In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:17).
This passage in James has created quite a stir down through church history. Martin Luther was particularly bothered by James’ emphasis on works as a companion to faith. Luther said in his preface to the New Testament, “In comparison with these [the Pauline epistles], the epistle of St. James is an epistle full of straw, because it contains nothing evangelical.” Luther was a champion of salvation by faith alone. Emerging from an era when simple faith in Christ was replaced by complex doctrine and mindless ritual and religiosity, Luther reacted against anything that smacked of salvation by works.
I think Luther’s historical, religious context hindered him from clearly seeing James’ approach. Maybe I am being too simplistic but James 2 seems to be an expansion of Ephesians 2:10. Ephesians 2:8-9 make it very clear that salvation by grace alone through faith. Salvation is not of works lest any of us should boast. “Hey, look what I have done to get into heaven!”
But right after verses 8-9 comes verse 10: For we are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
Salvation is by faith alone. We acknowledge our sin, admit our total inability to save ourselves, and humbly receive the gift of eternal life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We turn from our sin and self-righteousness and embrace Christ alone as Savior and Lord. And what happens? The Holy Spirit immediately immerses us into the body of Christ, washes us, regenerates us, indwells us, seals us, and identifies us as an adopted child of God. And how do we know? Because over time we begin to see the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. We become God’s workmanship and God begins His work in us…shown by good works.
So James is speaking to his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. He has already acknowledged that they are believers (1:18, 2:1). But many of them have become lackadaisical, lazy, prideful, and critical of one another. They are listening to good sermons on Sunday, taking good notes, listening to good Christian music, attending a good church…but doing nothing beyond that. And James is trying to wake them up. “Hey, brothers, if your faith has not manifested itself in any kind of action, if your root in Christ hasn’t produced any fruit in the Spirit, then you need to go back and examine your faith. Is it real? Or are you just playing games?”
Paul nails the Corinthians with the same question after exhorting them and challenging them year after year often to no avail. Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? (2 Corinthians 13:5)
So Luther was right when he proclaimed and defended salvation by faith alone. And James is the proper continuation and application of that message, “And true faith will at some point manifest itself in Christlike character and action.” Just like the parable of the sower and the seed…the seed that falls on good soil will at some point produce good fruit (Matthew 13).
Paul’s words in Galatians 5:6 came to me this morning: For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
Ritual and religion mean nothing. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But a faith that embraces Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord will express itself through love.
So how is my love this morning? Is my mind focused on loving God with all my being? Trusting Him? Surrendering to Him? Are my actions showing God’s love to others? Am I listening? Caring? Encouraging? Giving? Forgiving?
Lord, activate my faith this morning. I am distracted, overwhelmed, tired. I cannot accomplish Your will in my own strength. I cannot love others as You have loved me in my own power. I need Your Spirit to fill me, empower me, guide me, change me.