Vol. VIII — No. 38 September 24, 1967
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can (that) faith save him? If a brother or a sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; not withstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou now, O vain man, that faith without works is dead was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
In Christ Jesus, who saves by that faith whose evidence is works, Fellow Redeemed:
In the section just read James states, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” James then used the example of Abraham to demonstrate that “Abraham our father was justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar.”
If we turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find that after a long presentation Paul summed up his teaching in these familiar words, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” Romans 3:23. Then Paul uses Abraham as an example of justification by faith: “What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.”
We find then that James uses Abraham as an example of justification by works, and Paul uses Abraham as an example of justification by faith. Does James contradict Paul? And if he does, who is right: James or Paul? Are we justified by faith or by works?
There have been and there are biblical scholars who place James in opposition to Paul. They say that Paul represents the Gentile influence, while James seeks to maintain the older Jewish tradition. These same people find a clash between Peter and Paul. But the clash or the conflict between James and Paul is only apparent. It is not real, for both James and Paul agree on the function and nature of saving faith. Whenever we read a book of the Bible, we must be sure that we understand the point of view of the writer and the nature of and problems of the people he is addressing in his writing. Paul’s life was a battle against those who perverted the Gospel in the same way he had done until his conversion. That perversion was the idea that man saved by doing the works prescribed in the law. To this all scripture says “no,” for if salvation were by works, the sinner would be obligated to achieve a perfect fulfillment of the law. That is impossible for the sinner. That is why God sent His Son and put Him under the law to fulfill it for us. His perfect righteousness is offered in the Gospel and received and appropriated by faith. Paul sums up this position in those familiar words just quoted, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” Paul uses Abraham as an example to show that the doctrine was the same in the Old Testament and for all time. How if you continue reading Paul’s letter to the Romans and his other letters, you will find that Paul presents the faith that receives the gift of God’s salvation in Christ as a dynamic force in a believer’s life. His faith is to govern, motivate, and compel him to a life of love towards his God and his fellow man. His faith literally makes him a new creature.
When James wrote his letter, from which our text is taken, he faced an altogether different problem. He was writing to Jewish Christians who had been persecuted and whose faith had become weary and unfruitful in good works. It was in danger of shrinking to such an extent that it would become just a dead assent to the true doctrine, but no power to motivate to Christian living. Such a is not saving faith. It’s a delusion, a spiritual self-deception, a spiritual illness, for saving faith shows itself and manifests itself in the life of a child of God. James used Abraham to demonstrate his point.
We can summarize what we have by using a sentence fashioned by Luther centuries ago. The sentence will also serve as a guide as we consider the words of James more closely. This is the sentence—which you do well to commit to memory:
Let us, as a solemn warning, note well that—
James is speaking of just such a faith in our text. He asks, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?” Unfortunately, our King James Version obscures the meaning of James because it fails to translate one little word, the article modifying faith. The grammarians call this the article of previous reference. James is referring to the kind of faith that he has been describing—a faith barren of good works. The thrust of James becomes clearer when we translate, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works, can that faith, or can that sort of faith save him?” The answer to that rhetorical question is obviously “no.”
James then offers an example, “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” Imagine this: Someone comes to your door and pleads for food and clothing. And you would say to that person in your cheeriest tones, “Good luck to you, I hope you’ll keep warm and find enough to eat.” But you show no mercy. You don’t give him anything to eat or to wear. How could any such person fold his arms, look after the departing hungry and shivering man and say to himself: “What a good Christian I am! I believe in Jesus as my Savior!” What self deception that would be! James says, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” If that individual truly believed in the Lord Jesus as his Savior, he couldn’t act that way. His faith would have compelled him to be moved by the needs of the hungry and shivering man. His faith would have moved him to mercy. Any kind of a “faith” that does not move the confessed “believer” to mercy is dead. It’s a “faith” that damns!
James continues to drive home the point by putting words into the mouth of some objector in the congregation: “Yea, nan may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works.” This individual is giving false comfort to someone James is trying to correct. He is saying, “Don’t be bothered by what James says, for you have faith,” (even if it is a dead, fruitless faith!) “Whereas James has just his works, but not faith.” James exposes that objection by saying, “Show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works.” Nobody can show another person his faith. Faith isn’t something that you can take out of your vest pocket and show to someone. Only God can see faith. But if faith is present and active in a person’s heart, it will show itself by works. Works are always the evidence and proof of faith. A faith that cannot demonstrate its existence by works is dead. Such a “faith” damns.
James keeps on pounding the point: “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” James is alluding to the most common liturgical response of the Jews: “Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord.” All the people would respond: “One Lord!” Fine, James says, but the devils also know and believe that and tremble because they know that “One Lord” will one day condemn them.
What a powerful indictment of fruitless faith James makes! Think of the people who say, “I believe in God,” and imagine themselves to be Christians! If a person says, “I believe in God,” but rejects Jesus Christ as the Son of God and his Savior, he is no Christian. He’s a heathen—on the road to hell. For any “faith in God” that rejects God’s Son is a “faith” that damns. If a person says, “I believe in the Lord Jesus as my Savior,” but gives no evidence of that faith in his life, he’s deceiving himself. There are people who claim to be Christians, but who never seem to find the time to hear the word of God or read and study it. There were people like that in Jesus’ day. On one occasion he said to some of them: “He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.” John 8:47. What would a girl say to a man who never called her on the phone, who slammed down the receiver when she called him, and who returned her letters unread and unanswered, but who still claimed he loved her? The least she would say is “You certainly don’t show it.” There are people who claim to be Christians, who confess that they believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, who say they love him, but who just can never find the time to sit and listen when He would speak to them from His Word. All such should examine themselves, for they may well have a spiritual corpse within their hearts—a faith that is dead. Such a faith cannot save, for—
James uses Abraham to illustrate this truth. He asks, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect—or rather reached its goal.— And scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.” We have already noted that both Paul and James used Abraham as an example, one to illustrate justification by faith and the other justification by works. How it is necessary to note a difference in the use of the illustration. Paul was speaking of God’s first or initial verdict of declaring Abraham righteous. That occurred thirty years before the offering of Isaac, and is recorded in Genesis 15. God had just renewed to Abraham the promise of a son, which promise included the promise of a Savior for Abraham and all mankind. Abraham took God at His word. He believed the Lord, and that faith was counted unto him for righteousness. In brief, he was justified by faith.
But that saving faith immediately became a spiritual dynamo in Abraham’s heart and life. Sometimes it was strong and controlled his actions; at other times it was weak and Abraham acted contrary to his faith. The climactic test for Abraham came when God commanded him to offer up Isaac. That command was contrary to God’s law, contrary to natural law, contrary to the promise of a Savior—yet Abraham obeyed in simple trust in his God. Therefore the verdict of the Lord thirty years before was vindicated. Abraham’s faith had reached the God-established goal of complete trust in the Lord despite all other human considerations. The subsequent verdict of the Lord which James uses as an example, shows that the faith by which we are justified is never without its fruits—good works.
So also the harlot, Rahab, demonstrated her faith in the God of Israel by helping the spies that Joshua sent. Think of any believer and examine his faith. You will always find the evidence of his faith in his works. An excellent example is the dying thief who came to faith on the cross beside the Lord Jesus. He was nailed to that cross. He couldn’t come down and return the money he had stolen and make good the evil he done done. But his tongue was not tied. He used that organ of his body to rebuke his unbelieving fellow robber and to glorify his Savior. Thus did his faith manifest itself gloriously in his dying hour.
On the last day, which shall be the day of public judgment for all mankind, we shall be judged according to our works. The Lord will then vindicate his private judgment of each individual according to his faith, for the works of faith are the evidence and proof of saving faith.
“For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” When the breath that God put into man loaves, the body becomes a corpse. Any faith that does not or cannot show itself by corresponding works is dead. Such a faith cannot but damn. The faith that saves is unceasingly fruitful of good works. Let us not deceive ourselves, brethren. Let us realize that all our protestations of faith are useless, vain, and empty—a cruel self-deception unless that faith becomes a dynamic force in our lives. Whatever we do, we are to do unto the Lord! Faith is to motivate our relations with our fellow men. Faith is to dictate our attitudes towards the things of this world and our method of solving the many problems that confront us. We are to walk by faith. Such a faith alone saves—a faith that embraces Christ and daily lives unto Christ! Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.