14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18 But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder. 20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
As a teenager I approached a minister, full of doubts and struggles and a thousand misunderstandings. My question was, Why doesn't God seem to accept me? I've prayed the prayer a thousand times, why does heaven seem to be silent?
He told me that I shouldn't worry about whether I was accepted, I just needed to get on and really live the Christian life.
So I went off and tried that (or at least what I imagined the Christian life to be). And I failed even by my own standards. And, despondently, I slinked off from Christian things for a good few years.
What kind of faith did I have at that time? I'd have probably articulated the gospel as something like: God's big. You're small. Behave.
I didn't have gospel faith. I had demon faith (v19). I believed God was one. I believed Jesus was God's Son. But little more.
Now what would James counsel at this point? Is James chapter 2 the encouragement to add good works to such rudimentary faith? Is he exhorting those with demon faith to top up their merit levels until they hit salvific proportions?
No. James is discussing the kind of faith that saves . In v14 the word "such" (or "that" in ESV) is important. James is not making a calculation: Demon faith plus good deeds equals salvation! Instead this is about discerning what kind of faith is true saving faith.
And the answer is - true saving faith is the kind of faith that's always being fulfilled in active service. In other words, saving faith (Genesis 15 style) always leads to obedience (Genesis 22 style).
So what should that minister have said to me? I wish he'd said this:
"Glen, I don't think you really know the gospel. I don't think you could have the slightest understanding of Christ for you while harbouring these doubts. I don't think the kind of faith you have is really the active, life-giving, always-leading-to-loving-service kind of faith. So let me tell you the gospel again, and drive it home to you until assured, authentic, vital faith is birthed in you. Let me preach the gospel of faith alone to you once more, knowing that the faith that saves will never be alone. Let me overwhelm you with the promise (Genesis 15) and then you'll bear fruit in obedience (Genesis 22)."
I think that's the approach to a dead faith: preach faith alone. And I think it's completely mandated by James chapter 2.