James, Part 13
James, pastor of the church in Jerusalem a decade after Jesus’s ascension, wrote a letter to Christians in the Diaspora. He was concerned about the persecution they were enduring and the false teaching they were embracing. There were numerous misconceptions about what it means to be a Christian, and James corrects several. In chapter 2, he addresses inaccurate teaching they had received concerning the nature of faith.
They were being taught the Christian faith is personal and private and need not change a believer’s way of life. James disagrees. He says genuine faith is living and powerful and will always show up in the lifestyle of a Christ follower. He offers a well-reasoned argument that begins with an explanation of what faith is not.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but doesn’t show it by their actions? Can that kind of faith save them? If a brother or sister has no food or clothing, and you say, “Go in peace; stay warm and eat well,” but do nothing about the person’s physical needs–what good does that do? In the same way, faith, if not accompanied by action, is dead.
The people James wrote to had a shallow and partial understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. He tells them the Christian faith is much deeper than what they have been taught. “What good is it,” James asks, “if someone claims to have faith but doesn’t show it by his actions?”
As Jesus taught in Matthew 7, some who claim to be Christian are not. “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said. “Only those who do the will of my Father in heaven.”
Jesus said it’s not enough to claim him as Lord–to enter heaven we must “do the will” of the Father. But what does it mean to do the will of God? Thankfully, we are not left to answer that question on our own. “Will” is a translation of the Greek, thelos (wish, desire). So to “do the will” of God is to “do what he wishes/desires” us to do. The apostle Peter says God “is long-suffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). God’s will–his fervent desire–is that we would not perish. He wants us to repent. He wants us to turn away from our sins and toward him.
James, like Jesus, says faith is not simply saying we have changed. “Faith” is a synonym for “trust.” Faith is about trusting God enough to allow him to change us, and we trust in what we rely upon. If I trust someone to guide me through unfamiliar territory, I will follow them. I will turn when told to turn and stop when told to stop. If I trust God to guide me through life, I will follow him. I will turn when told to turn and stop when told to stop. I will do what God desires, even when it conflicts with my own desires, because I trust he knows what’s best for me.
In verse 18, James introduces an imaginary questioner to explain the nature of faith more completely: “Now someone may argue, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”
The key words are “show me.” Faith is odorless, tasteless, and weightless. Anyone can claim to have it. James says the only way someone can see your faith is if you show it to them. Faith is like calories–you can’t see it, but you can certainly see its effect. And James says the number one effect of faith is love in action. His example in verse 15 of a homeless hungry believer echoes his earlier warning against prejudice. In their case, it was discrimination against the poor, but James could have said the same about racism, sexism, or ageism. He warns against discrimination in any form because all its shapes and sizes cause harm. Prejudice damages our relationship with God and the person we discriminate against, and damages our own heart in the process.
James is not telling them they must add good works to their faith. He is saying they have misunderstood what faith in Jesus is.
Next: What faith is.