America is a nation of pragmatists. We like to have things proved. In a sense we are all from Missouri and want to be shown the validity of a proposition or the effectiveness of a mechanism. Confronted with a new proposal or gadget, we ask first, “Does it work?”
Strange to say, many of us evangelicals are less pragmatic in spiritual matters. Zealous to maintain the biblical truth of salvation by grace through faith, we too often fail to emphasize that works count too.
James, the brother of our Lord, saw this truth clearly. He was a pragmatist and wanted to see faith in action. He could not stand pious pomposity that professed faith but gave no evidence of it. James doubtless would have agreed with T. S. Eliot’s words in “The Hollow Men”:
Between the idea
And the reality,
Between the motion
And the act,
Falls the shadow.…
Between the conception
And the creation,
Between the emotion
And the response,
Falls the shadow.From Collected poems, 1909–1962 by T. S. Eliot, copyright, 1936, by Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.; © 1963, 1964 by T. S. Eliot.
James was aware of the hollowness of men. He saw the shadow that frequently falls between faith professed and deed performed; hence he asks, “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?” (Jas. 2:14, RSV). He then goes on to draw a clear line of distinction between profession of faith and possession of faith.
There is a word in James’s question that casts considerable light on his point of view: “If a man says he has faith.…” James does not credit such a man with saving faith; the man only says he has faith. There is frequently a significant difference between what we say and what we do. This is precisely where the shadow falls that casts a pall over the testimony of much evangelicalism; while we talk of God’s love and grace, we are slow to demonstrate that love and grace in even the most rudimentary way to others. Bunyan describes Talkative in The Pilgrim’s Progress in these words: “He knows only to talk.… [He is] … as devoid of religion as the white of an egg is of savor.…” So are we if we do not implement our faith in practical ways. Some words of Browning also characterize the result of this condition: it renders faith “faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null.”
James’s point is that it is not sufficient simply to give assent to correct doctrine or to speak of personal faith in Christ. There must be evidence of the genuineness of faith through a growing Christlikeness. Jesus himself said, “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). Genuine faith will so unite a man to Christ that all his thoughts and actions will come under the constraint and control of the Holy Spirit. Thus faith and works are brought together.
By the manner in which he asks the question, “Can his faith save him?” James implies the answer. But lest there be any confusion, he shows that such faith is useless because it does not help others and dead because it is no more than the belief of demons.
First, he asks another question. “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of 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 does it profità” (2:15, 16). Too often we have done just this. We have spoken of our concern for the souls of men and given testimony of our faith and the sufficiency of Christ to meet man’s needs. But we have only halfheartedly sought to deal with man’s physical needs—if we have done so at all. We have forgotten that our Lord ministered to the physical as well as the spiritual needs of men. We have forgotten that we are his body, his hands working and his feet moving in the world today. He works today, but he works through men. We live in a nation singularly blessed in material possessions. With less than 6 per cent of the world’s population, we possess or control, it is estimated, more than half of the world’s wealth. This places a special responsibility upon American Christians.
David Head in his little book, He Sent Leanness: A Book of Prayers for the Natural Man, points up the problem incisively. Following the general forms of prayer men employ, he puts on their lips the words that seem to be in their hearts, if one may judge by their actions, and he prays:
We miserable owners of increasingly luxurious cars, and ever-expanding television screens, do most humbly pray for that two-thirds of the world’s population that is undernourished.…
We who seek to maintain a shaky civilization do pray most earnestly that the countries which suffer exploitation may not be angry with the exploiters, that the hungry may not harbour resentment against those who have food, that the down-trodden may take it patiently, that nations with empty larders may prefer starvation to communism, that the “have-not” countries may rejoice in the prosperity of those that have, and that all people who have been deeply insulted and despised may have short memories.…
We pray … that the sick may be visited, the prisoner cared for, the refugee rehabilitated, the naked clothed, the orphan housed, and that we may be allowed to enjoy our own firesides, evening by evening in peace.…
Lord, be good to us.
Christ, make things easy for us.
Lord, deliver us from the necessity of doing anything.From He sent Leanness: A Book of Prayers for the Natural Man, by David Head, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962. Used by permission of The Macmillan Company.
We may be shocked by such writing, but perhaps our shock is due not so much to its impropriety as to its accuracy. This prayer is too close to the thoughts of many hearts. We will pray for the needy but not help them. We will offer them pity but not show Christlike love. We fail in our witness but do not recognize our failure, and we excuse our inaction by saying we do not believe in the social gospel, as if social implications were totally unrelated to the genuine article. Let us not confuse the issue. The so called social gospel is not the Gospel, for it has emaciated the Gospel by removing the necessity of the new birth; but the Gospel does have social overtones we dare not ignore. To declare the Good News without doing good deeds is sheer hypocrisy.
‘Even A Cup Of Cold Water’
Jesus did not consider good works and social emphases unrelated. Listen to his words: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). “Whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward” (Matt. 10:42). Again, in his discourse on judgment in Matthew 25 Christ speaks of the righteous as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the ill-clad, visiting the sick, and ministering to the prisoner, and then concludes: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” And John, the beloved, also speaks to the matter: “If any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17).
Is it not ironical that, as D. C. Macintosh points out, “the cross of Christ has been commonly used by his supposed disciples to encourage them in not bearing the cross themselves”? Hiding behind the façade of orthodoxy, we neglect one of the most fundamental and orthodox truths of all, the compassion and constraining love of Christ.
James says this kind of faith is dead. It is mere form—words, words, words. So he says, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (2:18b). He clinches his argument by pointing out that such faith is no better than that of the demons: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe … and shudder” (2:19). The demons may believe and shudder, but neither their belief nor their shuddering can save them. Thus he leads into the difference between profession of faith and possession of faith.
If profession is not sufficient, what is? James would not discount the value of profession, but he would have that profession find expression in the common experiences of everyday life through good works.
This emphasis immediately raises questions and has caused men of such stature as Martin Luther to consider James’s letter “an epistle of straw,” because they felt it was fundamentally opposed to the teaching of Paul. This cleavage is only superficial, however, and Luther’s objections must be understood in the historical context of a church that had for centuries buried the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith beneath an intricate system of works.
The key to understanding James and Paul is semantics. We often use one word to mean two or more different things. A ball means one thing to an athlete and quite another to a debutante, and we may speak of the church as either a building or a people. Just so, the word “justify” may have different connotations. When Paul speaks of justification in Romans and Galatians, he refers to the internal experience of faith through which Christ’s righteousness is imputed, thus reconciling man to God. James, on the other hand, uses the word “justified” in James 2:24 more in the sense of vindication, evidence, or proof.
So, while Paul speaks of Abraham’s faith as the source of his justification, James speaks of his faith as being completed by his works (2:22). Paul speaks of Abraham’s faith before the birth of Isaac. James alludes to the offering of Isaac as proof of Abraham’s faith. Paul is certainly opposed to works as the ground of theological justification, but James does not suggest that works alone are a valid ground. On the other hand, Paul would have no quarrel with James’s view that faith, if it is genuine, must produce works. He says as much in several places. Speaking of God’s judgment he says, “He will render to every man according to his works” (Rom. 2:6); and, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor. 5:10). Concerning the importance of works as the fruit of faith he says, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6); and also, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
For A Completed Faith
If the key to reconciling James and Paul is a correct understanding of their use of the term “justify,” the door is the word “complete.” James is saying, in effect, faith that possesses us will be completed by our works. We are, to put it another way, justified by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.
James then calls to mind another whose faith was validated by works. Rahab was not a promising person; she had been an harlot and came of a pagan people. But in Joshua we are told of her faith in the living God and how she not only professed this faith to the spies sent out by Joshua but hid and protected them. Thus she enabled them to escape, though it meant placing her own life in jeopardy. God richly rewarded her for her faith; she became a mother in the Davidic line and is one of the four women named in Matthew’s genealogy of Christ. But the point James makes is that she not only said she believed; she also acted upon that belief. She was “justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24). Some who were proud of their heritage and faith may have disliked her inclusion with the people of God, confusing the elite with the elect; but she was a woman who possessed faith and whose faith possessed her so that she produced good works.
This is really all James is saying—that faith is evidenced by works or it is not genuine faith. “As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” (2:26). Or, as F. W. Robertson put it, “No man is justified by faith unless faith has made him just.”
Profession and possession go together. Profession makes a declaration. Possession acts, because that faith not only is possessed but also possesses us. We must both believe and do. But one more question remains: “Do what?” The primary need is to seek to be so saturated with the love of Christ that every deed will be Christlike. Yet because he is intensely practical, James gives some points as starters. In all he gives fifty-four clear commands for Christian behavior. Among them he urges meeting trial victoriously (1:3); being of single purpose (1:8); resisting temptation (1:12); visiting the needy and keeping oneself unstained by the world (1:27); showing no partiality (2:1); controlling the tongue (3); guarding against false judgment (4:11); living one day at a time (4:13); being prepared and looking for the Lord’s return (5:7); praying for the sick (5:13); and seeking the straying (5:19).
To be sure, one may score well on all of these and not be saved. But evangelicals do well to remember that faith is completed only by works, because “faith apart from works is barren.” Works count too!
A Collect For Compassion
There in the rudest tree
Where winter grips and rocks
The black indefinite cold,
Comes the small chickadee,
And like my soul, pipes
Anxious prayer, implores
An opening of doors,
Some crust and surety.
My hand, give him his bread!
May whirlwind God pause
From his storms and come
To me with Cup and Crumb.
(From the book The Holy Merriment, by Arnold Kinseth. Copyright 1963 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission.)
Charles N. Pickell is pastor of the Wallace Memorial United Presbyterian Church, Hyattsville, Maryland. He received the B.A. degree from Juniata College and the B.D. from Western Theological Seminary, and he has also studied at Harvard and Andover Newton. His writings include “Preaching to Meet Men’s Needs: The Meaning of the Acts as a Guide for Preaching Today.”
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more