Jamesby Douglas Estes
Today we cover the most well-known assertion in the book of James: ″Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead″ (James 2:17).
A superficial reading of the verse incorrectly implies that works lead to salvation. As a result, so much has been written on this verse over the past 2,000 years that it often clouds this section of James and overshadows the entire book. This is unfortunate, because what James weaves together is not only compelling and crucial but also fully resonant with the rest of Scripture.
James opens with two questions for his readers to consider (v. 14). The first aims to get his readers thinking deeply about the relationship between faith and deeds. By ″faith″, James means a person's internal commitment to God. By ″deeds″, he means a person's external activities, done in obedience to God's commands. James asks the reader to speculate if it is possible for a person to have internal commitment but no external sign of that commitment. The second question is, if it is possible to have such a faith, is that faith sufficient for right standing with God?
By starting this way, James is signalling to the reader that this is a difficult topic. There is a tension between faith and deeds that encourages us to see the relationship between the two-and not to choose between them.
Next, James offers an example to encourage deeper reflection on the opening questions. In this scenario, we meet another believer on the street who is ″without clothes and daily food″ (v. 15). Again, James raises a hypothetical question: What good does it do to habour good feelings inside for that person, and to voice such feelings out loud, but not do anything to address their immediate needs? In other words, what happens to that believer when we have an internal commitment to them, but do not show any tangible, external sign of our commitment?
The point of James' hypothetical puzzle for us is this: if we say we care about a destitute person, how much do we really care if we do not also act on it? Care for others that we feel but don't act on isn't really care. In the same way, James is suggesting, if we care about God internally but do not show it externally, that care goes nowhere. It is dead. So, if we claim to be a follower of Christ, and claim to have an internal commitment to God, but show no external sign of that commitment, then it must be ″dead″ (v. 17). Works are thus the external evidence of a real internal faith.
James was well aware that Jesus had encountered people who said they believed but struggled to act on it (see Matthew 19:16-26). He understood that the doing, while hard, is what makes our believing come alive. May we commit our lives to action in Jesus' name, so our faith in Him comes alive!
Where do you see tension between belief and action in your life? How can you ensure that your actions come from real faith?
Why do you think James includes hypothetical situations instead of just telling us plainly what to do?