Tag Archives: Good Works

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:13

James 3:13
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.

James 3:13 begins a new little section in this epistle, following a long teaching on the power of the tongue which seems to have been directed at those in James’ congregations who sought to be teachers (3:1). The verse starts with a rhetorical question, literally, “is anyone among you wise and understanding?” Vlachos (120), however, suggests that the question functions as a conditional clause along the lines of, “If any of you are wise and understanding…” James intends to teach his readers what true wisdom actually looks like, and in so doing, adds to his statements in 1:26-27 about the nature of ‘true religion’ or what we might call ‘authentic spirituality.’

That sophos (‘wise’) has a moral sense in James is clearly seen in the description of wisdom that follows in these verses. Wisdom is not merely intelligence or knowledge. Richard Bauckham has suggested that wisdom is “the God-given ability of the transformed heart to discern and to practice God’s will. It is the way in which Torah is internalized, so that outward obedience to Torah flows from an inner understanding and embracing of God’s will expressed in Torah” (Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, 152). God’s will as expressed in Torah is not merely known, but understood and embraced, and so brought to expression in one’s life, and in ways which go beyond a mere adherence to the letter of the law.

‘Understanding’ translates epistēmōn, which denotes the possession of expertise: “being knowledgeable in a way that makes one effectual in the exercise of such knowledge” (BDAG, 381). Together the terms portray the truly wise or spiritual person who understands both what the will of God is, and how it might be applied in the contingencies and circumstances of everyday life, and who actually applies it in this discerning way.

James’ question seems to assume that there are some among them who are actually ‘wise and understanding.’ Certainly there seem to be some in the congregation who claim to be wise, just as there are those who claim to be spiritual, to have faith, and perhaps, who boast in their riches. To those who would make a show of their wisdom, James counsels: display (deixatō, ‘show, demonstrate’ [cf. 2:18]) your wisdom by your good conduct. Make a show of your wisdom by and in your works. This verse, like James 2, contrasts words and works. True wisdom, like true faith, is revealed in works. Wisdom is displayed and recognised rather than claimed. Wisdom is revealed in the ‘beauty’ and ‘attractiveness’ of one’s life—the adjective kalos (‘good’) likely retaining here something of its classical meaning (Vlachos, 121). Just as true wisdom has its source in the good and generous God, so it shows itself in a good and generous life.

Such wisdom is also meek (en prautēti sophias). Wisdom does not parade itself with ostentatious boasting, or merely with words. It does not boast great things for itself, but quietly and consistently works. Many English translations speak of the gentleness of wisdom. Since it is likely that the phrase is qualifying the works which express wisdom, it indicates that these works are gentle, kindly intended and executed, and good.

There is a possibility that this verse is referring back to the first verse of the chapter, and thus to James’ warning about teachers. The role of teaching in the early Christian community provided an opportunity to display one’s wisdom in the performance of the rhetorical art. If we accept this interpretation (see Davids; cf. Moo), it has the advantage of holding the whole chapter together, and of elevating the significance of the teaching role either for good or for ill.

But the teacher’s wisdom is demonstrated and displayed, not in their rhetorical performance, nor in their mastery of the content, but in their character and relationships – do they bless or curse those made in the image of God (v. 9)? Is their tongue a fountain of goodness, justice and righteousness, or does it set the world aflame with the fires of Gehenna (v. 6)? Is their wisdom that which is revealed in humble and gentle service and the generous use of riches? James’ words provide a means of assessing whether or not those spiritual leaders and teachers in our midst are truly wise.

We can ask similar questions of our own lives and our own practice of Christian spirituality. Are we genuinely wise and understanding, in the sense set forth by James? Is our spirituality characterised by an active life of good works undertaken in gentleness and humility?

 

Scripture on Sunday: Luke 10:28

At the end of Luke 10, the evangelist records Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary’s house in which Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and ‘listened to his Word’ (NASB). Jesus commended Mary saying that “only one thing is necessary” and that “Mary had chosen the good part.” The most important thing for any disciple is to do what Mary did: to hear—and then do—Jesus’ word. This is the foundation of Christian life and mission.

Many and perhaps even most Christians would agree with this sentiment. In practice, however, it is possible that our theological convictions might make this harder than we initially imagine. This may be the case especially for Protestants, and specifically for those evangelical Christians who, like myself, consider careful doctrine an essential aspect of Christian faith and life.

A case in point is found right here in Luke 10. Immediately preceding the story of Martha and Mary is the story of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus tells in response to a question posed by a ‘lawyer’—an expert in the Mosaic Law:

And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” 28 And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”

The lawyer’s question is focussed on the issue of obtaining eternal life, and Jesus directs him back to Scripture, and appropriately in the time and context, to the Law. When the lawyer answers, Jesus commends him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” The lawyer then takes it further, asking, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, elaborating on what it means to love one’s neighbour. The Samaritan stops, sees, serves, and sacrifices; he gets involved personally and acts, even to one who typically would despise him. This is an active, practical love that ‘costs’ the Samaritan in terms of time and money—though the ‘cost’ of such love is not even raised in the parable. And Jesus instructs the lawyer to “go and do likewise,” for this is the way to eternal life.

Do this and you will live!

The difficulty for Protestants and many evangelicals in particular, is that we have such an investment in a Pauline-Reformational doctrine of justification by faith, that Jesus’ words sound like a form of ‘works-righteousness,’ and as such, stand in tension with a doctrine of salvation in which we are ‘saved by faith and not by works.’ The great temptation, then, is perhaps to overlook Jesus’ words, to bypass them, explain them away, harmonise them to Paul’s teaching, or in some other fashion, to side-step and avoid them—precisely the opposite of what we hear in the Martha and Mary story.

This we must not do! The one essential thing is to hear Jesus’ words, let them stand, let them be heard, let them challenge us, let the tension remain unresolved if necessary, even if Jesus’ words and teaching challenge our most cherished doctrines.

(I note here I. Howard Marshall’s judgement that “There is all the difference in the world between the loving service of God commended here and the salvation by works of the law which Paul condemned”—The Gospel of Luke [NIGTC], 440).

Do this and you will live!

Here, in shortest possible compass, we have an instance of Jesus’ doctrine of salvation: love God and love your neighbour—and to do so in the most concrete, personal, and engaged sense imaginable. Certainly a systematic theology may legitimately seek to understand the relation between Jesus’ words and Paul’s, but never at the expense of setting either aside, or diminishing the force and impact of Jesus’ teaching. Certainly we might argue that Jesus’ command here presupposes faith in God, even if it is a faith before the cross and resurrection. But if it comes down to a choice between Jesus’ words and our doctrine, go with Jesus every time.

Matthew and Paul on “Righteousness”

This morning I preached an overview message on Jesus’ Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel. In my preparation for the sermon I came across the following comparison in F. Dale Bruner’s wonderful commentary on Matthew’s Gospel:

I suggest that in this use here [i.e. Matt 5:6] of the word “righteousness,” the key word also in Paul’s anti-Judaistic letters (Romans and Galatians), Matthew and Paul shake hands. It is true that in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, “righteousness” is primarily a moral term; this meaning is present in Paul, too, but it is secondary. Paul’s “righteousness” is supremely the righteousness of God given to believers in Jesus Christ. Matthew’s “righteousness” is predominantly a moral righteousness in disciples (and the plural “disciples” here and the plural nouns and verbs in all the Beatitudes are important and social). …

Any righteousness claimed before God that did not show itself in human righteousness or social justice toward people brought down prophetic wrath (see especially Amos). Matthew’s Jesus will unforgettably hammer away at this prophetic requirement of personal and social righteousness in text after text. In Matthew’s Gospel only the truly godly and humane get into the kingdom. But in Paul’s gospel, God “justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5).

It is just here, however, in his different understanding of righteousness that I think Matthew’s Jesus most closely approaches Paul. For as we have seen in all the Poor Beatitudes, particularly in Matthew’s moral construal (“poor in spirit,” “hungering and thirsting for righteousness”), it is the consciously unright or unrighted who are righted, it is the out who are brought in, and now it is those who want a righteousness they do not have who are promised they will have it. To say this is not to Paulinize Matthew; it is to see Paul and Matthew meeting at center: God is the giver of the kingdom and of the kingdom’s righteousness as well. This kingdom is still largely future, but, as we have seen, the future kingdom that Jesus preaches is already breaking in. All four Need Beatitudes say this; all four Beatitudes—and now I audaciously Paulinize—preach justification by faith; all four give God to those who are unable to get God by themselves.

But it would be fair to Matthew to stress that the righteousness longed for in his Gospel is not only heaven-sent (Paul’s great contribution) but also and distinctively earth-centered (Matthew’s great contribution). Paul colors righteousness sky blue, dignifying its source; Matthew colors it earth brown, honouring its goal. Paul the doctor of divine grace and Matthew the doctor of human mercy meet at center: in their deep appreciation for the gift of God. But one teaches in an unparalleled way that gifts’ source (who is God), the other that gift’s aim (which is people); both are needed, both canonical, both Christian (Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary Volume 1: The Christbook, 170-171).

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 2:22

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 2:21

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.