James Week 3

What Kind of Faith Saves? James 2

By David Nienhuis

Seattle Pacific University Professor of New Testament Studies

Read this week’s Scripture: James 2


Week 3
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James Chapter 1 ended on an emphatic word of wisdom: those who hear the word must also do it; those who espouse a Christian creed had better demonstrate Christian deed, or their creed is worthless. The second chapter of James goes on to provide us with scenarios to persuade us of the truth of this claim.

Two Parallel Essays

Let’s begin by considering the structure of this chapter, for doing so will help us grasp the key points our author wants to make. The chapter comprises two short essays (James 2:1–13 and 2:14–26) that develop in parallel with each other.

  1. Both essays open with an address to “My brothers and sisters” and make it clear that the joining of faith and action is the central topic under exploration (2:1 and 2:14).
  2. In both essays a hypothetical example of an interaction with a poor person is quickly introduced to underwrite James 1:27, making it clear once again that the core concern is how believers relate to those in need (2:2 and 2:15).
  3. In both hypothetical scenarios, the believer replies with words but fails to act appropriately (2:3 and 2:16).
  4. Both essays cite one of Jesus’ two “summary of the law” commandments, Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 6:4, respectively, saying “you do well” in association with each (2:8 and 2:19).
  5. Both essays then turn to Scripture in support of the argument (2:11 and 2:23).
  6. Both essays conclude with a reiteration of the central concern that speech and deeds correspond rightly in the life of the believer (2:12 and 2:26).

James wants to show that faith and works are inseparable, and to demonstrate that this is a scriptural position (are some of his congregants using Scripture to argue the reverse?). We also get a picture of the letter’s target audience: they are believers who belong to a larger community of mixed economic status in which some have means and some are poor.

As the opening lines of the letter have made perfectly clear, James wants Christians to think of themselves as exiles living in a strange land, one in which the values of the dominant culture are out of step with the values of the homeland. God gives good and perfect gifts generously and ungrudgingly (1:5, 17), but in a world in which money is considered the primary source of security, will believers operate as a “friend of the world” (4:4) or a “friend of God” (2:23)?

The First Essay: James 2:1–13

Let’s look at each essay more closely. The first one begins by insisting that people who claim Christian faith must never act out of partiality. The Greek word here — prosopolempsia — combines the words for “face” and “lift”; the one who shows partiality lifts the face away from one person to give favor to another. (I for one immediately think of all the times I’ve turned my face away from a homeless person, pretending I don’t see the person so as to avoid hearing a request for charity.) It forms a nice parallel image to the “double-mindedness” we heard about earlier (1:8) and will hear about again (4:8). One cannot be “two-faced” about the Christian faith!

The scenario describes two people entering a Christian gathering, one rich and the other poor. The greeter offers priority seating to the rich person but rudely dismisses the poor person. James says to the community that allows this to happen, “have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” (2:4). The Greek word here for “made distinctions” — diakrinō — is the same word translated earlier as “doubting” (2:6). There the person was called “double-minded,” a wonderful image that can be carried over to this scene.

The greeter sees the two men entering and experiences cognitive tension: on the one hand, he no doubt knows of God’s persistent calls in Scripture to care for the poor. But what does he think when he sees the rich man? Is the fellow a wealthy donor to the church? Perhaps the greeter is seeking to curry favor with someone who has access to power? Given that “the rich” are described as “oppressors” who “drag you into court” (2:6), is it possible that the greeter is simply trying to save his own skin? In the end, the contingencies don’t matter: a value judgment was made, and the greeter showed by his actions what he truly believes. Despite God’s call to care for the poor who are “rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him” (2:5), the greeter has shown that he believes more in the power of money than in the power of God.

What follows (2:8–11) is often misunderstood, so let me paraphrase what James seems to be saying. Though he doesn’t come out directly and say so, his repetition of Jesus’ two “summary of the law” commands in this chapter (2:8 and 19) [Author’s Note 1] suggests he is addressing believers who think they are righteous before God simply because they claim to fulfill these two commands. They love God, they love their neighbors — all is well! But in verse 8 James seems to say, “Look, it’s great if you really do love your neighbor as yourself, but you do remember that Jesus is referring to Leviticus when he says this, right? Are you fulfilling that law according to the Scripture?” Turn back to Leviticus 19 now and read that whole chapter, paying special attention to verses 9–18 and 33–37. There it is made clear that loving our neighbor involves practicing justice, promoting a just legal system, attending to the rights of the poor, and caring for the alien in our midst. Can we say we truly love our neighbors when we do so little to alleviate the suffering of the poor and vulnerable? Are we loving our neighbors when we are hostile toward immigrants, angry at “special interest groups,” or distrustful of strangers? James insists that we can’t say “I love my neighbor” when we treat only particular people well, especially if those people are privileged and powerful. Jesus, of course, has a lot to say about this too. [Author’s Note 2]

As was the case with the first chapter, so also this first essay ends with a zinger:

So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty, for judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment (2:12–13).

The basic meaning here is plain: all that we say and do must be driven by mercy, for the one who fails to live a life of mercy will not be receiving mercy from God on judgment day. Harsh as this sounds, it is actually a common theme in Scripture. [Author’s Note 3]

The Second Essay: James 2:14–26

The second essay attempts to make much the same argument, but with a more intense focus on the subject at hand. Indeed, of the 19 uses of the noun “faith” and the verb “believe” in this letter, 14 occur in these 13 verses, and of the 16 uses of the noun “works” in this letter, 12 occur here. The fact that these words are used in a manner clearly reminiscent of Paul’s discussion of faith in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 made this section of James a lightning rod of controversy for Martin Luther, for he believed that James had flatly contradicted Paul. We’ll return to Luther’s misunderstanding after we’ve considered this second essay more closely.

Most versions of the Bible translate the opening of verse 14, “What good is it?” But a more literal translation is, “What is the profit?” James is interested in the outcome of faith; it’s one thing to claim to have faith, but another thing entirely to demonstrate it! The opening paragraph (2:14–17) repeats “what is the profit?” twice (2:14, 16), and the question has two referents: On the one hand, James is asking, “Does faith without demonstration profit in salvation?” (2:14); on the other, he’s asking, quite practically, “Does faith without demonstration profit in a better world for those who are suffering?” (2:16). While some may disagree with James’ answer to the former question, the answer to the latter question is self-evident — clearly kind words do nothing to improve the lot of those who are without food and shelter. The paragraph ends with the famous dictum, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:17). Faith and works, James insists, are inseparable. You can’t have one without the other.

But then something interesting happens in 2:18. Someone else enters the debate; he’s heard James say “faith without works is dead” and retorts, in effect, “Wait a minute there, James: Isn’t it possible that some people have faith and others have works?” Scholars have wondered if perhaps this person is relying on some of Paul’s lists of spiritual gifts. Look for instance at Romans 12:6–8:

We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

“Prophecy” (i.e., speaking for God) is here associated with “faith” and separated from gifts like “ministry” (i.e., service for God) and “giving.” In this case, the person is saying something like, “Look James, I have been gifted with the capacity to speak about faith. Other people are gifted to work with the homeless. My job is talking!”

James has no room for any of it, blasting forth with two quick responses. The first is fairly straightforward: “Show me!” You can talk all day long about your faith, but unless I see it demonstrated in your actions, it’s just a bunch of hot air. The second response hurts even worse: “So what if you confess the right things about God! Demons know perfectly well who God is and what God is doing, but do you think their knowledge of these things will result in their salvation?”

James begins the proof from Scripture at 2:20, turning to the examples of Abraham and Rahab. He begins, appropriately, with the story of the testing of Abraham in Genesis 22, for it represents a case in which someone obeyed God as an act of faith. His proof-text is Genesis 15:6 (“Abraham believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness”), the same text Paul uses to argue that a person could be right with God without observing the commandments of Jewish law (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6).

Paul was, of course, right about this. James, however, uses the verse for a different purpose: for James, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son represented the fulfillment of Genesis 15:6. In Genesis 15, Abraham said he trusted God, but in Genesis 22, Abraham demonstrated it. [Author’s Note 4]

So also with Rahab the prostitute (James 2:25), whose story is found in Joshua 2: Rather than restore her tarnished name by handing over the Hebrew spies, she went against the wishes of her cultural authorities, feared God, and offered protection to the spies. When it came to Rahab, no one was left wondering where she placed her ultimate trust.

The key verse of the whole section is 2:22. “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works.” Note how this phrase nicely maintains the inseparability of faith and works: faith works with works; works make faith complete. The Greek word for “works with” is synergō — we get our word “synergy” from it. For James, faith and works are synergistic; both are required for either to operate correctly. Without works, faith fails to penetrate to the whole person. Without faith, works are powered by the self, which is characterized by double-mindedness and doubt, and driven by desire. Note that James is not saying faith must lead to works; he’s saying real faith works. It looks like something. Faith that exists only in the head and on the tongue is self-deception.

Luther insisted that Paul and James were in contradiction at this point (and as a result he wanted to remove James from the list of primary biblical books), but now most biblical scholars think Luther was wrong. Anyone who has read Paul closely knows well that Paul in no way disagrees with the idea that the Christian life must demonstrate good works. [Author’s Note 5] Indeed, of the 68 times Paul uses the word “works,” 41 of them agree perfectly with James, that good works are a necessary component of the life of faith. In most of the remaining cases, Paul is rejecting not “works” but “works of the law.” Remember his context: he is working hard to make the case that non-Jews can be righteous before God without observing the Jewish law. He’s in no way interested in driving a wedge between faith and obedience; he’s simply challenging the idea that observing Torah was the primary requirement for God’s people. James and Paul agree that the only thing that makes a person righteous before God is faith — that is, radical trust, and trust isn’t all that radical if it is reducible to head-knowledge or just saying the right things.

Jesus, of course, also insisted that his followers join right belief with right action: “The one who believes in me must keep my commands” (John 14:15, 21, 23); “The one who hears these words of mine and does them” (Matthew 7:24); “Why do you say to me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). Everywhere in Scripture faith is joined with works and works with faith.

Deep down, we know the Scripture is right. Talk is cheap. Anyone can claim to follow Jesus, but the distance between claiming and actually doing is great. In fact, they’re as far apart as heaven and hell.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. Dr. Nienhuis points out that James utilizes two small “essays” within Chapter 2 to demonstrate his assertion from 1:26–27. What are the primary examples used in each essay? Have you seen or experienced contemporary parallels to these examples? How do these stories challenge the economic divisions that so often separate our human social structures?
  2. Re-read the concluding statements of the first essay (2:12-13). These amazing statements make it clear that the way we live our lives impacts our salvation (see Author’s Note 3 for more witnesses to this teaching). Does this biblical witness find a place in your articulation of Christian belief? Why or why not?
  3. Dr. Nienhuis notes, “Faith works with works; works make faith complete… Without works, faith fails to penetrate to the whole person. Without faith, works are powered by the self, which is characterized by double-mindedness and doubt, and driven by desire.” Most of us are out of balance in this regard, either emphasizing faith at the expense of works, or working like crazy because we lack trust in God. Where do you find yourself on this spectrum?
  4. Chapter 2 is full of challenging words for the church. After this reading, how have you been challenged to continue growing in the synergy between faith and works?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

Compare Matthew 22:34–40, Mark 12:28–34, and Luke 10:25–28. Though James 2:19 simply has “You believe that God is one,?” scholars recognize this to be a reference to the Shema, so central to Jewish faith, found in Deuteronomy 6:4–5, the second part of which is quoted by Jesus as one of the “summary of the law” verses.


Author’s Note 2

See, e.g., Luke 6:20–25; 12:15–21; 14:7–14; 16:19–31.


Author’s Note 3

See, e.g., Proverbs 21:13; Matthew 5:7; 6:14–15; 18:32–35; Luke 6:37; Romans 2:1–11; Colossians 3:13; 1 John 3:17.


Author’s Note 4

Note what God says after Abraham obeys the command to sacrifice Isaac: God says, “Now I know that you fear God … since you have done this, and have not withheld your son, I will indeed bless you …” (Genesis 22:12, 16–17).


Author’s Note 5

See, e.g., Romans 2:6–11; 12:9–21; 1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 5:6; Ephesians 2:9–10; Philippians 2:12–13; Colossians 1:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:11; 2:17; 1 Timothy 5:25; 2 Timothy 2:21; Titus 2:7–8, 14; 3:8, 14.


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Discussion and Comments

One Comment to “What Kind of Faith Saves? James 2”

  1. Martin says:

    Thank you for this. I think another point that continues your ‘faith-works’ idea is the demons in 2:19 ‘believing and trembling.’ For James — attacking a rich-mans ‘propositional faith’ (e.g. modern apologists in big comfy auditoriums) — even the demons have ‘faith’. So I would think St Paul presupposes James’ ‘faith-works’ in his own definition of ‘faith’ because demons in no way have St Paul’s ‘faith’.

    Not to be vague or unhelpful… But do you think radical “Paulinists” (your phrase from James 1 commentary) are formed too much by a capitalist logic on these issues? In an economy based off of debt, contractual obligation, and scarcity… abstract ‘faith decisions’ allow us to remain “Sola Sciptura” without entering economics or alternative business practices.