In the news yesterday, I found one article stating that we will never be “over” the lifestyles we have practiced for COVID-19; we will find a “new normal.” I wonder if we will be reading articles about the virus’s long-reaching effects on our lives ten years from now. Will history paint a positive perspective of all the changes we have made: working from home, meeting virtually, being more hygienic, and even wearing face masks voluntarily? I think about these results of the pandemic in a similar way that I think about my Christian faith. Will it be evident to the world, and specifically to the people I meet? In both cases, I was not in control of the change in my life; Christ redeemed me when I had no thoughts of God, and the pandemic came upon us all without warning or choice. Like the virus, our faith is visible only to God unless there is evidence (symptoms of the virus or the fruit of our faith). Unlike the negative symptoms of COVID, believers’ works are the excellent fruit of saving faith—a testimony that is otherwise invisible to people and only known by God. We also know if we have saving faith, and therefore fruit is promised. Whereas with the virus, we have to be tested to know if we are sick when we are symptom-free. But being without evidence of our faith is not an option according to the Bible. As those called by Christ, we are to bear fruit, continually giving testimony of our regeneration in Christ by our good works. So today, we will examine one (longer) passage in the book of James. My prayer is that we will all be encouraged to know that our faith’s fruit is guaranteed in Christ.
“The book of James is intensely practical. It is no accident that it includes the famous passage about doing what the word says (1:22–25) and the controversial one about showing faith by our deeds (2:14–26). These deeds are various: responding well to trials, praying fervently and effectively, keeping our tongues under control, avoiding favoritism, cultivating a wisdom that will bring peace in place of division, and using our material resources to honor God. Central to the letter is James’s call to a deep, sincere, and consistent faithfulness to God.” (1) We’ll focus on the “controversial” passage—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. 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.”
The controversy stems from James’s use of justification when he speaks of believers’ works. I have it on the word of many living and dead trustworthy theologians that James never intends to postulate that our works save us. The only work that saves us is the work Christ did on the cross after a life of obedience to the Father. So let’s move on to the crucial issue: “the relationship between faith and works. The question under scrutiny is, ‘What kind of faith is saving faith?’ James’s question is rhetorical, the obvious answer is that faith without works cannot save. Faith that yields no deeds is not saving faith. The NT does not teach justification by works, but it also does not teach justification by the profession of faith or the claim to faith, it teaches justification by the possession of true faith, and true faith always bears the fruit of love of God and neighbor. James has in mind a genuine, living faith that produces fruitful works, which is evidence that will vindicate (or prove) the validity of one’s authentic justifying faith at the last judgment.” (2) And, “James is not implying that even genuine faith is the basis of salvation; rather, it is the means and instrument by which one is saved…James 2:15–16 offers an illustration of what faith without works looks like in everyday life. In itself the phrase, ‘Go in peace, be warmed’ and filled is a pious wish and prayer for the welfare of the poor, but in reality it is a cop-out, masking a refusal to help the person in need.” (3) So when my elderly neighbor and I met at 9 pm last night and he told me that he accidentally locked his iPhone and had to have it completely wiped clean, losing all his data, should I have offered to help him? I do help my neighbor from time to time with his computer. But I didn’t because I couldn’t think of a single thing to do for his phone except pray. I don’t know his contacts, and I doubt he knows the name of the apps he uses on it. I feel comfortable since James does not intend legalistic religion, just a working theology. When we can help, we should. Our works are testimony of our faith, which we should proclaim verbally and behaviorally—in all the ways outlined by James (as outlined in the previous paragraph).
We put our trust in invisible things or ideas all the time. Love, justice, fairness, respect, and compassion are unseen values which are expressed only through actions. So it is with regeneration, sanctification, and justification, and the faith that accompanies these. In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus said, “‘Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’” (John 3:7-8) James 2:18 corresponds to this truth. “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.” Anyone can claim to have saving faith, and we know that many people have been deceived by false teachers, thinking their “decision” to be saved, or believing what the Bible says about Christ means that they have been reborn. But, as Jesus said, we are only reborn by God’s Spirit working in us. But I can’t see your faith, and you can’t see mine unless there is evidence of it at work. “It’s not that works are not infallible proofs and evidences of faith, yet they are the best we are capable of giving of it to men, or they of receiving. In short, works may deceive, and do not infallibly prove truth of faith, yet it is certain, that where they are not, but persons live in a continued course of sinning, there cannot be true faith.” (4) Believers’ works, although imperfect, are the fruit of our saving faith, a testimony of it which is otherwise invisible to people but known by God. These works may be small and ordinary—reaching out to a neighbor, checking in with a friend, sending a text message or email of encouragement. Or, they seem more significant to the eyes of some—martyrdom, missionary work in a foreign country, giving sacrificially, or forgoing a personal need for someone. In any case, we continually give testimony to our regeneration in Christ by our good works through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence.
James mentions Abraham and Rahab as examples of those whose fruit proved their faith in God (James 2:21-26). The apostle uses OT people because that was his Bible, as it was Jesus’s Bible. The truths that he proclaims are eternal—they are not new in the NT, as if Christ’s incarnation brought a different religion. (See Hebrews 11.) But now the veil has been lifted off the eyes of believers to understand how true faith works. “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (v. 26). “Faithfulness is an everyday calling. It’s regular, it’s ordinary, it’s taking a really long view of the Christian life. It’s reshaping our desires for immediate fruit and committing to following Jesus for the long haul. It’s getting up every single day and believing that God is your treasure, that the gospel of Jesus is worth your every breath, and that he is enough. Faithfulness is doing this again tomorrow and the next day and ten years from now. Faithfulness is ordinary. It’s unremarkable. It plods. It is also precious in the sight of the God who works out lifelong sanctifying perseverance in your life for your good and his glory. Everyday faithfulness requires patience and fortitude that’s desperately dependent upon God’s own faithfulness to us. Yet the fruit, the harvest, the return for our everyday plodding is worth more than all the days, months, and years of our long-haul perseverance.” (5) As we plod along in this time of social distancing, will we seek and use the opportunities that come to give evidence of our faith? Will our fruit draw others to Christ? “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6)
Related Scripture: Matt. 7:26; 8:29; Mark 1:24; 5:7; Luke 3:11; 4:33, 34; Acts 16:17; 19:15; Hebrews 11; 1 John 3:17-18
- “NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible—Follow God’s Redemptive Plan as It Unfolds throughout Scripture,” eBook, Zondervan, Kindle Edition.
- The Reformation Study Bible, James 2:14-16, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015.
- English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, James 2;14, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
- 4. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” James 2:17, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/james-2.html
- “Marshall, Glenna, “Everyday Faithfulness,” (The Gospel Coalition) Crossway. Kindle Edition.
September 18, 2020