Notes from a house group study on James 2v14-26:
v14 – “someone says he has faith” – not “someone has faith” – so there’s doubt over whether this person actually has faith.
“Can that faith save him?” – so there’s doubt over whether this person’s so-called “faith” can save him. There’s something wrong with his faith. Perhaps it’s not true faith at all. It seems that most of the times the word “faith” appears in this passage it refers to so-called “faith”, not genuine faith.
So I think the point of this passage is to show the difference between an outward profession of faith, and the kind of faith that saves (the kind of faith that Abraham and Rahab had).
In v15 James diagnoses dead faith if someone doesn’t help a brother or sister in need, but then the examples he gives of healthy faith are Abraham and Rahab. He doesn’t say “look how much Abraham and Rahab helped people with clothing and food”. Abraham’s faith was demonstrated in his willingness to sacrifice his son, and Rahab risked her own safety to help Israelite spies. They both took risks based on their faith in God. They did things that would’ve been crazy if they didn’t believe God would come through for them.
There’s a vital link between believing and doing. If you don’t care for the poor, James says you evidently don’t have the kind of faith in God that Abraham and Rahab had.
It’s not just a case of “if you’re a Christian, you have a duty to help those in need”. If you profess faith, but you only want to help the poor in theory, not in practice, then your faith is broken. It’s not just that you’re selfish or lazy or whatever, you have a problem with unbelief.
The remedy for unbelief is not to try to make up for our lack of genuine faith with some good deeds. We need to try to identify which of God’s promises we’re lacking faith in, and ask God to forgive our unbelief and help us to believe.
v15-16 – What was wrong with this person’s faith in this situation? Did they not believe that obeying God’s command to take care of the poor would ultimately make them happy, and think they’d be happier keeping the food and clothing for themselves? Did they not believe that their own wealth was a gift from God? Did they think that brother or sister had got themselves into difficulty, and it was up to them to work their own way out of poverty? Did they have very little food themselves, and worry that if they gave some to this brother or sister they wouldn’t have any left for themselves tomorrow? Did they not have faith that God would provide for them tomorrow?
v17 – If faith is by itself, it’s dead – it doesn’t just need some works added to it, it needs to be brought to life.
v18 – James anticipates an objection. Someone will say it’s possible to have either faith or works separately. I hadn’t noticed this before I started preparing for this evening: since James is saying that faith without works is dead, you’d expect that the objection he anticipates to be “you have works and I have faith”, but it’s the other way round.
So I wonder if James is making another point here that I haven’t been able to get my head around.
A literal translation of the rest of the verse is “show me your faith out of your works, and I will show you out of my works my faith”.
v19 – Believing all the right doctrine doesn’t equal the kind of faith that saves us.
v20 – I find it interesting that James uses the word foolish. Paul asks the Galatians “are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” And James is dealing with the opposite extreme, writing to foolish people who think just believing all the correct information about God will save them, even though it hasn’t transformed their hearts and therefore their behaviour.
v22 – Real faith is active. In fact, faith is incomplete until it results in action.
On the one hand, we mustn’t skip over getting a real understanding of the gospel and try to go straight to changing outward behaviour (and we should find that, as we study the gospel, it motivates us to want to do good works for those in need). It won’t do any good to try to do the works without having real faith first. But on the other hand, it would be wrong to excuse lack of obedience based on our doubts. If I’m in a situation where I know the right thing to do, but it’s risky in some way and I feel like I’m lacking the faith to take that risk, I shouldn’t not obey until I have complete confidence in the outcome. If I knew the outcome, I wouldn’t be exercising faith in God. So faithful obedience doesn’t mean we don’t have any lingering doubts, it means we obey on the basis that we know at least in theory that God can be relied upon to keep his promises, and we’re putting that theory to the test.
So I think we’re supposed to bring what little faith we do have to completion/maturity by acting on it and doing what God commands even though we don’t really feel like it, or understand why, or know what the outcome will be.
v26 – James seems to have got his illustration the wrong way round again. The body is obviously external, and the spirit is internal. But isn’t faith internal and works external? I think the word “faith” here must mean an external show of religion, which is useless if our hearts haven’t been transformed to begin to do the kinds of works that genuine faith in God always produces.