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Why it's vital to preach faith alone – James 2:14-26

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.

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0 thoughts on “Why it's vital to preach faith alone – James 2:14-26

  1. Bobby Grow

    Hey Glen,

    I appreciate what you're saying, but I think disagree; not with the premise that saving faith certainly has good works, but with the notion that w/o being able to "see" good works you might never have, at least, been assured of your salvation.

    How would you differentiate what you're saying from the typical Classical Calvinist understanding of faith + works = salvation? And how would you nuance this so that justification is not subsumed by sanctification?

    Your thoughts here are quite interesting to me.

  2. Glen

    Hey Bobby, My premise here is that those seeking assurance of salvation should be given the gospel of faith alone in Christ alone and that it's ridiculous to tell people to add works to their faith to get assurance, since demon-faith + works does *not* = salvation.

    The key is to have true, living faith which *is* assured faith (and which will bear fruit in works). But I'd say that the *kind* of faith that produces such works is assured faith. And that this assurance is a matter of looking to Christ not to self. That's my premise in this post. I probably haven't expressed myself very well because I think you're reading me as saying the opposite.

    Calvin (I think rightly) made assurance part and parcel of saving faith, many of his followers divorced it from faith. So in the terms you're framing it, I go with Calvin against the Classical Calvinists.

    Does that clarify a little?

  3. Glen

    By the way, saying that classical calvinists believe faith + works = salvation is a little inflammatory wouldn't you say ;-)

    Certainly a charge could be made for many calvinists making faith + works = *assurance*. And that would be (as I said above) a disagreement with Calvin himself.

  4. Bobby Grow

    Glen,

    Thank you, that does help clarify. I knew that you didn't follow the typical framing on this; I just wanted to get more clarification . . . so thanks.

    I wasn't trying to be inflammatory; instead just engage in a little reductio with the suppositions embedded within the Classical Calvinist framework . . . I do think, while their logic provides the necessary precision (i.e. the different categories of justification and sanctification); that they end up contradicting themselves when they claim that works are necessary proof of justification (or that one is justified). I see nowhere in scripture, implied or not, that Scripture speaks within these logico/causal parameters (an if . . . then scenario).

    I do think good works are part of the Christian's life; but that they aren't to be used as the barometer for determining if one is "saved" or not. Instead they are intended to bear witness to the works of the Father as we edify one another for the further purpose of service (which includes primarily evangelism [a testimony of love]).

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