Epistle of James 2: 14-17, 21-24 (NIV)
Faith and Deeds
14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
These verses have been catalyst for controversy over recent centuries, perhaps unnecessarily. For what seems to be key to the writer’s intention in verse 14 is the phrase “claims to have faith”. Claiming to have faith can be very different from holding a deep and abiding faith in God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, and in manifesting that faith by living in total obedience to God’s will.
The question, “Can such faith save him?” is seen then to refer to faith such as this: a faith that is claimed to be real and strong and true but is contradicted by attitudinal or behavioural indicators of a life of self-centredness.
According to R. V. G. Tasker, “where loving action is conspicuous by its absence, there is irrefutable evidence that real faith is lacking” (The General Epistle of James: an Introduction and Commentary, IVP, Leicester, 1983).
Perhaps as he wrote this letter the writer had in mind words of our Lord: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7: 21).
The writer’s use of Abraham’s willingness to offer his son as a sacrifice to God as an example of faith in action may challenge us but let us note which passage is quoted in verse 23. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness”, from Genesis 15: 6, refers to a situation long before Abraham had become a father. The demonstration of faith, when Abraham was about to offer Isaac back to God, is recorded in Genesis 22: 15 and following verses. The writer of this epistle would have been fully aware of this chronology.
We realise that God knows every heart and the sincerity of a person’s proclamation of faith. God does not rely on the outward signs whereas the manifestation of faith through acts of justice and mercy is one of the ways in which our faith speaks the gospel to fellow humans.
Loving God, protect us from any falsehood in our demonstration to the world of our trust in you. Keep us focussed on you and on what you are calling us to be and to do. Help us to respond in total obedience, we pray, through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.