There are several interesting and important paradoxes expressed in New Testament Scripture. The concept of election and predestination, on the one hand, and our free will to choose (or reject) salvation, on the other, are difficult to reconcile and yet both concepts have a clear scriptural basis. Similarly, the fact that salvation is a free gift, graciously given by God, is countered with the teaching that to follow Christ requires costly sacrifice on our part. In James 2:14-26, the author, traditionally believed to be James the leader of the Jerusalem church and a brother of Jesus Christ (Mk 6:3; Gal 1:19), attempts to explain the correlation between what many see as opposing dynamics – faith and works. James’s argument about the importance of works is especially interesting in the light of the apostle Paul’s insistence that salvation is through faith alone and not in any way dependent on our works (Jas. 2:24 cf Gal. 2:16). This essay takes a look at the epistle of James. In particular, it explores the link between genuine Christian faith and the work of compassionate deeds which the author refers to in James 2:14-16.
JAMES AND HIS LETTER
James identifies himself in the opening statement of his letter simply as a servant, literally a slave (doulos), of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. He addresses his letter to the twelve tribes, that is, to the Jews. In particular, the letter is addressed to those Jews who were scattered throughout the Roman Empire because of the Diaspora. It was intended for “Jewish Christian readers in various far-flung communities where the gospel had taken a foothold.” (Elwell & Yarbrough 1998:354) The Jewish context places the letter at a very early time in Christianity. It was probably written just before 50AD.
The Epistle of James is not a personal letter. the author does not mention anyone by name nor does he include any personal information about himself. The “lack of specific references to persons, places, incidents or relationships” has caused this letter to be described as a general or catholic epistle, meaning that it is general or universal in nature. (Achtemeier 2001:498)
It is difficult to ascertain an occasion for James writing this letter. However, from the topics in the letter, it can be deduced that his readers were experiencing doubts and wavering, anger and verbal abuse, factionalism and favouritism, and many of them may have been poor.
James greets his readers succinctly with just one word: the typical greeting chairein (Jas 1:1). From this point, he launches into a series of ethical topics which lack any overall argument. (Fee & Stuart 1993:47) These topics are briefly introduced in chapter one and then developed later in the epistle. While James covers a disparate set of concerns, “the coherence of his letter lies in its consistent exhortation of faithfulness to God [with corresponding ethical behaviour], rather than in a clear and logical literary progression.” (Elwell & Yarbrough 1998:356)
The author’s voice is distinctive in the NT. His epistle is clearly God-centred rather than Christ-centred. (Johnson 1998:181) Even though James does not present any teaching about Jesus Christ, or about the Holy Spirit for that matter, Jesus’s presence is still felt as the topics and teaching in the letter very much echo aspects of Jesus’s teaching, especially as it appears in the Gospel of Matthew. (Elwell & Yarborough 1998:356) There are many similarities between James’s instructions and those Jesus delivered in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount where the moral and ethical requirements of the law – justice, mercy and faith are emphasised. (Achtemeier 2001:502)
In addition to the teachings of Jesus, James’s writing also draws on the Hebrew Bible. References from Leviticus 19 about caring for the poor, feature prominently. James especially draws on the wisdom literature, including the Book of Proverbs, as well as several apocryphal wisdom books. “James’s stress on the close link between practice and belief, between ethics and theology, stems in part from Old Testament influence.” (Elwell and Yarbrough 1998:356)
With the fire and force of an Old Testament prophet, James delivers some scathing denouncements and manages to give fifty-nine imperatives in the letter’s 108 verses, yet his pastoral heart and concern is evident throughout. He continually refers to his readers as “my brothers and sisters” or “beloved brothers and sisters”, and he takes up the cause that is close to the heart of God, that of caring for the poor and the needy. As, presumably, the leader of the Jerusalem church, James writes about the practical outworking of the Christian faith – true faith that will benefit the weak and defenseless. This, according to James, is an important expression of pure and true religion (Jas 1:27a). Practical care and concern for the poor and vulnerable is a familiar theme in both the Law and the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus also demonstrated his care, compassion, and concern for the poor, sick, and defenseless.
James has a pastoral concern for the poor, but he is also looking for ethical integrity in the church and he “seeks to hold the community to its professed ideals.” (Johnson 1995:219) These issues are discussed in James 2:14-26.
James 2:14-26, which concerns faith and deeds, is preempted in James 1:22 where the author commands his readers to not only be hearers of the word but doers also. Similarly, in James 1:27, he identifies one of the marks of true religion as caring practically for those who are in need. In James 2:1, he says that those who have faith in Jesus Christ must not show partiality or discriminate between the poor and the rich. He then goes on to say that the Royal Law, or the Kingdom Law, is to love your neighbour as yourself (Jas. 2:8). Johnson (1995:48) takes the position that chapter 2 of James develops a single argument concerning faith and deeds from beginning to end.
James 2:14-26, the focus of this essay, can be divided into four sections. Each section presents an illustration followed by a challenging “summary statement of what James wants us to learn (17, 20, 24, 26).” (Motyer 1985:107)
Section One: Active Faith versus Dead Faith – James 2:14-17
The first section begins with a rhetorical question: “What benefit/use is it my brothers and sisters if anyone says he has faith but does not have deeds: is [that] faith able to save him?” When reading this question in the Greek, it is evident that the answer James is looking for is “no.”
The Greek word for faith (pistis) in this verse is used 243 times in the NT. As well as “faith,” it can mean trust, faithfulness, belief, conviction and doctrine. (Trenchard 1998:87) Central to the gospel message of the NT is that salvation is appropriated simply through faith in Jesus Christ. However, some faith or belief can be superficial and is not the saving faith which James is asking about in verse 14. Reading through the NT, and even in James’ letter, we can see examples of faith and belief that did not endure or result in salvation.
James’s question in verse 14 is intended to provoke the readers and hold their attention. He follows the question with a practical illustration followed by another, similar question: “If a brother or sister is in need of clothing and lacking daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, warm yourself, fill yourself [with food]’, and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” (Jas 2:15-16).
The brother and sister in James’s example are experiencing dire poverty, need and vulnerability, and it is evident in verse 16 that their situation is recognised by their own Christian community. In these verses, the author aims to point out the incongruity between profitless, religious speech and beneficial, religious action. Words cannot warm and feed a person, only the activity, or deed, of providing clothing and food can achieve that.
The Greek word for “deed” in this passage is ergon. Ergon is used 169 times in the NT and its various cognates are also plentiful. It is an ordinary word that can be translated as work, deed, or action. James is calling for action, not just words.
The plight of the poor brother and sister brings to mind statements of Jesus in Matthew 25:35-36: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat . . . naked and you clothed me.” Jesus not only came to bring redemption and salvation but he also brought teaching on how to live as redeemed and saved people. Jesus said, “… to the extent that you did not [clothe and feed] one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:45). And he goes on to say that the consequences for not caring for the impoverished Christian brother or sister is eternal fire and punishment (Matt. 25:41, 46). Thus, according to Jesus, faith without deeds does not save. Jesus also calls for action.
James closes this section with a summary statement in verse 17: “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead!” James believes that genuine faith will always have an active expression and, conversely, where there is no practical evidence there cannot be real faith. “The point is never that deeds substitute for attitude, but that the deeds reveal the attitude; and if there are no deeds, then the attitude is simply “empty” or profitless” or “dead.” (Johnson 1995:247) The evidence of saving faith is in obedient and compassionate action.
Section Two: Worthless, Work-less Faith – James 2:18-20
At this point, James brings in an imaginary debater to assist his argument: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have deeds.’” To which James replies: “show me your faith without works and I will show you, by my works, faith.” James asks for evidence of faith. Jesus also taught that genuine faith would produce visible evidence; it would produce “fruit” that people could see and recognise (Matt. 7:16-20; cf. Jas 3:12).
In anticipation of his opponent’s argument, James acknowledges in verse 19 that his readers believe, or have faith, in one God. Monotheism is the essential belief in Judaism and this belief fundamentally separated the Jews from other nations. Their confession to this day is: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is One.” This confession, called the Shema, is recited twice a day by devout Jews. The Jewish Christians also regularly recited this confession. James alludes to the Shema in verse 19 and you can hear the sarcasm in his voice when he says: “You believe that God is one; you are doing well! The demons also believe and they shudder.”
Johnson (1998:199) observes that: “There is something deep inside humans that leads them to presume that knowing the right truth or holding the right position is enough to make them righteous.” While an accurate theology is valuable, just having correct intellectual knowledge about God is not enough to save someone because, as James points out, even the demons rightly believe that “God is one.” James’s readers had a sense of spiritual security that was false; their faith was no more salvific than the knowledge the demons possessed. (Nystrom 1997:152) True, saving faith is not just a passive, mental assent to correct doctrine.
Using wordplay, James concludes this section with his summary statement in verse 20: “Faith without works is work-less.” (Nystrom 1997:153; Laws 1980:128) The whole of verse 20 may be translated as: “Are you willing to know/recognise, O empty/senseless person, that faith without works doesn’t work?”
Section Three: Abraham’s Faith – James 2:21-24
In this next section, James uses Abraham, the father of faith, for his illustration and writes: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?” James suggests that Abraham was justified by his obedient act of offering Isaac upon the altar. The verb for “justify,” dikaiō, is used three times in James 2:14-26, and it the senses of to “pronounce righteous” or “set right.”
Abraham had faith in the promise God had shown him in the night sky, that one day he would have an heir from his own body (Gen. 14:4-5). The scriptures say that it was faith in this promise that resulted in Abraham being declared righteous by God (Gen. 15:6; cf. Rom. 4:3,18-22, Gal. 3:6).
Years later, as recorded in Genesis chapter 22, Abraham’s courage and willingness to sacrifice his promised son proved his unwavering reliance on God to fulfil his word. Abraham’s faith in God was not just a passive mental acknowledgement of the promise. His belief was so strong that he was willing to take the risk of sacrificing his beloved son, Isaac, in obedience to God’s request. Abraham believed that God would, and could, still fulfil his word (Rom. 4:18-22). James writes that because this test proved Abraham’s faith, it fulfilled the scripture that says, “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Jas 2:23).
Because of Abraham’s obedient action, his faith was made perfect and complete,. To become perfect and complete, by persevering through trials and tests, is the ultimate goal of our faith (Jas 1:2-3). Real faith is continually at work within us. It is being tested, proved, and strengthened, sanctifying and perfecting us. As a perfected and complete person, justified by faith, Abraham could be called a friend of God. In contrast to the demon’s defective faith which produced only fear, Abraham’s courageous and sanctifying faith resulted in friendship. (Motyer 1985:112)
James ends this section with a summary in verse 24: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” This statement seems to be a direct contradiction of much of Paul’s teachings and emphasis on faith apart from works. Johnson (1998:197) writes that: “Because Paul and James use a range of similar vocabulary (faith, saving, works, righteousness) and employ the same scriptural example (Abraham), it [is] natural enough to compare this section to Paul’s discussion in Galatians 3 and Romans 4.” Paul and James, however, were addressing different issues and different audiences. “Paul is attacking self-righteous legalism, and James is attacking self-righteous indifference.” (Brown 1980:370)
James was writing to Christians who were lacking in compassionate deeds. Paul was writing to Christians who were being deceived by the Judaisers. The Judaisers were trying to make Gentile Christians observe Jewish laws, including circumcision, and they were teaching that to become a Christian one also had to convert to Judaism. In his letter to the Romans and the Galatians, Paul persists with his theme that justification is through faith in Christ and not through the observance of Jewish Laws. Paul’s insistence of salvation by faith alone stems from his own, personal experience of Judaism and his long, frustrating battle with Judaisers who were continually trying to undermine Paul’s ministry and teaching. (Nystrom 1997:159)
For Paul, erga means observing Jewish laws. For James, however, erga are the deeds of faith. They are using the same word but speaking about entirely different kinds of works. Yet Paul acknowledges that true, saving faith and good works go together. He follows up his well-known verse of salvation through faith in Ephesians 2:8-9 with, “We have been created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand” (Eph. 2:10). Several times in his letters, Paul exhorts his readers to live lives worthy of God (Eph. 4:1ff; Phil. 1:27; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:12). This involves putting faith into action and “bearing fruit in every good work” (Col. 1:10).
Section Four: Rahab’s Faith – James 2:25-26
In the fourth section of our passage, James uses the example of Rahab to further reinforce his case. Rahab was a pagan prostitute who had heard about the exploits of the true and powerful God of Israel, and at some point her “hearing” had developed into real faith. God saw her faith and apparently guided the Israelite spies to meet up with her. Rahab took a risk and welcomed the spies into her home, offering them shelter and safety in a hostile city. She hid them when the king’s men came looking for them and she helped the spies to escape. Her declaration in Joshua 2:9-11 shows that she had a deep faith in God: “… for the LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath” (Josh. 2:11). Rahab knew that her salvation rested with the God of the Israelites, and she bravely and astutely took the opportunity to act on her faith by helping the Israelite cause. Her courageous faith enabled the salvation of her entire family. Moreover, she was welcomed into the community of God’s people, Israel, even becoming an ancestor of King David and Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:1,5-6,16). This faith hero (Heb. 11:31) who offered hospitality to her city’s enemies is held in very high esteem by the Jews.
The Greek word for “save” (sōzō), used in James 2:14 (“Can such faith save them?”) can mean to deliver, rescue, heal or keep safe, etc, and is used 106 times in the NT. (Trenchard 1998:106) Our healing, deliverance, and salvation can all be attributed to Jesus’ redemptive act on the cross. Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, we have received the gift of eternal life, we have been adopted as God’s children, we now have access to the Father, and we have been transferred into his Kingdom of light. This wonderful, comprehensive and complete salvation is appropriated only by an abiding and active faith in Jesus Christ – saving faith.
James sums up this passage with the statement in verse 26: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” Again James insists that faith without works is dead (cf. Jas 2:17). Motyer (1985:110) points out that “unity of the body and spirit is required for life, and so there must be unity of faith and works.” Motyer goes on to quote A. Barnes as saying, “There is as much necessity that faith and works should be united to constitute true religion, as there is that the body and soul should be united to constitute a living man.” Saving faith is a living faith.
The theme of faith runs throughout James’s letter. “If we look right back at the beginning of the letter, James 1:2-3 pictures life as an arena in which faith faces the tests of experience; and if we look on to the end, 5:15 teaches us about the prayer which proceeds from faith. Faith is God’s foundational gift (Jas 2:5).” (Motyer 1985:106) This true, saving faith will have an active expression and a practical demonstration. James took up his pen to exhort his beloved brothers and sisters to put their gift of faith into action with compassionate deeds and to follow the examples of Abraham and Rahab who courageously demonstrated their trust in God.
 The words New Testament will be hereafter abbreviated as NT.
 Scriptures which indicate that James, the brother of Jesus, (also known as James “the Just”–ho dikaios) was the leader of the early church in Jerusalem: Acts 12:17; 15:13ff; 21:18; Gal. 1:18-19; 2:9 & 12. See also 1 Cor. 15:5-7. The author of the epistle of James, however, never acknowledges his role as the leader of the Jerusalem church or his relationship to Jesus in this letter.
 “There is ample evidence that James belongs to the world of the earliest forms of the Christian faith . . . James is fully at home in the world of Judaism. While this book is unquestionably a Christian one, its roots in Judaism are virile and deep.” (Nystrom 1997:18)
 Fee and Stuart (1998:47) regard this letter as being the closest thing in the New Testament to a true epistle because it lacks particular addressees, any personal notes or the usual final greeting and farewell, and so it can be used as a tract for the whole church.
 Johnson (1998:177) notes that:
The prayer of faith in 1:5-7 is advocated more elaborately in 5:13-18; the reversal of fortunes of the rich and poor in 1:9-10 is developed by 2:1-6 and 4:13-5:6; the theme of enduring testing in 1:2-4,12 is found further in 5:7-11; the contrast between the wicked desire and God’s gift in 1:12-18 is argued for extensively in 3:13-4:10; and the use of the tongue in 1:19-20 is picked up by the essay in 3:1-12; the necessity of acting out religious convictions in 1:22-27 is elaborated by the essay in 2:14-26.
 The name of Jesus is only mentioned twice by James in 1:1 and 2:1.
 Verses from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and from James that share similar ideas: Matt. 5:12 cf. Jas 1:2; Matt. 7:24ff cf. Jas 1:22 & 25; Matt. 5:43 cf. Jas 2:8; Matt. 5:19 cf. Jas 2:10; Matt. 5:7 cf. Jas 2:13; Matt. 5:22 cf. Jas 3:5; Matt. 7:16 cf. Jas 3:12; Matt. 6:34 cf. Jas 4:13; Matt. 5:9 cf. Jas 4:18; Matt. 6:19-21 cf. Jas 5:1-3; Matt. 5:34-37 cf. Jas 5:12; etc.
 Verses from Proverbs and from James that share similar ideas: Prov. 2:6-7 cf. Jas 1:5; Prov. 11:28 cf. Jas 3:2; Prov. 10:19 cf. Jas 3:2; Prov. 14:17, 9; 15:19 cf. Jas 1:19-20; Prov. 14:31 cf. Jas 1:27; etc.
 See James 4:4; 4:8b-10; 5:1-6. Johnson (1995:32) writes:
James shows himself to be a worthy heir of the prophetic voice in its outspoken attack on a ‘friendship with the world’ that is in reality an ‘enmity with God.’ The use of ‘adulteresses’. . . echoes the prophetic tradition of symbolising the relationship between Yahweh and the people in terms of a marriage covenant.
 The Greek word adelphoi usually refers to Christian men and women in the New Testament and is typically translated as “brothers and sisters” in most modern English translations. “My brothers and sisters” is used in James 1:2; 2:1, 14; 3:1,10,12; 5:12,19; “my beloved brothers and sisters” in James 1:16, 19; 2:5; and “brothers and sisters” in James 1:9; 2:15; 4:11; 5:7, 9, 10.
 In the Greek, “if the question begins with μη the speaker expects a negative answer.” Mounce (2003: 296)
 R. Bultman (1985:854-5) explains the Christian usage of pistis:
Especially when used with eis, pistis is saving acceptance of Christ’s work as proclaimed in the gospel. This includes believing, obeying, trusting, hoping, and being faithful, but it is primarily faith in Christ . . . Believing eis Christ involves a personal relationship . . . Faith . . . is trust in God’s eschatological act in Christ and hope for the consummation of the work that God has thus begun . . . faith involves confession and obedience, it is a state as well as an act.
 The faith of some of Jesus’ disciples did not endure to salvation (John 6:66), and the faith of the demons does not result in salvation (Jas 2:19).
 This is one of the few instances in the NT where the female equivalent of adelphos, adelphē, designating a female member of the community, appears (see also Phm. 2; 1 Tim. 5:2; 1 Cor. 7:15; 9:5; Rom. 16:1).
 “Go in peace, warm yourself and fill yourself” are all in the imperative. It is unclear whether thermainethe and chortazesthe are middle or passive. I have chosen to translate it as middle.
 Nystrom (1997:25) writes:
In the ancient world more than 90 percent of the population qualified as ‘poor’ . . . the few who had wealth exercised power over the many who did not. . . As a result of the [Jewish] national experience of exile and the admonitions of the great prophets . . . the poor came to be seen as ‘the righteous’ because they had no other recourse than to rely on God. . . , The poor were considered innocent sufferers, especially at that hands of the unfeeling rich (see James 5:4), and God is portrayed as [their] defender. . .
 This use of a hypothetical antagonist to assist in presenting an argument was common in ancient Greece and the rhetorical form was called diatribe. The Greek “philosophers and teachers would anticipate the questions and comments of the listener and seek to answer them” using diatribe. (Bailey 1987:53)
 The grammatical difficulties in verse 18 are beyond the scope of this essay. I prefer the NIV’s and RSV’s translation that has James resuming the dialogue halfway through verse 18 in response to a fictional opponent.
 The Shema is taken from Deuteronomy 6:4. 6:5 follows with “and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” This is the response of true faith and genuine belief in God, not the hopeless fear and shuddering of damned demons.
Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (including the Shema) when speaking about the greatest commandment and follows it with, “Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these” ( Mark 12:28-31). Genuine love for God and for people signifies true faith.
 Cognates of the verb dikaiō are used seventeen times by Paul in his letter to the Romans and fourteen times in his letter to the Galatians.
 Abraham may have understood that his future seed/offspring would bring redemption into the world and so, in fact, Abraham already had saving faith in the promised saviour – Jesus Christ. (See Galatians 3:16-19.) Isaac was the immediate fulfilment of God’s promise, but this promise also looked forward to Jesus, who was also the seed/offspring of Abraham.
 “Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing/proving of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-3.
 “’Friend of God’ [is] a term associated in the Old Testament with Moses and in Jewish thought with Abraham (Exod. 33:11; 2 Chron. 20:7; Jas 2:23).” (Achtemeier 2001:499)
 Jesus also calls us his friends if we do what he commands (John 15:14ff).
 See also Philippians 3:2-10.
 Romans 10:17 says that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.
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Bailey, L., Prate, Prattle or Preach. (Melbourne: JBCE, 1987)
Bertram, G., “Ergon”, Kittel, Gerhard, & Friedrich, Gerhard, (eds). Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985)
Bultman, R., “Pisteuo”, Kittel, Gerhard, & Friedrich, Gerhard, (eds). Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985)
Elwell, Walter A. & Yarbrough, Robert W., Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998)
Fee, Gordon D. & Stuart, Douglas, How to Read the Bible for all its Worth, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993)
Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Letter of James (New York: Abingdon, 1995)
_____________ The Letter of James (Vol 12, New Interpreter’s Bible) Keck, L.E. (ed) (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998)
Laws, Sophie, A Commentary on the Epistle of James (London: A & C Black, 1980)
Martin, Ralph P., James (WBC) (Waco: Word, 1988)
Motyer, J.A., The Message of James (BST) (Leicester: IVP, 1985)
Mounce, William D., Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003)
Nystrom, David P., James (NIV Application Series) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
Trenchard, Warren C., Complete Vocabulary Guide to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998)
© 5th of December 2008, Margaret Mowczko
Scenes from the life of Abraham in San Vitale in the Italian city Ravenna (Wikimedia)