote his letter, women were of little standing, and her profession was a particularly dishonourable one. In the eyes of many, she would be dismissed as a ‘sinner’ because she worked as a prostitute. Nevertheless, she believed God’s promises for his people, the land and the world. She sheltered the spies, and as a result of this work that stemmed from her belief she found herself included within God’s promises as an heir to the promises and is even listed as an ancestor of Jesus.

The Example of Demons (v18-20): When it comes to believing true statements about God, the demons may be ahead of us all. They know that there is one God, and they know what God is like. The example is deliberately ludicrous, designed to disarm our assumptions that faith is simply a matter of believing true propositions about God. This is clearly untrue. Faith means trusting those truths we believe and acting in accordance with them. This is what James is getting at when he says that ‘faith apart from works is dead’.

The reason that James gives these examples that challenge our theological understanding of the relationship between faith and works is a very practical and earthy one. He has noticed a misalignment between some people’s beliefs and their actions, specifically when it comes to the area of caring for the needy (as we saw at the start of chapter 2). True faith shows itself in action, and that action looks like (among other things) caring the needy and keeping oneself unpolluted from the world.

Potential Applications:

  • There is a call in these verse to truly put faith in God. For some this might be for the first time and you could invite people to make a decision to put their trust in Jesus.
  • There will be others who have had a nominal faith who this passage will challenge. You could offer a time for any who feel convicted to come to God in repentance and true faith.
  • Some people may feel like Abraham or Rahab and have made hard and costly choices because of their faith. You could encourage and affirm them in this.