Faith Without Works

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

Faith Without Works

Shooting Our Own

But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another (Galatians 5:15).

It has been reported that if a chicken develops an open wound, other chickens will relentlessly peck at that wound on that chicken until it grows very weak or dies.

Likewise, it is now being reported that allergies have arisen precisely because humans have eliminated or reduced contact with many forms of harmful bacteria. Apparently the human immune system feels compelled to keep busy and attack something; if there is nothing truly harmful then it begins to treat an otherwise harmless substance as a threat and thus the allergic reaction.

Groups of people can act in similar ways. If a group member displays some form of weakness, sensitivity, or problem not suffered by others, the group may attack that point of weakness or problem and it may lead to the end of that person’s association with the group. People seem to need something or someone to be against; if they cannot find or cannot properly identify a real threat they will likely find something that is not really threatening and treat it as if it is a threat. We may call this “shooting our own,” an image taken from the battlefield when members of an army turn on each other as opposed to maintaining their focus against their enemies.

Paul is very concerned about these tendencies playing out among the Christians in the churches of Galatia. Paul’s main purpose in writing is to rebuke and exhort a good number of the Galatian Christians for allowing themselves to be so quickly persuaded to consider observing the Law of Moses and accepting circumcision even though they were called to Christ as Gentiles (Galatians 1:6-7, 3:1-5). He speaks quite strongly about the danger of what they are doing and wishes for the emasculation of those “Judaizing” teachers causing this dissension (Galatians 1:6-9, 5:1-12). Much is at stake; those who remain grounded in the truth of the Gospel as revealed to Paul by the Lord need to defend it and remain firm!

Yet how the faithful Galatian Christians would defend that Gospel is exactly what leads to Paul’s concern. He wishes to remind them that Christ has called them to freedom, that the whole law is fulfilled in loving one’s neighbor as himself (Galatians 5:13-14; Leviticus 19:18, 34). As he would remind the Corinthians, knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1); such is a concern in Galatia as well. He thus warns the Galatians about the dangers of what they are or might be doing in Galatians 5:15.

On a strictly literal level it would seem that Paul would be giving license to a bit of biting and devouring one another: “if you do it, be careful that you do not consume each other.” On the other hand, we could understand the verse as placing the emphasis on the negative conclusion: if you bite and devour each other, beware! You will end up consuming one another. The danger inherent in the outcome remains regardless; if the Galatian Christians are not careful, they will end up destroying each other in their disputations about the faith, just like the chicken with the open wound, treating each other as the enemy as opposed to keeping focus on the Enemy of us all, directing the firepower which ought to be used against the forces of evil against one another, thus doing the Devil’s work for him!

Paul’s warning remains appropriate to this day. It is true that the Apostles warn about false teachings coming from among Christians and even those who serve as elders (Acts 20:29-30, Jude 1:3-23). When such people arise, their doctrines must be exposed for what they are. Yet it seems that some Christians devote themselves to biting and devouring one another, actively seeking out ways to disagree with fellow Christians, to smear them as “the other,” and act as if they are now in Satan’s service, and thus shoot their own and prove quite willing to destroy a part of Christ’s Body because they needed to find something or someone to attack. Likewise, there are times when Christians fall into flagrant sin or completely forsake the truth without repentance; in such cases disassociative actions ought to be done (1 Corinthians 15:1-13, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15). Yet there are many other instances when Christians are actually weak, not as strongly connected to the Body of Christ as they should be, and in dire need of love, strength, and care, and yet they are treated like the wounded chicken and “shot” by their own, disciplined and disassociated from as if they were flagrant sinners. It is as if an army would just shoot their wounded as opposed to giving them care and rehabilitation to be made well!

Even though Paul was zealous for the truth and stood firm against the forces of error he always remembered that Jesus came to save people, not condemn them (Luke 19:9, 1 Timothy 1:12-15). Jesus did not need to find ways to condemn people; people do that well enough on their own. If Jesus was only about pointing out sin and actively working to destroy those who sin, He would have no need to die on that cross, to suffer terribly as He did. Does Jesus’ Body have this same mentality as Jesus? If the Body of Christ mercilessly tears into their own if they expose wounding or weakness, are they reflecting Christ? Should the “immune system” of the Body of Christ go haywire and start attacking that which is really harmless because it is not properly discerning what is truly harmful? Should the Army of the Lord do Satan’s bidding and turn their guns on one another, either firing on each other on the same line or for those in the rear shooting the advance guard because the latter “looks like the enemy” because they are the ones at the fore most actively taking the fight to the enemy? Whatever happened to building one another up or strengthening one another?

We are rightly disturbed at the behavior of chickens who would destroy the weak among them. We would be horrified to learn that a unit of the U.S. Army decided it was best to kill all their injured comrades because they were not getting up on their own and pressing forward. Those who suffer from allergies know the misery and pain that comes when the immune system goes haywire. Should we not show equal distaste when such behaviors are manifest in the Lord’s body, the church? Should we not be grieved in pain when and where this occurs? We must defend the truth. We must stand firm against the forces of error. But we must also love our neighbor and not bite and devour one another. We must always remember that flesh and blood are not the enemy, but the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12). Let us stand firm against the Evil One, love one another, encourage all men, and seek to find ways to strengthen one another in the truth without shooting our own!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Shooting Our Own