As we are preparing to move to another state, I have been quite busy and have neglected posting on this blog. For that I apologize. I pick up here with a look at a portion of the word that I believe is in great need of proper interpretation.
In 2:14, James writes “What is the profit my brothers, if anyone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” Then in verse 24 he adds, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith only.” It has appeared to me over the years that this portion of the New Testament has been greatly misunderstood and misused by many true believers in Christ. I believe the reason is threefold: 1) not adequately knowing the writer and the recipients of this letter, 2) not paying attention to the context of this portion, and 3) the unwillingness to accept the fact that “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not of yourselves; it is the gift of God; not of works that no one should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
The Writer and the Recipients:
It is generally accepted that the writer of this letter was James, the flesh brother of Jesus (Matt. 13:55), and not James, the son of Zebedee (Matt. 4:21), one of the original twelve apostles, nor James the son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:3). He later became an apostle (Gal. 1:19), and one of the leading elders in the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:2, 13; 21:18). Most also agree that the time of writing was somewhere around 45 to 50 A.D. [Note: This would have been before any of the writings of the apostle Paul.]
James, having been a flesh brother of Jesus, was a Jew who became a Christian through faith in the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, it may be helpful to understand something of the struggle that was taking place within the church around the time of James’ writing concerning the clear distinction between the old covenant and the new covenant. To do so, I would now like to insert a portion of the Bible from Acts 15:1-21 and Galatians 2:11-14:
And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren. And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” Then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles. And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, “Men and brethren, listen to me: Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written: ‘ After this I will return and will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up; so that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD, even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the LORD who does all these things.’ Known to God from eternity are all His works. Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (Acts 15:1-21).
Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I (Paul) withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews (Gal. 2:11-14)?
It is not difficult to see or understand the struggle that was going on at this time. I have added the highlights to emphasize the clarity and simplicity of the gospel versus the Jewish influence that was still with some of the apostles. Martin Luther denied that the Book of James was the work of an apostle and called it an “epistle of straw”. I don’t believe we should go that far because “all Scripture is God-breathed” (II Tim. 3:16). At the same time, the Bible itself teaches us that there was a time when some of the leaders in the early church were still having a hard time completely doing away with the old covenant, that which was “becoming old and growing decrepit and near to disappearing” (Heb. 8:13). Accepting this may help us to understand why James wrote as he did and also to receive and enjoy his epistle for the purpose that God intended.
James writes to the “twelve tribes in dispersion”. He is not writing to the church in general as Paul did in most of his writings, but specifically to the Jews who had become Christians and were scattered throughout the nations. Much of the tone of this book is that of warning and even rebuke, probably out of James’ concern that having became Christians through faith in Christ, they were not living and walking according to their new life nor manifesting its fruit.
To study God’s word rightly, it is always important to look at a given portion within the context in which it was written. There is a tendency for us to sometimes read a part of the Bible and decide what it means neglecting the verses which led to it and those that follow. This quite often leads to error.
In chapter two, James gave warning concerning the respecting of certain people over others, making distinctions based upon personal preferences, and called this sin. He warns that this kind of judgment of others could bring judgment upon themselves and then follows with “What is the profit my brothers, if anyone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” Herein lies the contextual problem: as soon as we hear the language of “faith” and “save”, we think of our initial entrance into God’s kingdom by God’s Spirit entering our spirit through regenerating faith. The question is not can we be saved by grace through faith alone at the time we first turned our heart to the Lord and were born of the Spirit based upon the perfect work of redemption accomplished by Christ on the cross. This is made more than clear in too many other portions of God’s word (see the last section: “Saved By Grace Through Faith”). The point here is “judgment being without mercy to him who has shown no mercy”. In chapter 14 of the Book of Romans, the apostle Paul also deals with this same matter of judgment upon those who judge others. Then, starting with verse ten he says, “But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written: ‘As I live, says the LORD, every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God’. So then each of us shall give account of himself to God” (vv. 10-12). Although our eternity with God is secure based upon our faith in Christ and His perfect redemptive work, there will still be a time of judgment at the judgment seat of Christ at His second coming, in which the believers will be judged according to how they lived as children of God. We will all “give an account” of ourselves to God. In Revelation 22:12, the Lord Himself says, “Behold, I come quickly, and My reward is with Me to render to each one as his WORK is.” In First Corinthians chapter three, Paul writes of a “saved, yet so as through fire”, regarding Christians who are attempting to use the wrong materials in building up the church (vv. 12-15). In summary, our initial regenerating faith in Jesus Christ gives us eternal life and guarantees our eternity with God. But it is our living by faith, a life of faith, that will render a “well done good and faithful servant” when our master returns.
James is not discussing the initial regenerating faith of the saints, but faith in action, a living faith, a useful faith, a fruitful faith, a faith that produces works, works of faith. It is a practical and practiced faith that gives when there is a need (vv. 15-16), acts in absolute obedience to God even when it seems to be most unreasonable (vv. 21-23), and chooses to care for the interests of God’s kingdom over their own (v. 25). It is a faith that makes us right with God (righteous, justified) not only positionally and for eternity, but in our daily life with all of its choices and activities. It is a work-producing faith, a faith that works together with works that perfect our faith (v. 22). In this sense, we are justified by faith and works, that is, works of faith.
God desires and intends that His children would not only enter into His kingdom by faith, but would also daily and moment by moment live, move, and act in it by faith. The apostle Paul said, “We believe, therefore we speak” (II Cor. 4:13b). Are we able to speak to others of the salvation which is in Jesus only? Do we have much to say in the meetings of the church? Or are we able to chatter endlessly about many other things and become silent when it comes to divine and eternal things and ministering to one another for building up? If so, it may be that our faith is not a very living, operational faith. There is a whole chapter in the Bible that speaks of those who acted by faith. By faith so and so did this and by faith so and so did that. Ask yourself, by faith, what have you done? What are you now doing by faith? Paul said, “We walk by faith, not by appearance” (II Cor. 5:7). Could we honestly say that our lives are characterized by a walk of faith action, verses a walk of appearance responses? Are we building our lives upon deceptive sinking sand or dependable water walking? Do we have mountain moving faith or are we being hindered from following the Lord by mountains? Should not we all be included in the “faith chapter”? I encourage you to take some time to soberly consider that by faith, what have you done, and by faith, what are you doing. If you come up short, go to the Lord and confess. Go to Him and be filled. Go to Him and remain in Him and start practically living and walking by a faith that produces and results in God glorifying works.
One last note before I conclude with the last section. As James goes on from this matter of faith and works, in the very next verse he again talks about judgment: “Do not become many teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive greater judgment” (3:1). Verses 14 through 26 are sandwiched between two verses regarding judgment. We should now be able to somewhat understand this portion of the word having studied it according to its context.
Saved By Grace Through Faith:
It is unfortunate that some would misunderstand and misuse this portion of James at the great expense of denying the wonderful fact that our initial salvation and our eternity with God is completely based upon the perfect redemptive work of Christ on the cross and our receiving this free gift by grace through faith. In order that we may never confuse this matter with James 2:14-26, I now conclude this study with some of the many wonderful verses regarding the way of salvation as a free gift through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.
He who believes and is baptized will be saved. (Mark 16:16a)
Then He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” (Luke 7:50)
Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. (Luke 8:12)
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. (John 3:16-17)
And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. (Acts 2:21)
But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they. (Acts 15:11)
And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:30-31)
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes. (Rom. 1:16)
What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness. (Rom. 4:1-5)
He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. And therefore “it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification. (Rom. 4:20-25)
That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For “whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” (Rom. 10:9-10, 13)
Even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved). For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Eph. 2:5, 8-9)
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began. (II Tim. 1:8-9)
But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:4-5)
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