The Key to the Epistle of James
James has always been one of my favorite books in the Bible. Granted, it has maintained that position for varying reasons over the course of time. When I was slightly younger, I loved James because of its confrontational nature. I once heard that reading the book of James is comparable to a spiritual boxing match. Which seems very appropriate. I mean here you are sailing through the book of Hebrews riding on the majestic clouds of Christological doxology and WHAM! James jumps up and knocks your two front teeth out. I then discovered the difficulty that many have trouble with interpreting the second chapter and its relation to Romans 4-5. I began to love James for its hidden complexity and theological depth that can easily be overlooked. As I have spent more time with the book, I have become infatuated with the sage wisdom that it offers. A pure, practical religion that has earned it the moniker “The Proverbs of the New Testament”. It is absolutely beautiful. However, it is these exact points that can make James a difficult book to understand. That is why we need to proceed carefully.
When interpreting any book of the Bible, it is important to discover the perspective of the author of that particular book. It can be very difficult to interpret something if we fail to understand what the writer means by a certain phrase or even a word. Especially, when it may be defined in a slightly different way than another writer might use it. If we fail to understand the mind of James in this epistle, we may misinterpret the entire book as a result! In James, there is a specific passage that holds the key for how we should interpret the entire book. It is a lens, so to speak, through which we can see what the Holy Spirit is communicating to us through the pages of this epistle.
This key is the passage that we previously mentioned as creating a difficult time for many, especially in its relation to the writings of the Apostle Paul. I am talking about James 2:14-26.
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 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. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”
This passage is essentially broken down into three smaller sections. The first section (v. 14-19) is an assault on nominal faith (faith in name only). It is made up of three parts: a discrediting (v.14-17), a challenge (v.18), and an accusation (v.19). The second section (v.20-25) is an Old Testament reference point. This section consists of two references: Abraham (v.20-24) and Rahab (v.25). The third section (v.26) is what can be identified as a concluding or summary statement.
In the first section, James begins what we have loosely described as an assault on nominal faith. This assault begins with a discrediting of the benefits of nominal faith in relationship to others. He uses the parallel of natural needs to show two things simultaneously. First, he shows that a simple statement doesn’t accomplish anything at all. “But I didn't say it.. I declared it.” (Michael Scott quote for my Office fans.) The needs were not met by the use of words alone. Therefore, simply saying that you have faith is meaningless. Notice that he doesn’t say that the person he is describing actually has faith. No, they merely say that they have faith. Declared or not, this means nothing. Second, James shows us that nominal faith has no benefit to those around us. This is perhaps an unnecessary observation because if it is meaningless to simply say that we have faith; then it goes without saying that this meaningless claim can have no benefit to others.
In the second portion of this section, James offers up a hypothetical challenge. The challenge is to demonstrate your faith with the use of works. It is basically the equivalent of the child-like dare, “Prove It!” You might simply skim over this and miss the progression that James is laying out. How can you say that you have faith but there isn’t any work accompanying it? James has just said that it is apparent that this nominal faith doesn’t do anyone else any good but now he is taking it one step further and saying that it doesn’t do you any good either. If this faith that you claim to have isn’t important or weighty enough to introduce changes into your life (i.e. works) then how beneficial is it? Show me your faith without your works. Show me this faith that has so little value that it doesn’t merit any action, sacrifice, schedule change, kindness, or any other demonstration in your life to suggest that it even exists. Show me that! You say you have faith then prove it! At the time of writing this, we are merely a few days following the Super Bowl. If I normally go to bed at 7pm (I don’t but for the sake of the argument..) and the Super Bowl starts at 6:30pm, it is obvious that if I value watching the game enough, I will need to readjust my sleep schedule that night. It is the change that demonstrates the preciousness of the claim. When someone claims faith but has no change and no works, their claim is about as meaningful as Michael Scott’s declaration.
In the third portion of this section, James brings in an accusation. A pretty startling one at that! If you miss the progression that James has been building in the passage, you may fail to see why this accusation is relevant or even necessary! However, in light of this progression - it is both relevant and necessary for the point in which he is laboring. If your claim of faith is only in word and has no accompanying works, is useless to those around you, and has no importance to warrant any change in your life; how is it any different from the faith of demons? They believe in God. They are fearful of Him. Yet, this “faith” is only in their words, it is meaningless to those around them, and it most certainly does not hold weight in how they carry out their schemes. So, how does a faith that exists in name only differ from that of devils? It doesn’t.
In the next section (v.20-25), is an appeal to the Old Testament examples of both Abraham and Rahab. The majority of this section is devoted to Abraham and it is around James' reference to him that many struggle. It is the statement found in verse 24 that can be particularly difficult to interpret.
“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
In the fourth chapter of Romans, Paul seems to also use the patriarch Abraham to labor what appears to be the exact opposite point. The culmination of his argument is actually found in the first verse of the fifth chapter.
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Many have read these verses and immediately concluded that they are obvious contradictions. However, it is important that we understand what a contradiction is before we draw such a conclusion. The Law of Noncontradiction states that something cannot be “A” and “Non A” at the same time and in the same relationship. A contradiction is found when something violates this law. Is that what we see happening here between James and Paul? Or would it be better defined as a paradox because at first glance it appears to be a contradiction until further inspection reveals that it is not? The only way to know for certain is to examine the passages and their relation to the patriarch Abraham.
After God had called Abram out of the land of Ur of the Chaldees, he renamed him Abraham and established a covenant with him. The promise of this covenant is that Abraham will be the father of many nations. That his descendents will be as numerous as the sand on the sea shore and as the stars in the heavens. Abraham believed this promise and it was counted to him as righteousness. His faith in the promise of God was what counted him as being righteous. It was this faith that justified him.
Does that mean that James is wrong? Not necessarily. James uses an entirely different piece of the story of Abraham to illustrate his point. He uses the example of Abraham obeying God to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah. This occurred years after the promise was given and long after Abraham had already been justified and declared righteous. (To be justified and to be declared righteous before God are synonymous and interchangeable phrases.) How can someone that has already been justified by faith be now justified by their works? The answer is that they cannot. This is why we cannot forget the context of the passage and the progression that James began in verse fourteen. What makes saving faith different? It isn’t merely words but has a substance about it that carries a consequential blessing to others. It isn’t meaningless but possesses a value and an importance that will cause you to reorchestrate your entire life around it. And it goes far beyond that mere intellectual awareness maintained by demons. Abraham isn’t justified by works. No! His works are the evidence that his faith is valid. The reformers used to say that we are justified by faith alone but never by a faith that remains alone. Abrahams works were the fruit of his faith in the promise of God. This is made particularly clear in the book of Hebrews.
“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, Through Isaac shall your offspring be named. He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”
He was confident in the promise of God and through faith he was capable of carrying out the works that God has instructed. It was faith that not only justified him but it was also faith that made the works possible! Works are nothing more than an outward showing of the inward reality of the faith that we possess. This argument is confirmed through the reference to the Matriarch Rahab. The work that is mentioned, her hiding the spies and then helping them escape, is a product of the fear of the Lord that had been on her and the surrounding nations for 40 years! She believed in God and then had works that served as a testimony to the reality of that belief.
In the final section, we have a concluding statement that compares a workless faith to a body without a spirit. This is the summary of everything that James is attempting to say in the passage. He argues that a body without a spirit is dead. It is empty. A shell and nothing more. While it may still look like the person it once was, it is not really them because their spirit no longer resides there. This is the comparison of faith without works. It is a lifeless and empty faith. A shell or a husk of belief. It might look like or sound like saving faith in its claim but it is not. We are not justified by works but we are also not justified by an empty claim of belief. We are justified by faith alone. But that faith never remains alone: True saving faith always produces a change in the person and works will inevitably follow. That is why Jesus says that you will know them by their fruits. Is it not?
As I mentioned previously, this passage holds the key for interpreting the rest of the epistle. The key is simply this: James presupposes Justification by Faith Alone. It is important to realize this. Otherwise, we will find ourselves building a works based salvation on an unstable foundation. That is why we began in the 2nd Chapter. We need to understand his presupposed position in order to realize that what he is actually arguing for is not a works based faith but rather is arguing that because we have been justified by faith alone, what does our response need to look like? How do we live now that we know that we have been made righteous by faith in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ?