1 Oct 2020
We come now to the most controversial passage in the book of James – ( 2:14-26). James here addressed the principles which underlie the believer’s lifestyle of faith.
Some have argued that James’ emphasis in this passage implicitly contradicts Paul’s teaching on faith as ‘simply believing’. John Calvin, in addressing this apparent contradiction, made reference to the statement, “If you wish to know how to be saved, read Paul. But if you wish to know how the saved should live, read James”.
On the subject of salvation, there are two extreme views. One overemphasizes faith while forgetting works; the other overemphasizes works while forgetting faith. The former is referred to as “easy believism” – one can say a simple ‘sinner’s prayer’ and have no change of lifestyle, never pray again, never open a Bible, never have any desire for spiritual things, and still be saved because he believed. The latter is referred to as “works salvation”. Here the teaching is that one must earn his way into eternal life.
The Bible plainly and repeatedly teaches that salvation is by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ alone. However, the Bible also clearly teaches that true saving faith will always result in good works. The dispute arises when various ones fail to make a distinction between the requirement for true salvation and the result of true salvation. Good works are not the requirement for true salvation, but they are certainly the result. The burden of James is faith without fruit. James was not speaking about a faith with works; rather he was speaking about a faith that works. Hence, in the passage 2:14-26, James laboured to show that faith without fruit is false, futile and dead. The Lord Jesus Himself said, “By their fruit you will recognise them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16). In other words, you would recognise the tree by its fruit.
James began in 2:14 by asking, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”
We must note carefully that James was not referring to a man who has faith but to one who claims to have faith. James was emphasising on a false claim to faith and not on the true nature of faith. He was contrasting what a person claims to be and what he really is. Mere claiming that we are Christians does not make us such. The Lord Jesus reminds us, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). So James was highlighting the fact that a faith with no works is a faith with no worth; it is just made up of all lips and no life, all talk and no walk. James was calling us to examine ourselves to be sure that our faith is not false. The only way to know if faith is genuine is by its fruit, as stated by the Lord Himself.
In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul said that faith alone is necessary for salvation but in verse 10, he talked about fruit of good works which follows salvation. Paul and James are actually complementing each other and not contradicting each other. Paul was hitting hard at men and women who try to be saved by keeping the law instead of trusting Christ alone for salvation. James, on the other hand, was concerned with people who confuse mere intellectual assent with true saving faith that will ultimately produce fruit. Paul was in fact addressing his argument to those who are overbalanced on the side of “works salvation”. James, on the other hand, was addressing his argument to those who are overbalanced on the side of the “easy believism” of the antinomians who say, “I’m saved and I can live any way I desire.”
It is interesting that James in 2:19 wrote, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder! Even demons recognise the holiness of God and the deity of Christ, but they do not have a saving faith (Mark 311; Luke 4:41). They were making a mere profession of faith without a change of heart or behaviour. But note that the demons ‘shudder’ in the presence of God – they were showing a high degree of terror at the thought of the coming judgement. Ironically, some so-called believers are farther from God than the demons in this sense – they give intellectual assent to Christ’s claims but have no fear of God. They have never truly been born again. Their faith is futile. Unlike the shuddering demons, their false and futile belief may not really bother them at all. Such a faith is not just false and futile – it is dead!
Many men and women whose faith is really ‘dead’ try to look as much as possible like people who are spiritually alive. They recite creeds accurately, but they live their lifetimes without truly trusting Christ and with false hope. James pointed out that you can no more isolate faith and actions than you can isolate the spirit from the body. As the body without the spirit is dead, sp faith without deeds is dead. Christian faith calls for commitment as well as confession.
The discourse on the nature of true faith by James is so very important to the Church today. The church must recognise that a faith that produces no fruit is not a genuine faith. Those who claim to love Jesus would want to please Him and obey Him. It is sad but true that there can be many in the church today who profess faith in Jesus who are not truly born again. They may appear as believers in their apparent ‘faithfulness’ in ‘attending church’ and going through all the ‘activities’ that are deemed as ‘spiritually commendable’ but their hearts are not changed. James was and is telling such ones to examine their lives and their faith – he was reminding them not to be presumptuous but to sincerely come before God and to evaluate what they claim. Scripture tells us that in the church are wheat and tares. The enemy, the devil, is the one who planted such ones (the tares) into the church.
Ponder over what the Apostle Paul said to the elders in the church in Ephesus: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert…” (Acts 20:28-30).