James 2(14–26)


A few weeks ago, when we were studying the last part of James 1, I said that one of the things a minister worries about is whether or not all the people in the congregation are receiving the message he’s preaching. James wrote:

humbly accept [or humbly receive] the word planted in you, which can save you.

And so, the minister worries:

Here I am, preaching away. But are the people listening? Are they receiving and accepting the message? Do they believe it? And will they obey it?

And then a couple of weeks ago, when we were thinking about verse 1 of chapter 2 and about the importance of faith, I mentioned another thing ministers worry about. And it’s this: Though there are people in the congregation who have all the appearance of being a Christian because they do all the things a Christian does, and they turn up to church every Sunday without fail, nevertheless it’s possible that some of them, some of them in the congregation, might not actually believe. They’re not trusting in the Lord Jesus to take away their sins and to save them from God’s wrath.

The passage today from James 2 highlights a third thing ministers worry about. You may think that ministers have an easy time, but we worry all the time; and here’s a third thing that worries us. And it’s this: That among all the people in the congregation who claim to believe, some of them, some of them might not have the right kind of faith.

Did you know there was a right kind of faith and there was a wrong kind of faith? We talk about faith all the time and the importance of having faith. But there’s a wrong kind of faith to have.

There’s a faith which works; and there’s a faith which doesn’t work. And the faith which works is the right kind of faith to have. And the faith which doesn’t work is the wrong kind of faith to have. So, we all need to be sure that we have the kind of faith which works. And when I say ‘works’, I’m using that one word in two senses.

Here’s the first sense: Last week, one of my daughter’s came to me and complained that the TV remote wasn’t working. What did she mean? She meant that it wasn’t doing what it’s supposed to do. She wanted to use it to change channels, but it wasn’t doing that. Instead of working, it was broken.

There’s a wrong kind of faith. And the wrong kind of faith doesn’t work in the sense that it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. What is faith supposed to do? Well, it’s supposed to bring salvation to us. Faith unites us with Christ the Saviour so that we’re saved from the condemnation we deserve for our sins. In other words, faith is meant to save us. But there’s a faith which cannot save. It doesn’t work.

That’s one sense of the word ‘works’. The other is this: I was talking to someone a couple of days ago and she was telling me her son has left school. ‘What’s he doing now?’ I asked. And she told me, ‘He now works in…’ and she mentioned the name of a business. And that’s the other sense of the word ‘works’. It’s about what we do. It’s about being active and useful.

And the wrong kind of faith doesn’t work in that sense. In other words, it doesn’t make us active or useful and it doesn’t make any difference to the way we live our lives. But the person who possesses the right kind of faith will want to obey the Lord and wants to walk in his ways and to do his will. The right kind of faith, the kind of faith that works, will affect how we live our lives. But there’s another kind of faith, the wrong kind of faith, which does nothing.

The minister worries that among all the people in the congregation who claim to believe, some of them, some of them might not have the right kind of faith. Instead of having a faith which works, they have a faith which doesn’t work. And that’s what today’s passage is about.

Verses 14 to 17

Look what James writes in verse 14:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds.

Now, some of you are using the King James Version of the Bible. But the way the King James Version translates this verse isn’t quite accurate. The King James Version says at the end of verse 14:

Can faith save him?

But really it should be:

Can such faith save him?

And the ‘such faith’ James is referring to is the kind of faith he’s just mentioned: the kind of faith which is without deeds. So, James is saying:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds. Can such faith — a faith without deeds — save him?

So, there you have the wrong kind of faith. There you have a faith that doesn’t work in both senses of the word. It doesn’t produce deeds; it doesn’t affect what we do. And it doesn’t save.

Whenever someone comes to me and claims to have faith in Jesus Christ and wants to join the church, I’m looking for two things from them. I mentioned part of this a couple of weeks ago. First of all, I want to know what they know. This person claims to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Well, what do you know about him? And what do you believe about him? Do they know and believe he’s the Son of God who came to earth as a man? Do they know and believe that he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to take away our sins? Do they know and believe that he rose again and is coming back one day to judge the living and the dead? Do they know and believe that the only way to be saved from the coming judgment is by turning from our sins in repentance and by relying entirely on him for salvation? Do they also know and believe that, once we’ve trusted in Christ as our Saviour, we’re meant to obey him as our Lord and King? Do they know and believe these things?

That’s the first thing I want to know. The second thing I want to know is whether their life and the way they live their life matches what the profess to believe. So, here’s someone who claims that they believe Jesus Christ is the Lord and Saviour, so that he trusts, she trusts, in Christ as Saviour and wants to obey him as Lord. Well then, can I tell from the way they live that this person really does want to obey the Lord? In other words, does their life and they way they live their life back up what they claim to believe?

And that’s what James is getting at here. Here’s a man who claims to have faith, but he has no deeds to back up his claim. So, nothing in the way that he lives matches up with what he says he believes. And the way that he lives his life is no different from the way an unbeliever lives.

‘What good is that?’ asks James. This person has got the wrong kind of faith. He’s got a faith that doesn’t work.

And then James uses a little analogy to explain what he means. He says to us in verse 15: Suppose a fellow believer comes along, who is without clothes and daily food. So, it’s someone who is certainly poor and perhaps also homeless. And you’re chatting to this person who is really in a desperate way. And at the end of the conversation, you say, as you’d say to any of your friends:

Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed.

What good is that? Instead of wishing him well, you ought to do something to help him, because words by themselves, which are not also accompanied by action, are useless. Everyone knows that.

‘In the same way’, James writes in verse 17, faith by itself, which is not accompanied by action, is dead. It’s the wrong kind of faith to have. It’s a faith that doesn’t work.

Do you see why a minister might worry about this? We want everyone to be saved. And therefore we want everyone to believe. And we urge people to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. And people respond to the message and say: ‘Yes, I believe’. But weeks go by, months go by, years go by, and you look at this person who once made a profession, and you worry about them and the state of their souls and where they will end up for eternity, because you look at their life and the things they do, and you worry because, though this person claims to have faith, you can’t see anything in their life which backs up what they profess to believe. And you worry that this is a person with the wrong kind of faith, a faith that doesn’t work.

I’ve said this before: No one can see into another person’s heart. No one can see into another person’s heart. So, I can’t see into your heart to know whether or not there’s true, saving faith in there. I can’t do it. Only the Lord can see into our hearts. All we have to go on is what a person does. And so, when a minister looks at what a person does, sometimes he worries. He worries, because though the minister can’t be certain, and he can’t be sure, nevertheless, the minister notices that what this person does doesn’t match up with what he says, it doesn’t match up with what she says. And so, he worries that, if I could see into this person’s heart, perhaps I’d find that he doesn’t have, she doesn’t have, true, saving faith in there. I worry about this, because although this person claims to believe, what he believes, what she believes doesn’t seem to make any difference to their lives.

And so, James is trying to convince those who claim to have faith, but who have no works, that their faith is useless. It’s dead. It doesn’t work.

Verses 18 and 19

In verses 18 and 19, James addresses an objector. And verse 18 has caused students of the Bible and Bible commentators all kinds of difficulties, because it’s not clear who James is quoting. Take a look at the verse. James writes:

Someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds’.

Now, that sounds as if someone is saying to James:

James, you have faith; but I have deeds.

But, since James is the one who has been writing about the importance of having deeds, then that’s something we’d expect James to say. We’d expect James to say:

You, my friend, have faith by itself, but I [James] have deeds [to back up my faith].

That’s what we’d expect. But instead of that, we have what we have.

How do we make sense of this? Who is James quoting? The commentators offer a number of suggestions and the best one is that James is quoting someone who is simply claiming that there are two separate approaches to living the Christian life. One approach is to have faith. The other approach is to have deeds. One person is happy to profess faith and leave it at that. Another person wants to be up and about, doing things for the Lord. And this person, this objector, is saying to James:

Both approaches are fine. Let’s not argue about it. One person is into faith, not action. Another person is into action, and not faith. Both are right. Right?

Wrong, says James.

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

And when he says ‘show me’ he means something like ‘prove to me’.

Think of the little boy who boasts to his classmates that he can leap over the school wall. And they reply:

No, you can’t.

And he says:

I can.

And they say:

Well, prove it. Show us you can do it. Go ahead and jump over it.

And the little boy says:

No, I’ll not show you. You have to take my word for it.

That’s no good. Whoever makes a claim like that has to be able to prove it. And the person who claims to believe, but who has no deeds to back up his claim, can’t prove anything. But, James says:

I can prove to you that I have faith, because my deeds, and the way I live my live, back up what I profess to believe. The way I live my life proves that I really believe.

And, you see, it’s important for James to have said that, because it shows us that James isn’t arguing against faith. He’s not saying that faith is unimportant for salvation and that the only thing that counts is deeds. He’s not saying that. What’s he saying is that he’s a believer. He has faith. Faith is vital. You can’t be saved without it. But a true faith, the right kind of faith, always, always, always leads to action. It produces works, deeds, in our lives. The person who truly believes will want to obey the Lord and lives their life for him.

And look now at verse 19 of James 2 and to what James says to his objector who thinks that faith by itself is alright. He says to his objector:

You believe that there’s one God.

So, we’re to imagine someone saying:

I’m a Christian, aren’t it? After all, I believe God exists.

And we can imagine James saying to such a person:

You believe there’s one God. Big deal!

That’s not enough for salvation, because even the demons believe there’s one God. And they’re not saved. Quite the contrary, they shudder, they shudder, because they know that God is going to punish them for ever and ever.

So, come on. Don’t be deceived. You need the right kind of faith, a faith which works.

Verses 20 to 26

In verses 20 to 26, James takes two examples from the Old Testament to prove his point that a true faith, the right kind of faith, is always accompanied by deeds.

Before we get into these verses, I should say that these verses puzzle a lot of Christians. They puzzle a lot of Christians, and they make us scratch our head, because what James says here in these verses seems to contradict what the Apostle Paul teaches in his New Testament letters. The Apostle Paul teaches that we’re justified through faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, God pardons us and accepts us as righteous in his sight through faith in Jesus Christ. James, however, says that Abraham was justified or ‘considered righteous’ as the NIV puts it because of what he did. So, Paul says we become right with God through faith alone. James says we become right with God by what we do.

Which is it? Who is right? Well, they’re both right. They’re both right, but they’re answering two different questions and they’re using the word ‘justify’ in two different ways.

You see, Paul is using the word ‘justify’ to mean ‘become right with God’. And he’s answering the question:

How can I, a sinner, become right with God?

And the answer is:

Through faith in Jesus Christ.

But James is using the word ‘justify’ to mean ‘prove or demonstrate that someone is right with God’. And he’s answering a different question. He’s answering this question:

How can I demonstrate that I’m right with God?

And the answer is:

You show it by what you do. You show it by doing whatever the Lord asks of you.

Let’s take the example of Abraham. Back in Genesis 15, when Abraham was old and childless, and despairing of ever having a son of his own, God spoke to him and promised him that he would indeed have a son. And from that one son, a great nation would come. He’d have so many descendants, they’d be like the stars in the sky, too many to count. And we read that Abraham believed God. He believed God’s promise. And God credited it to him as righteousness. In other words, God pardoned his sins and treated him from that time on as someone who was right in his sight. And James refers to that in verse 23. Through faith, he became right with God.

But then, years later, after his son Isaac was born, the Lord commanded Abraham to take his son and to offer him to God as a sacrifice. In other words, take your son and kill him for me. And what did Abraham do? Well, he did what the Lord commanded. He took his son to Mt Moriah, and he built an altar, and he placed his son on the altar, and he took his knife, and lifted it up, and he was all set to kill the boy when God stopped him.

Now, do you see? Abraham loved the Lord so much, and he trusted the Lord so completely that he was prepared to do whatever the Lord asked of him, no matter how strange it seemed. And so, it became clear by what he did that here’s a man who trusts in the Lord.

And the second example James gives is of Rahab. Remember Rahab? She was the Gentile woman who lived in Jericho. And when Joshua’s spies came into the city, she was willing to hide them and to help them because she’d heard about the things the Lord had done; and she now believed in him. And by what she did to help the spies, she proved, she demonstrated that she really did believe.

In both examples, their faith led to action. In both examples, they proved that they really believed by what they did. James puts it this way in verse 22: their faith and their actions worked together so that their faith was made complete by what they did. In other words, what they did arose out of and grew out of their faith.


Why is this? Why does a true faith work? Well, when someone trusts in the Lord, they’re trusting in him because they’re sorry for their sins. They hate them and want rid of them. Sometimes when people are giving their testimony, they say something was missing from their life and the Lord filled it. But that’s not why we turn to Christ. We turn to Christ, not because something is missing and we want him to fill it, but because we’re sinners and we hate our sins and want rid of them. And so, right there, you have a reason why a true faith leads to action, because already, even before we’ve trusted in Christ, we’ve decided we need to change and we want to change, because we’re sick of our old life of sin and disobedience.

And then, whenever a person trusts in Christ, he fills us with his Spirit. And the Spirit of Christ, living inside of us, begins to change us and to make us more and more willing and able to obey God our Father.

There are two kinds of faith. The right kind; and the wrong kind. The right kind works; and the wrong kind of faith doesn’t work. And if you have the wrong kind of faith, a faith without deeds, you need to understand that that kind of faith cannot save. It cannot save, because it’s not true saving faith. And so, you need to turn to Christ and trust in him. And whoever believes in him will receive from him forgiveness for our sins and the Holy Spirit to enable us to change.