If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? (James 2:15-16)
James 2:14-26: the very citation of the passage immediately brings to mind its premise: “faith without works is dead.”
For generations James 2:14-26 has been held as the counterweight to Paul’s affirmations of justification by faith apart from works in Romans 3:10-4:23 and Galatians 3:1-27. Martin Luther famously wanted to consider James not truly inspired because of what he had to say about faith and works; indeed, the only time in which the Bible speaks of “faith only” explicitly is in James 2:24, in which James set forth how one is justified by works and not by faith alone! Thus most Christians, upon hearing or considering James 2:14-26, are tempted to understand the passage purely in doctrinal terms as part of the dispute which has gone on for half a millennium about faith and works: either to brandish the passage as the answer to Protestant excess in their doctrine of faith only, or to attempt to find some way to narrowly contextualize or frame the passage to somehow “fit” into a scheme in which “faith only” can be preserved.
James quite possibly is throwing some shade, perhaps not directly at Paul himself, but certainly toward those who would take Paul to an extreme Paul did not maintain. Let none be deceived: James powerfully affirmed the importance of works in faith, a premise which Paul would not and did not deny (e.g. Romans 1:5, 6:14-23, etc.). We can make good sense of the two emphases each inspired author conveyed: by emphasizing how salvation is by faith apart from works of the Law, Paul established our unworthiness and inability to earn our salvation (Romans 3:10-4:23, Galatians 3:1-27); by emphasizing that faith is displayed in works, James expressed the necessary consequences of saving faith, demonstration of trust through effort (James 2:14-26). Paul did not deny the importance of the obedience of faith; James would not suggest people can deserve, earn, or merit their salvation.
Nevertheless, James was not intending to write to Christians so they would have a better understanding of a doctrinal proposition. If we consider James 2:1-17 as a whole, the true picture of what James sought to convey becomes apparent.
James saw Christians displaying prejudice and partiality, and wanted to warn them about the consequences of that behavior: specifically, rich guests were treated with great hospitality while poor guests were treated with contempt (James 2:1-3). James condemned such behavior as making distinctions and becoming judges with evil motives (James 2:4). He wondered how Christians could do such things when God had chosen in Christ the poor of the world to become rich in faith and the Kingdom itself; they had thus dishonored the poor, while honoring the very people who oppressed them, dragged them into court, and blasphemed (James 2:5-7).
Instead James would have them fulfill the royal law of loving their neighbor as themselves (James 2:8; cf. Leviticus 19:18). If they show prejudice, the law would condemn them as transgressors. It would not matter that they had done all kinds of righteousness or had avoided other sins, for those who obey the law in all points but one has become guilty of the whole (James 2:9-11). Thus Christians should speak and act as if they will be judged by a law giving freedom, and having shown mercy, for judgment is merciless for those who have displayed no mercy (James 2:12-13). James then rhetorically asked what good it would be if a person claimed to have faith but did not have works, and if that faith could save them (James 2:14). He then gave an example: if a Christian is poorly clothed and lacks food, and if one of his or her fellow Christians saw them like this and told them to go, be warm and eat well, but did not provide anything so they could get warm and eat well, what good would it be (James 2:15-16)? Thus, James declared, faith without works is dead (James 2:17).
Thus, in context, James is warning Christians that if they say they are helping the poor among them without actually helping the poor among them, their faith is without works, and their faith is dead! Such is consistent with his concerns in James 1:22-25, 27; John would speak in similar ways in 1 John 3:16-18. It is not for the Christian to judge the shabbiness or worthiness of people, but to help, demonstrating the faith they profess in the works they are doing. To act otherwise is to show partiality and to be condemned as transgressors, or to confess by one’s deeds (or lack thereof) that one’s faith is truly dead.
It is right and appropriate for us to draw the application from James 2:14-26 that faith without works is dead, and in doctrinal conversations and disputes to hold up the passage to correct excess in the way many have sought to understand the Apostle Paul. Yet we must always remember that such a perspective on James 2:14-26 is an application, and not the one immediately expected in its context. Whether we focus on James 2:1-17 in particular, or the entire passage from James 1:22-2:26, we should see the connections inherent in James’ theme, and to recognize his great concern that Christians would put their faith in action by providing what proved necessary for all people, but especially those of the household of faith. May we all demonstrate our faith by our works and do so by loving our neighbors as ourselves, proving to be neighbors to poor and rich alike, and by providing what is necessary for those in need, and obtain the resurrection of life in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry