By Sam E. Stone
Some Bible teachers suggest that Paul and James disagree with each other about the place of faith and works in a person’s salvation. They don’t, however. In today’s text James did not attack Paul’s teaching that a Christian is saved by God’s grace. Instead he corrected what A. T. Robertson called “the ceremonial ritualism of the Pharisees.”
Evaluating Genuine Faith
Real faith isn’t something you just talk about. Biblical faith includes trust and commitment. Faith is active, consistent in both word and deed. If a person claims to have faith but has no deeds, such “faith” is dead; it is useless. In Romans 4, when Paul said a person is saved by faith and not by the works of the law, he used Abraham to illustrate the point. Here James used the same person (Abraham) to prove that one’s faith is shown to be real by his actions—his works of faith, if you will.
If a person says that he cares about helping those who need clothing and food, but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? James condemned any such “spurious claim to faith.” R. V. G. Tasker wrote, “Such a professed faith, being totally lacking in results, is useless; and James shatters the confidence of those who think it possesses any value.” Jesus himself confirmed this (Matthew 7:21; 25:45).
No one can get by with claiming, “You have faith; I have deeds.” James showed that this argument fails: Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. The apostle John taught this same principle (1 John 3:17, 18). How can a man claim to believe if he has nothing to back up his boast? Just believing that God exists, for example, doesn’t assure a person of salvation. Even the demons believe that—and shudder. True faith includes more.
Illustrating Genuine Faith
Abraham was called by God while he lived in Ur of Chaldees. He believed God’s promise to make from him a great nation. He had faith. But if Abraham had remained in Ur doing what he had always done, he wouldn’t have demonstrated the kind of faith that could save him. He had to do something. When God told him to move, he obeyed. He acted. When God told him to offer his only son, Isaac, as a sacrifice, Abraham prepared to do just that. His faith and his actions were working together. Jesus taught the same principle: “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15, NIV 1984).
When God told Abraham what to do, he did it. He obeyed without question. The old song said it well, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way.” Abraham’s faith was seen throughout his entire life (Hebrews 11:8-12). He was not saved by doing an impressive list of good deeds or following perfectly a set of regulations, however. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” This quotation from Genesis 15:6 is quoted four times in the New Testament (see also Romans 4:3, 22 and Galatians 3:6). J. W. McGarvey wrote, “Abraham, like all of us, could not honor God by doing his will perfectly. But he could honor him by being fully persuaded that God would keep his Word, even though it might seem to involve an impossibility.”
James added one more illustration to make his point—Rahab the prostitute. The help that she provided to the spies from Israel made all the difference. She believed God, and her faith was evident both in what she said and what she did. She demonstrated the same sort of faith that marked the life of Abraham.
We can all have this sort of faith. It is shown when we believe that God can love all of us—sinners—and save us despite our lost condition. Hodge said, “The sinner honors God in trusting his grace, as much as Abraham did in trusting his power.” Jack Cottrell put it this way: “We are not saved by faith without works; we are not saved by faith plus works; we are saved by a faith that works.”
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.