The Epistle of James
After a long but delightful labor, I rejoice to give you the Epistle of James in the New Eclectic Version.
Here too is a short excerpt from that letter, a great field of battle over which Catholics and Protestants have spilled not a little ink!
Also, be sure to read the thoughtful comments that follow, plundered from The Reformation Study Bible for your edification.
Faith Without Works Is Dead
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can such “faith” save him? 15 If a brother or sister is lacking proper clothes and daily food, 16 and one of you says to him, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” but you do not give him the things he needs for his body, what good is that? 17 So also with faith: if it does not have works, it is dead, being all by itself. 18 Moreover, someone may well say to you, “You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
19 You believe there is one God, and you do well; but the demons also believe that—and shudder! 20 But are you willing to be shown, O man devoid of truth, that “faith” without works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father shown to be righteous because of his works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was colaboring with his works, and that by means of works his faith was being perfected? 23 And thus the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see from this that a man is declared to be righteous because of his works, and not by “faith” alone. 25 And in like manner, was not Rahab the harlot also shown to be righteous because of her works, when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so too “faith” without works is dead.
Does James Deny Justification by Faith Alone?
This text introduces the crucial issue of the relationship between faith and works. The question under scrutiny is: What kind of faith is saving faith? James’ 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 the profession of faith or the claim to faith; it teaches justification by the possession of true faith, a faith that is not without works.
When Luther and the Reformers insisted on the formula “Justification by faith alone,” they meant to insist that justification rests upon reliance on the merit of Christ alone. The “alone” does not mean that the faith exists alone without any subsequent fruit of obedience. Luther insisted that saving faith is a living faith. “Dead faith” does not mean a faith that has perished. Rather, the image suggests a faith that never had any true life in it. A dead faith cannot make one alive, cannot “save your soul,” and is therefore false and useless (1:21).
James appeals to Abraham as his chief exhibit of one who is justified by his works. This involved no conflict with Paul, who also appeals to Abraham as the chief exhibit of one justified by faith. Note that James appeals to Gen. 22, while Paul appeals to Gen. 15. In the sight of God, Abraham is justified in Gen. 15, long before he offers Isaac on the altar. God knew Abraham’s faith to be genuine. Abraham is justified to us, to human eyes, in Gen. 22, when he shows his faith through his obedience.
Our Lord used the same verb in Luke 7:35 when he declared that “wisdom is justified by all her children” (i.e., shown to be genuine wisdom by its results.). Here, to “justify” does not mean to be reconciled to God, but to demonstrate the truth of a prior claim. Just as true wisdom is demonstrated by its fruit, so Abraham’s claim to faith is justified (vindicated) by his outward obedience. Yet his works were not the meritorious cause of his salvation; they added no merit to the perfect and sufficient merit of Christ.
In sum, here James is attacking all forms of antinomianism, all theologies that seek to have Jesus as Savior without embracing Him as Lord. Just as Paul demonstrated that trusting in one’s own works is deadly, so James teaches that resting on dead, empty “faith” is deadly. The two apostles balance one another perfectly.