Tag Archives: Good Works

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.

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 2:21

JamesJames 2:21
Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?

With this second rhetorical question James introduces his first biblical illustration to demonstrate that faith without works is fruitless. The grammar of the sentence (ouk) indicates that a positive answer is anticipated to this question, that is, that “our ancestor Abraham” (Abraam ho pater) was indeed “justified by works” (ex ergōn edikaiōthē). That James refers to Abraham as “our father” indicates the Jewish heritage of his readers, and of the interlocutor, and calls to the evidence stand the progenitor of the whole race. If this was the case with Abraham, why would it be any different for his descendants?

James asserts that Abraham was justified by works when or because or as “he offered his son Isaac on the altar” (anenegkas Isaak ton huion autou epi to thusiastērion). The participle anenegkas has been translated in each of the ways suggested in the various English versions of the New Testament. While the translation when may be the best (Vlachos, 96), each is possible, and perhaps in the end it makes little difference: it was because and as Abraham offered his son to God that he was justified. This, at least, seems to be James’s intent.

The event to which James refers is described in Genesis 22:1-6 where God tests Abraham and Abraham obeys God’s voice. Abraham’s obedience results in the confirmation of the blessing promised by God to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, and the reiteration of the blessing pronounced in Genesis 15:1-6. We have already seen in the first chapter of this letter that the themes of testing, and of hearing and doing are prominent for James. It may be that these elements in the Abraham story drew him to use Genesis 22.

In verse 23 James will support his contention that Abraham was justified by this act of obedience by referring back to Genesis 15:6. James does not read the text in Genesis 15 in a chronological sense as though Abraham was first justified and then later obeyed. Rather, he reads the story as a whole in which Abraham’s trust in God (Genesis 15) and his obedience to God (Genesis 22) are all of apiece. Abraham’s actions of obedience were not simply a demonstration of his faith but were the expression of his faith.

Two aspects of James’s teaching in this verse are worth considering. First, Abraham’s “works” in this illustration are not those of care and compassion toward the poor, but of devotion and faithful obedience to God. This suggests, perhaps, that the works that James has in view in the entire passage are not simply works of mercy, but all those works which issue from a genuine faith in God.

Second, we must consider what James means by the term “justify.” It is very easy to read James through a Pauline lens and suggest that the term is identical in both New Testament authors. Such a move is problematic since it would then mean that James and Paul stand in stark contradiction to one another with Paul arguing that “a person is justified by faith apart from works” and James arguing the opposite (cf. Romans 3:28). A number of commentators, however, note that whereas Paul uses the term to speak of the initial work whereby sinners are brought into right relationship with God on the basis of faith, James uses the term to speak of the ultimate declaration of God in the last judgement on the basis of a whole life lived. The matter, therefore, is between initial and final justification (see, e.g. Moo, 110).

I will take this matter up further once the whole passage has been studied.

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).

Scripture on Sunday – Luke 3:10-11

“The Sermon of John the Baptist” Frans Pourbus (1545-81)
“The Sermon of John the Baptist” Frans Pourbus (1545-81)

Luke 3:10-11
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’

  • Read the whole section (Luke 3:1-18) here.

John lashes his hearers as he preaches the “good news” to the people (v. 18). And these are those who have come out to the wilderness to hear him! Might he be even harsher with those who refuse to come? Many Christians today would not recognise this sermon as good news at all, while others think this is the only way to authentically preach “the good news.” Tear strips off the people! Flay them with words! Drive them to repentance!

John is obviously anticipating the end of all things; the wrath is coming, but so is salvation (vv. 6-7). Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees (v. 9). Now is the time of decision. Now, before time expires and the opportunity is lost. Soon the Mighty One will come, gathering the grain into his barn—but the chaff!—the chaff will be burnt with unquenchable fire; the unfruitful tree, too, will be cut down and thrown into the fire (vv. 16-17, 9). John’s fierce rhetoric is born of urgent times. This is not simply eschatological vision, but apocalyptic certainty. It is a minute to midnight and the axe is poised to strike. Judgement is inevitable and imminent, and the people flee like vipers before a spreading fire. So John calls to the people to repent while they still can. There is but one possibility of escape.

They have come for baptism. They have come because they are Abraham’s children. They have come because he is a prophet, the first in four hundred years. They have come because they are curious. The news of the coming judgement and salvation is good news indeed—so long as one is on the right side of the judge! And so John preaches repentance. His baptism is a baptism of repentance (v. 3), though baptism alone will not suffice. Not religion or ritual, but repentance. Not belonging to the right group outwardly, but a new life demonstrating that we are indeed, not a brood of vipers, not simply children of Abraham, but children of the kingdom of God (cf. Matthew 3:2). “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” I. Howard Marshall suggests the question is rhetorical and indicates the sheer impossibility of escaping the coming, total judgement, least of all by an “external, ex opere operato rite” (Marshall, The Gospel of Luke [NIGTC], 139).

In verse 8 John warns the people to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” The analogy of verse 9 speaks of “good fruit” and warns that every tree not bearing such fruit will be cut down and destroyed (cf. Matthew 7:19 where the warning is also found on Jesus’ lips). What fruit does John have in mind?

Some commentators suggest that the fruit is the repentance itself, that baptism must be undertaken in repentance if it is to be genuine and effective. Marshall, however, notes that the word for “fruit” is in the plural rather than the singular (karpous), and that the phrase as a whole (poiēsate oun karpous axious tēs metanoias) suggests “fruits befitting repentance” (140). At this point Luke includes additional information not found in Matthew (i.e. vv. 10-14), which suggests that Luke identifies precisely the kinds of fruit he has in mind. The crowd ask “What then shall we do?” (v. 10), to which John responds,

Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.

John identifies acts of generosity toward the poor as a key indicator of true repentance in the kingdom of God. This is more than simply having a “generous heart” or a generous intent, but involves concrete acts of compassion, sharing, participation and solidarity.

The good fruit of verse 9 is worked out in terms of good works: works of love, kindness and mercy rather than works of the law and more than religious works of ritual. Soldiers may keep soldiering and tax collectors keep collecting, but they must do so without violence or greed, avoiding the sins of their profession (Marshall, 143). Certainly John wants the people to be baptised and receive the forgiveness of sins. But their faith must be genuine, and so repentant, and their repentance must move in directions which characterise the love, kindness and mercy of the God who cares for every living person.

To be baptised is to enter into the life and community of the kingdom of God, freely offered to us through the forgiveness of sins. Yet this involves repentance, a decisive turning from the kinds of sins which render present life antithetical to that kingdom. To those, like me, who are so very rich—I have far more than two tunics, and I never go hungry—this word comes as a great challenge. John is interested in deeds. Note the threefold question from the crowd, the tax collectors and the soldiers, “What shall we do?” What, then, do I do with respect to the poor in specific, concrete deeds of sharing? And do I do it from a distance, writing a cheque or making a bank transfer, or is it a case of love with dirty hands? Is my sharing personal and participative or impersonal and aloof? Is my life characterised more by the way of the kingdom or by the way of the world?

This verse has been unsettling me all week.