Tag Archives: Faith

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:26

James 2:26
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

In this final verse of the chapter James reiterates with another metaphor the same point he has been making all along in this section: that a workless faith does not “work,” it cannot save, it is dead. He begins with a common anthropological image: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead” (Hōsper gar to sōma chōris pneumatos nekron estin). It is possible to translate pneumatos as “breath” in which case James is stating a simple biological fact. Most English translations render the term as “spirit,” drawing on familiar biblical imagery that assumes that the spirit animates and gives life to the body (so McKnight, 258). The point of the verse, however, is neither biology nor anthropology but the relation of faith and works.

Thus, just as the body without the spirit is dead and lifeless, “so faith without works is also dead” (houtōs kai hē pistis chōris ergon nekra estin)—lifeless, unproductive and impotent. The faith of which James speaks is “that faith” of verse 14, the faith which is faith only as confession in verse 19, the workless faith of verse 20, faith which is alone in verse 24. This is not faith at all in its true New Testament sense. True faith, for James, is inseparable from works of obedience toward God and mercy toward others. The faith which we rest in the good and generous God, calls forth a similar character in those who believe, such that their lives too, become good and generous toward others.

Psalm 20 – A Sermon

This week we celebrate ANZAC day, remembering the Australian servicemen and service-women who have fought and served in other conflicts. Two years ago it was the centenary of the Gallipoli landing, and the year before that, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the decisive victory against a devastating and ruthless enemy. What might have happened if that victory had not occurred? One Australian survivor of D-Day was Bob Cowper from Adelaide. Cowper had been a Mosquito pilot, helping keep the skies clear above the massive landing fleet. “It was the greatest military operation in the world’s history,” he said. “To think that we fought the battle that made the world a safer place was very satisfying” (“Our Australian Witnesses to the D-Day Horror” Weekend Australian, May 31, 2014, 20). Many others, of course, were not so fortunate and the article tells some of the stories of those who did not return from the battle.

In some indefinable way, our soldiers who have gone before us represent us, whether for good or for evil. We remember this representation at ANZAC day. In some very real way, we are tied up with them, all in it together. And it remains a very real question: if they did not do what they did, could we, would we be who we are?

For Israel, too, battles were a fact and necessity of life. Psalm 20 has its genesis in the reality of battles and enemies. This brief psalm is a wonderfully positive benediction which masks, perhaps, the dire circumstances presupposed. An enemy, equipped with chariots and horses—the best military equipment of the day—has drawn near. The king and his soldiers are prepared for battle. Sacrifices have been offered, and now the people add their benediction (vv.1-5). The king responds with assurance in verse 6. Then the people declare their trust in God in vv. 7-8, and conclude with an urgent cry for victory in verse 9.

Reading the Psalm (vv. 1-5)

The Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
The name of the God of Jacob protect you!
May he send you help from the sanctuary, and give you support from Zion.
May he remember all your offerings, and regard with favour your burnt sacrifices. Selah
May he grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfil all your plans.
May we shout for joy over your victory, 
and in the name of our God set up our banners. 
May the Lord fulfil all your petitions.

Eleven times the word You or Your appears in the singular: these first five verses constitute a wonderful benediction of the people toward the king. They are pronouncing a blessing of divine victory upon the king before he goes to battle. And why? Because his victory is their victory; his defeat, theirs. He represents the whole nation and their destiny is intertwined: they are all in this together. Their nine blessings (or is it eleven?) all point to a comprehensive victory against their enemy.

Note these nine blessings, and also see the chiastic pattern formed by them.

1a / 5c … The Lord answer you / fulfil all your petitions
1b / 5ab … The Name of the Lord protect you / The Name of the Lord
2 / 4 … May he send you help and support you / May he grant you your heart’s desire and fulfil all your plans
3 … May he remember all your offerings and regard with favour your burnt sacrifices.

The central strophe of the pattern highlights that which is central: that at the heart of this blessing is a recognition of covenant faithfulness toward God represented by a life of worship and devotion. “May he remember all your offerings.”

David comes to the present crisis with a long history of love and devotion to God. What we do day by day in times of peace prepares us for times of war. When our devotional life is a habit we are well served for battle (Williams, Psalms 1-72 Communicator’s Commentary, 160).

What does it mean to be “battle-ready?” Are you dressed for battle in the armour of God? Do you have a history of devotion with God, a history of faith and prayer, worship and love? Worship and warfare seem like the most unlikely companions, but in God’s kingdom, in spiritual warfare, they go together.

The commentators suggest that the verbs in this passage are in an unusual tense they call the prophetic perfect. That is, the words pronounce a blessing which is still in the future, still yet to happen, but so sure and certain, they speak of it as though it is already accomplished. Then in verse 9 they will cry out to God in an explicit prayer for victory, “Save, O Lord! Give victory!” But this does not contradict the faith-filled benediction of these opening verses. Faith works both ways.

Mark 11:22-25                                                         
Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’

In this text Jesus teaches two complementary operations of faith: faith by saying it, and faith by praying it. The first is an exercise of spiritual authority, a faith-filled or prophetic pronouncement. The second is simply a classic form of prayer. Sometimes faith is exercised by an authoritative declaration or command, sometimes by petition to God.

In this psalm the congregation exercise faith in both ways. I wonder how much boldness it would have taken to declare victory in the face of such a fearsome enemy, equipped with horses and chariots? This is all the more so when we remember that Israel’s king was forbidden to multiply horses and chariots (Deut 17:16). But they do declare this blessing and in so doing, look forward to God’s blessing, God’s help and salvation.

Psalm 20:6-9
Now I know that the Lord will help his anointed;
    he will answer him from his holy heaven
    with mighty victories by his right hand.
Some boast in chariots, and some in horses,
    but we will boast in the name of the Lord our God.
They will collapse and fall,
    but we shall rise and stand upright.

Give victory O Lord;
    May the King answer us in the day we call. (NASB)

Note: many versions translate verse 9: “O Lord, save the king!
May he answer us when we call” (see, e.g., ESV; NIV; NRSV)

Verse six is the king’s response to this blessing, his agreement with this blessing. Verses seven and eight return to the corporate voice, affirming their trust in God. Notice, again, the third mention of the Name of the Lord. To boast in the name of the Lord is to make mention of his name, to remember, invoke or proclaim his name.

The Name of the Lord represents his own person and presence, character and authority. To have faith in his name is to recognise our relationship with God—at his initiative—including his claim on us. Jesus authorises us to pray in his name (John 16:23-24). Proverbs 18:10 says that “the name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runs into it and is safe.” David went out against Goliath in the name of the Lord (1 Samuel 17:45).

Is it true that God will give us whatever our heart desires, whatever we ask for “in his name”? To ask in his name is to ask in accordance with his person and character. The promise that God would grant David’s heart’s desire was made to someone whose heart was aligned with God’s in sacrifice, devotion and worship. He had a heart after God’s own.

The psalm ends with an explicit petition for victory in verse nine. Notice the interplay between the king and the King: behind the earthly ruler stands the heavenly ruler of Israel. Notice, too, that the day of trouble (v. 1) is the day we call (v. 9).

Many commentators believe this psalm represented a liturgy that was practiced regularly in the temple worship. In this liturgy, the reality of the joint destiny of the people of God was enacted.

Battle Ready

Our situation, of course, is vastly different to that of ancient Israel, and it is not likely that we will face the same kind of battle conditions they did. Nonetheless, the psalm still speaks to the reality of our lives: life is a battle. For some people it is more of a battle than for others. All of us, though, are likely to be drawn into various kinds of battles where our life or our sanity, our work or our witness, our future or our family is threatened by powers and circumstances external to us, perhaps stronger than us. Christian life and ministry is a battle, a never-ending engagement with principalities and powers and rulers of the darkness of this world (Ephesians 6:10-12). Maintaining a faithful marriage or sexual purity may prove a great battle for some. Raising our children, paying our bills, maintaining a gentle spirit in the face of provocation—these and much more can be a great battle. What are you battling? You’ve heard of Howard’s battlers; Christians can be battlers too.  How, then, does this psalm help us become “battle ready”?

  1. This psalm will remind us that we are in a spiritual battle and thus need to grow in our understanding of the various weapons of our warfare (2 Corinthians 10:3-5), the ways of faith and spiritual authority (1 Peter 5:8-9). We should develop our faith in the name of Jesus until it truly becomes for us “a high tower” of safety and refuge in times of trouble.
  2. Worship and warfare belong together. We have already mentioned the necessity and centrality of worship and devotion. If we want the Lord to answer us in the day of trouble, we must call upon his name. It is much easier to do so when we are already on speaking terms, in good relationship.
  3. We are all in this together, and we will stand or fall together. This is especially true of families and of churches. The people depended on the king and the armies; the king and the army depended on the people. We need each other because we are inter-dependent. We need each other’s faithfulness, steadfastness, devotion, faith, prayer and blessing. That this psalm was preserved, that it became part of the temple worship collection suggests that the corporate gathering, prayer and faith of the people was absolutely crucial.
  4. Behind the king is the King. God is with us – “at the heart of Hebrew theology lay the conviction that God was involved in their historical experience” (Craigie, Psalms 1-50 WBC, 188). Jesus is our king, and he has gone into battle on our behalf, and has won the decisive victory. We still face fierce battles, mopping-up battles, but he is with us; and as we go forth in his name, victory is assured – Hallelujah!

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:24

James 2:24
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

With this verse the illustration concerning Abraham is concluded and James universalises and applies his argument. “You see” (horate) is second-person plural and marks a transition from James’s argument with his imaginary interlocutor, to him addressing his listeners as a whole. His conclusion makes two assertions, the one positive and the other negative (McKnight, 255). The positive conclusion is: “you see that a person is justified by works.” James emphasises the works by placing them before the verb: hoti ex ergōn dikaioutai anthrōpοs (literally, “that out of works, a person is justified”). This picks up the language of verse 21 where James has previously argued that Abraham was “justified by works.” The negative conclusion follows: “and not by faith alone” (kai ouk ek pisteōs monon).

The supposed contradiction between James and Paul is sharpest with this verse, where James appears to directly contradict what Paul asserts in Romans 3:20, 28:

For by works of the law no one will be justified in his sight … For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Moo argues correctly that Paul would wholeheartedly agree with James concerning his argument “not by faith alone,” but that “it is impossible to imagine Paul saying, ‘a man is justified by works’” (Moo, 115). Once more, however, we must insist that Paul and James are engaged in different arguments due to the different circumstances each is facing. Paul speaks of the beginning of the Christian life, of the initial justification of sinners by grace through faith—without works “of the law.” One’s obedience to the law’s dictates, especially the so-called “boundary markers” of Judaism by which one might be considered “in,” provide no basis for justification. Further, the faith spoken of by Paul is steadfast faith in God through Christ. This faith is not antithetical to works, and will indeed issue in all kinds of works, though these works are the expression of the faith by which the person has been saved.

James, in contrast, is arguing against what may be considered a distortion of Paul’s teaching, whereby one considers that an intellectual commitment to monotheism is sufficient to please God. Further, he is speaking not of initial justification but of final judgement, in which one’s works demonstrate the reality of one’s faith. Nor is James saying that one is saved by the works “of the law,” although his overarching use of works may include obedience to the Torah as it was mediated to the messianic community through Jesus. His emphasis in the chapter as a whole is on works of mercy toward the poor, and obedience toward God.

The key to the verse is the little word “alone” (monon). Justifying faith is never “alone,” but comes to expression in action. The problem with the position set forth by the interlocutor is that faith is separated from works and considered sufficient and complete without works. Faith, however, is a whole-of-life reality, engaging the whole person in response to God, and so cannot be limited to a cognitive or confessional commitment that does not issue in a whole-of-life response to the will and ways of God. Such “faith” is not faith at all, does not justify, cannot save, and is dead.

We must also be clear that works are not “added” to faith, as though the two ideas were separable. Rather, works of obedience and mercy are the way in which faith becomes visible in one’s life and in the world, and so is shown to be faith. Scot McKnight provides excellent insight into the relation of faith and works, while arguing that we allow the biblical text itself to lead the way we think of this relation, rather than forcing it to conform to a predetermined theological conviction:

I see a tendency, which seems to me to be a subtle attempt to let the Reformation have too much influence on exegesis, to prefer this formula: faith is demonstrated by works. What this does is salvage faith as the sine qua non of salvation. which may well be sound theology, but it lacks the nuance of James. (Some have argued that it is James who lacks the nuance and is in need of help.) Instead of locking into the term “demonstration,” I suggest we use each of the four terms James himself uses, and I suggest we use these terms liberally:

Works show faith (2:18).          
Faith works with works (2.22a).
Faith is perfected by works (2.22b).      

Works fulfill faith (2.23).          

While we may be most comfortable with the first and least comfortable with the second, both the third and fourth are instances as much, if not more, of the second as of the first. Yes, works demonstrate faith, but they also perfect and fulfill faith and, as James goes to great pains to emphasize, the two work together to produce a working faith that saves. His emphasis is on their inseparability, not on distinguishing them or on their sequential relationship (McKnight, 244, original emphasis).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:23

JamesJames 2:23
Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God. 

James now brings his illustration of Abraham justified on account of his works to its climax. His obedience in the “binding” (Aqedah) of Isaac constitutes the fulfilling of Genesis 15:6 which says that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Episteusen de Abraam tō theō, kai elogisthē auto eis dikaiosunēn).

James cites the LXX version of this text, as Paul does in Romans 4:3; the two citations are identical, even including the added de. That both authors use the same text indicates its significance in early Christianity, although they are using it differently, as we noted in our comment on verse 21. Genesis 15 records a visionary encounter Abraham experienced, in which he is allowed to dialogue with God. Abraham complains: what is the point of God’s promise of blessing if he has no heir to pass the blessing onto? God leads Abraham to view the starry night sky and says, “See the number of the stars? So shall your offspring be” (v. 5). Verse six, then, is the verse cited by James (and Paul) about Abraham’s faith and his being regarded righteous by God.

Paul uses this text to show that Abraham was justified by God solely on the basis of his faith, prior to his receiving the sign of circumcision. James, however, in a manner not unlike that common in Judaism, sees in this statement “a type of timeless sentence written over the life of Abraham” (Davids, 129). That is, God’s justification of Abraham is not limited to this occasion, but is a summary of God’s attitude toward Abraham on the basis of his whole life. Indeed, Davids suggests that the deliverance Abraham (or more correctly, Isaac) received in Genesis 22, was a reward for his prior works of righteousness, understood in terms of hospitality and mercy (130). Although Davids’s first point has merit, his second seems unlikely.

In what sense, then, are we to understand the first part of James’s verse: “Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says…” (kai eplērōthē hē graphē hē legousa). The key term here is eplērōthē (“fulfilled”) which is sometimes used in the New Testament to describe an Old Testament passage finding its “fulfilment” in the New Testament. That is, the Old Testament passage may be seen (a) as a prophecy that has come to pass, or (b) as a text that has deeper meaning and more enduring significance in the light of the coming of Jesus. Neither of these possibilities fit the context here.

Moo suggests that James sees the Genesis 15:6 text “fulfilled” in Genesis 22 in terms of confirmation and validation. That is, Abraham was truly counted righteous by God on account of his faith in Genesis 15, and his subsequent obedience in Genesis 22 demonstrates the validity of this divine judgement.

The initial declaration of righteousness on the basis of faith is given its ultimate meaning and validity through the final declaration of righteousness on the basis a ‘faith that works’ (Moo, 114).

Like Davids, Moo understands James as citing the verse “as a ‘motto’ standing over all of Abraham’s life” (114).

McKnight’s view differs again. Noting that “fulfilled” can mean to “fill up” and so to have a similar sense to “perfected” in verse 22, he sees James referring not to the Scripture itself being fulfilled in Genesis 22, but to what the Scripture says being fulfilled. That is, it is Abraham’s faith that is fulfilled—perfected—in the test of Genesis 22.

Thus, the Aqedah brings to full completion the faith Abraham exercised in Genesis 15 when he complained that the promise of a child was unfulfilled. … The faith that trusted YHWH’s word came to completion when Abraham lifted Isaac to the altar (254).

This view does justice to both Genesis 15 and 22, as well as James. In Genesis 15 Abraham believed God’s promise that he would have a child, and through that child, an “astronomical” progeny. In Genesis 22 he offers that child to God still believing God’s ability to bring the promise to pass. Thus James is correct to see the two as linked: the faith with which Abraham trusted God and so was counted righteousness, was not perfected until it was tested. In this way, the statement of Genesis 15 refers not solely to the trust of that chapter, but indeed stands as a declaration over the whole of Abraham’s life, and so includes the works which are the expression of his faith.

“And he was called the friend of God(kai philos theou eklēthē). Again James draws on Jewish tradition generally, and two Old Testament texts specifically (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8) in which Abraham is described as God’s friend. In the first text Jehoshaphat ascribes the term to Abraham (perhaps remembering the covenant ceremony of Genesis 15?). In the second text, God himself refers to Abraham as “my friend.” James’s use of the image of friendship in this context clearly shows that justification should not be understood in merely judicial or legal terms. To be counted righteous is to be brought into a right relationship with God not simply in a legal or judicial sense, but to be brought into a kind of relational closeness and fellowship with God that is best described as friendship. Again, Scot McKnight is helpful here:

To be God’s friend is to be in the people of God…, to be in the right, to be saved, and to be a person who in fellowship with God lives out the life God designs for those on earth (255).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:22

JamesJames 2:22
You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. (NRSV)

You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected. (NASB)

Not only was Abraham justified by works, says James, his faith was perfected or brought to completion by his works. Abraham’s faith included his works; it was a working faith, active, seen, demonstrated and thus shown to be genuine in, through and by his works.

James utilises another play on words in this verse to make his point. Still speaking to his interlocutor (“you see that” – blepeis hoti), James insists that Abraham’s “faith was working with his works” (hē pistis sunērgei tois ergois autou). Or we might say, Abraham’s faith only “worked” because it had works. James goes further: “and as a result of the works (kai ek tōn ergon), faith was perfected” (hē pistis eteleiōthē).

Abraham’s works were the means by which his faith was brought to completion. The NASB here reflects the order of the Greek text, and shows that, as in verse eighteen, James has included another chiastic structure (faith…works…works…faith), again highlighting the inseparability of faith and works. Yet, this verse also shows that while faith and works are inseparable, they may be distinguished (McKnight, 251).

 It is not so simple that we could say first he had faith and then he had works, and once he had both he had what it takes to get salvation. The faith of Abraham, the faith itself, worked itself out in works and it is the faith itself that is completed by works. It was a working faith, not faith plus works (McKnight, 252).

Eteleiōthē indicates that something happened to the faith: it was perfected. The verb can also be interpreted as completed, or made complete, or brought to its intended end. That is, Abraham’s faith only reached its maturity or its goal as it was acted upon by his works. His works, then, were an essential aspect of his faith, and without his works, his faith was incomplete and immature.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:19

JamesJames 2:19
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.

In verse 19 James addresses the opponent introduced in verse 18, the argument still using the second person singular you. Having, in verse 18, denied the argument that faith and works are two different ways in which one can live before God, and having insisted that faith and works belong inseparably together, James now sharpens his point.

“You believe that God is one” (su pisteueis hoti heis estin ho theos). There are numerous variants in the Greek manuscript tradition for this phrase (see McKnight, 233-234, whose partial list includes ten variants), but basically they reduce to two primary ideas: that God is one, or that there is one God. Many commentators prefer the translation “God is one” as the NRSV has it (cf. NIV), though both possibilities amount to the same confession of monotheism.

James appears to affirm this belief: “you do well” (kalōs poieis). This would be hardly surprising given the confession of monotheism was basic in Judaism and Christianity. Further, James uses the same phrase (kalōs poieite) in verse eight to affirm those who keep the royal law of love. Yet the context here suggests that James is being ironic or sarcastic, because he immediately pours scorn on this person’s belief. It is as though James is saying, “You believe that God is one—whoopy doo!” For “even the demons believe…” (kai ta daimonia pisteuousin).

This is a savage piece of rhetoric which cuts the legs out from under his opponent. It is immediately apparent that James views faith in a different way to his interlocutor. Faith is not simply belief; faith is more than belief, even orthodox belief. To believe in the unity of the one God was quite unusual in the ancient polytheistic world, though it formed the foundation of Jewish and Christian spirituality. The belief—which in and of itself is correct—is not yet faith, however. In chapter one we saw that James associates faith with a steadfast and enduring commitment to God. In chapter two we find that faith has implications: one cannot hold “faith” in Jesus Christ and simultaneously hold convictions, attitudes or behaviours that are contrary to Jesus Christ (2:1). That is, faith conforms the believer to its object, and for James, God—the object of faith—is generous (1:5), the God who chooses the poor (2:5). Faith, therefore, is not simply an intellectual acknowledgement of a point of doctrinal truth. Faith involves an existential commitment of the whole person to the person and will of God. Faith is self-involving, drawing the life of the believer into the life and activity of God.

It is clear that James is challenging a sub-biblical and non-Pauline understanding of faith. Both Paul and James—together and the whole New Testament—understand faith to be far more than assent to a doctrinal point. If James is reacting here against a form of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith without works, it is not Paul’s teaching, but a distortion of it that is at issue.

Belief is important: it provides structure and orientation for faith. But faith is more than belief. An orthodox confession, by itself, is not salvific: faith issues in salvation. Faith is oriented toward God and conformed to God. It issues in a life of deeds that image the character of the generous, ever-giving Father of lights.

Thus James asserts that his opponent’s belief is not faith at all. He is no better than the demons who likewise acknowledge the fact of God’s oneness, but who are against God and his work. At least the demons “shudder” (phrissousin)—at least their faith has some consequence, which is more than James can say of his interlocutor!

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:18

JamesJames 2:18
But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

This verse is not as straight-forward as it first appears, although having said that, its point is clear nonetheless. In verses 14-17 James made his very simple point, that faith without works is dead. Such a confession of faith cannot save, nor do any good for the one making the confession. In light of James’ previous discussion of divine judgement, this is very serious indeed. In this verse James insists that faith and works cannot be separated.

“But someone will say” (’all’ erei tis) ‘You have faith, and I have works’ (su pistin echeis, kagō erga echō).

An initial reading of this verse makes it seem as though the “someone” who is speaking is actually James himself, or someone who agrees with his position, because the saying appears to distinguish the speaker (“I”) who has “works” from an opponent (“You”) who has only a faith without works. The problem with this seemingly straight-forward interpretation, however, is that the opening phrase (but someone will say) is a typical rhetorical device in the ancient world to introduce a hypothetical debating partner who takes an opposing position. But it seems that this opponent is echoing James’s view—hence the difficulty in the verse!

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that commentators are unsure where the opponent’s words end: with the simple phrase, “you have faith,” so that James’s response begins with the “I have works.” Or do the opponent’s words include the whole phrase as I have suggested above? Or do they extend to take in the rest of the verse as well?

Most commentators agree that the opponent’s words include the whole phrase as I have it above, and that James’s response begins with the “show me.” But why would an opponent say, “You have faith, and I have works”? Would not an opponent reverse this to say, “I have faith and you have works”?

Again, most contemporary commentators accept a solution suggested by J. B. Mayor in his 1913 commentary, and supported by J. H. Ropes in 1916. Mayor suggested that the pronouns in the first phrase should be understood in a generic and impersonal way so that the verse reads something like, “on the one hand one says … and on the other hand another says” (see the discussion in McKnight, 238). By interpreting the verse in this manner the opponent might be understood to be saying something like, “Well, everyone has a different gift, or a different way of relating to God. Some relate to God simply by faith while others relate to him by works.” In this way the opponent is suggesting that faith and works are two distinct and separable ways of relating to God, and that Christians might choose one way or the other.

James repudiates this view in the strongest terms. He begins by challenging this opponent to “Show me your faith without works” (deixon moi tēn pistin sou chōris tōn ergōn)—an impossibility, since faith is only visible or revealed in the activity it elicits. And in return James will show his opponent by means of his works the faith that he has: “And I by my works will show you my faith” (kagō soi deixō ek tōn ergon mou tēn pistin). Vlachos points out that there is a chiastic structure in this phrase in which James says faith…works … works…faith, rhetorically highlighting the inherent connection he sees between faith and deeds (Vlachos, 93).

In this second half of the verse the same pronouns are used as in the first part, but here they have a specific and personal reference. This is the weakness of the interpretation suggested by most commentators (that is, the interpretation requires that the same pronouns in both parts of the verse need to be interpreted in different ways). Nonetheless, as Moo notes, “In the final analysis, this interpretation has fewer difficulties that the [other options] and should probably be adopted” (Moo, 106). He notes further that “most scholars now adopt this view, although most with some reluctance” (106).

James, then, uses the device of an imaginary debating partner to insist that faith and works are inseparable: there can be no genuine faith that is not also expressed in works. He will sharpen this argument in verse 19.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:17

JamesJames 2:17
So also faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

With this summary statement, James brings his illustration and three rhetorical questions to its climax. What good is it if one says they have faith but do not have works? No good at all—such faith is “dead.” Can that faith save the person? No—such faith is “dead” (nekra estin).

“Dead” faith is lifeless, inoperative and impotent. It has and can have no lasting value, effect or impact. In fact, it is not faith at all. For James, faith must be a living reality in one’s life, vigorous and energetic, issuing in works. Faith cannot be without works (ean mē echē erga) or “by itself” (kath heautēn). Genuine faith so orients the believer to God, that it determines the life of the believer in directions which correspond to the character and activity of God.

We have already seen that, for James, this character may be understood in terms of moral purity and generous compassion (1:26-27). A living faith is accompanied by works—the kind of works James has identified in his illustration: works of love towards others in the congregation, especially the poor; works of mercy in which their bodily needs are cared for.

Unless faith does issue in such works of love, its claim is empty.

For James, then, there is no such thing as a true and living faith which does not produce works. … Works are not an “added extra” any more than breath is an “added extra” to a living body. …

James does not argue for faith instead of works or works instead of faith or even works above faith, but for faith and works. Both are important and must equally be present or else the other alone is “worthless” (Davids, 122, 123).

Finally, we must note once more, that James views the Christian community as a proleptic social manifestation of the “great reversal” which will come to pass at the eschaton (see the post on James 1:9-11). Here and now, in the concrete life of the Christian community, a new social order is to emerge in which poor are dignified as valued and equal members of the community, and their bodily needs are met by those in the community with the means to do so.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:15-16

JamesJames 2:15-16
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? (NRSV)

James now passes onto his third rhetorical question, presenting an illustration, demonstrating that words alone, without deeds that correspond to the words, are empty and useless. Most commentators agree that the illustration is hypothetical, with McKnight referring to it as a “comic example” which “would be humorous if it were not so tragic” (229). Nevertheless, as Davids also suggests (121), the illustration is not one without immediate relevance to the community, and like the illustration in vv. 2-3, may be indicative of attitudes and behaviours which do exist or have occurred in the community.

Like vv. 2-3, the scenario is presented as a two-part hypothetical followed by the question. The first part describes the presence and condition of someone in the assembly whose poverty is indicated by their dress which is not so much shabby (cf. vv. 2-3) as inappropriate for cold weather, and by their lack of daily food. The second part then describes the words and action of another congregational member, before James presses his question. There is a further similarity between vv. 2-3 and vv. 15-16: in both cases there is a concern on James’ part for the unworthy treatment of the poor in the midst of the congregation. The poor person is to be welcomed with the same degree of acceptance and honour accorded to others; they are also to be cared for so that the “needs of the body” are catered for. Whereas in vv. 2-3 it is not clear whether the wealthy and poor persons are Christians, here the poor person is definitely identified as a “brother or a sister.” Finally, the function as well as the form of the two illustrations appears similar: James chooses an illustration relevant to the life of the community, perhaps even occurring in the congregation, since he says, “and one of you says to them…”

James is all inclusive in his description of the poor person, explicitly including both genders: “if a brother or a sister” (ean adelphos ē adelphē) in his description of the poor. These poor hyparchōsin gymnoi (literally, “are naked” as in the NRSV, though variously translated as “poorly clothed,” “in rags,” “in need of clothes,” or “without clothes” [Vlachos, 87-88]). They also lack daily food (leipomenoi tēs ephēmerou trophēs). Vlachos observes that James’ use of the present tense, and the somewhat unusual verb hyparchōsin (“to exist”) indicates an enduring state of poverty and suggests that the individuals suffer constant want (87-88). Their abject need is evident.

“And one of you says to them” (eipē de tis autois ex hymōn) brings this hypothetical illustration close to home: “someone from among your community.” The words spoken are in the form of a blessing: ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’ (hypagete en eirēnē, thermainesthe kai chortazesthe). “Go in peace” is a standard Semitic blessing of good will, that the person go on in a state of peace and well-being (Vlachos, 88). “Keep warm and eat your fill” correspond to the nakedness and hunger of the person identified in verse fifteen. These verbs can be interpreted in two distinct ways, either as “keep yourself warmed and filled” (i.e. the verbs understood in the middle voice) or “be warmed and filled” (i.e. the verbs understood in the passive voice).

The first option places the responsibility for the poor person’s well-being upon themselves, whereas the second becomes a form of prayer. Vlachos (89) prefers the first interpretation, and because the verbs are in the second person imperative, he is probably correct; the speaker is telling the poor what they must do. Nevertheless, a number of interpreters including McKnight, prefer the second option so that the speaker is saying something along the lines of, “May God’s peace be upon you; may God warm you; may God fill you up.”

This may be an overinterpretation but, if so, not by much: the false piety, the false claims, and the false religion of those who have faith but do not have works are palpable in this letter (cf. 1:26-27) (McKnight, 231).

In the end, as Davids (122) notes, the question makes little difference to James’ main point: the speaker does nothing. “And yet you do not supply their bodily needs” (mē dote de autois ta epitēdeia tou sōmatos). Ta epitēdeia tou sōmatos refers to those things necessary for the body, the physical staples of life, which in this context refer to food and clothing. It would be legitimate, I think, to extend this to other necessities of life including shelter for the homeless.

James is concerned for bodily needs and physical necessities, and especially but perhaps not exclusively, for those in the congregation (cf. Galatians 6:10). To send someone on their way, even with a blessing of peace, is of no use whatsoever, if in the sending they remain cold and hungry. James obviously intends the speaker (and the community—dōte is second person plural) not only wish them peace and welfare, not only have good will and intention toward the poor, not only feel kindly—but to give (dōte) them the things needed for bodily life and welfare. This calls the speakers to use their own substance and share what they have with the person in need. James is concerned with “the need of the body” and not simply the condition of the “soul.” To bless or to pray, and to not give what is needed—“What is the good of that?”

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:14

JamesIt has been almost a year since I broke off my study of James. I had worked through to James 2:13 on a verse-by-verse basis, and had hoped to continue to work through the epistle in this manner. However, my year has been such that I have not had the opportunity to continue as intended. I am not sure that 2017 will be much different, but will try to get through to the end of chapter two at least. Before breaking off my study, I did write two posts providing an introduction to James 2:14-26 which provide an orientation to the passage as a whole. Given some of the difficult issues with this passage, I invite readers to consult these posts first. The two posts can be found here and here.

James 2:14
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? (NRSV)

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (NASB)

With this verse James begins a new section in his letter, although there is continuity with what has gone before. In verses 1-7 of the second chapter, James has admonished his hearers against partiality in the congregation, reinforcing this admonition with a reflection on the love command and the reality of divine judgement (vv. 8-13). His listeners are to live in accordance with the royal law of love which is characterised especially, by mercy. Just as chapter 2:1 begins with an acknowledgement of the hearers’ faith and calls for works of mercy and love, so this section also considers the nature of genuine faith, and similarly calls for works of mercy.

The fourteenth verse sets forth the first two questions in a series of three, the third question being longer in form and posed in terms of an illustration. The verse is again addressed by James to “my brothers and sisters” (adelphoi mou), a device, as we have previously noted, that James uses to frame his various exhortations and to signal a new phase in his argument. The first question poses a hypothetical based on someone’s claim to have faith: James does not say the person has faith but no works; rather, they say they have faith (ean pistin legē tis echein) but they have no works (erga de mē echē). Of what use—or good or benefit—(Ti to ophelos;) is such a claim? The expected answer to the question is, “no use whatsoever.” The second question, also anticipating a negative answer, confirms this, and also shows the kind of “use” or “good” James has in mind: “Can that faith save him?” (mē dunatai hē pistis sōsai auton;). That is, when a claim to have faith is not supported by works, the claim is empty and useless. It provides no use or good or benefit whatsoever to the person making the claim; it cannot save them.

This verse raises many questions: What does James mean by “save”? What kind of works does he have in mind? What does it mean for someone to claim “I have faith”, if they have no works? What is the significance of this claim? What is the nature of this faith? What good or benefit does the person derive from their claim? Why would someone claim to have faith if such faith has no other effect in their life?

James questions the viability of someone making this claim and in so doing, questions the very reality of the faith itself. Such “faith” is no-faith, and therefore it can bring no benefit, and certainly no salvation into the life of the person making the claim.

A person may make such a claim because it is expected of them—like a candidate for the American presidency. Others perhaps because they wish to appear religious or spiritual if such qualities are culturally valued and approved—hardly the case in contemporary Australia! Some may claim faith on the basis of tradition or heritage, whereby the remnants of a faith once held by one’s forebears still clings to their life, though perhaps not the faith itself.

For James, such “faith” is not faith at all. The claim does not equate with the reality. A faith which has only the claim as its evidence is not genuine. True faith penetrates one’s life, shaping and guiding it. Faith in God issues in a life characterised by those priorities which characterise the life and being of God: love, mercy, etc. Thus, faith determines the life of the one who has faith, whereas the claim, by itself, is fruitless: it cannot save.

Scot McKnight speaks very bluntly to James’ point in this verse and its implications for many in our churches:

Salvation, then, is regenerative, morally transforming, and eternal—and the tragedy for James is that those who claim to have faith but do not have works will not be saved. Most Protestants do not believe this today (229).