Book of James Lesson Six
by Dr. Michael Cochran
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BOOK OF JAMES BIBLE STUDY
LESSON #6 - (James 2: 14-26, NIV)
TITLE: PRACTICAL FAITH
DR. MICHAEL COCHRAN
APPLICATION: What I say must be matched by what I do if God is to be glorified by my witness.
JAMES 2: 14-17
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.
Let it be said from the outset that James does not have a quarrel with Paul's doctrine of salvation. The subject matter that the two great church leaders deal with, for the most part, is not the same. Paul establishes and defines the doctrine of salvation; James establishes and defines the doctrine of how one discerns genuine faith.
The Church has always had some confusion about the difference between the two aspects of the Christian life, but has even more trouble today when so many people profess to believe the Gospel and we, in our credulity, believe the profession without discerning that it is the way people act that tells us whether they are believers in Christ or not. Our notion of Christian behavior may well involve someone's standing to give “testimony” in church; James notion involves knowing whether that someone gave bread to a needy neighbor! The two activities are not mutually exclusive, but verbal profession is not what James uses to evaluate true faith.
We cannot know whether the incident James mentions really happened. It sounds so outrageous to say, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” and then not do anything for the poor unfortunate to whom those words may have been uttered. But then Christians often fall into the habit of saying well-meaning religious phrases without really thinking about it. How often has the phrase “I'll pray for you” been said without the actual prayer having been repeated? Pious words are appropriate if they are backed up by pious deeds. If they aren't, they are fraud.
It is interesting to note that the words, “Go, I wish you well” were the benediction pronounced by the early church deacons at the close of communion. Perhaps James is warning that just as it is easy to give a benediction ritualistically, so is it easy to dismiss a problem with a blessing while not really dealing with it. Clothing and feeding the needy--- if they are the main evidence that you are a Christian, would you be convicted on the evidence?
JAMES 2: 18-19
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.
One suspects that James is quoting a phrase he has heard. Perhaps some recruiter in the early church, out looking for Gentile converts., was making it too easy for them, telling them that becoming a Christian was really rather easy---only believe and don't worry about the rest. Such a message, for example, would have appealed to the people of Corinth to whom Paul wrote two letters.
The gist of Paul's two letters rather closely parallels the very problem with which James is here dealing. Some people in Corinth evidently said to Paul that although they were Christians they still felt free to visit the temple prostitutes (see 1 Corinthians 6) and frequent pagan sacrifices (see 1 Corinthians 10). The were obviously telling the apostle that they felt free to do whatever they liked and still be Christian. But Paul's message was no different from James's---the man living with his father's wife had to be expelled from the fellowship; Christians were not to worship with pagans (though they might eat meat offered to idols if it caused not harm in the local assembly); they must stop visiting the temple prostitutes.
Indeed, Paul and James are in essential agreement. Paul could have written, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do,” as easily as James. That Paul did not state the case exactly that way does not put them at odds.
Perhaps it is well to think of the problem of saving faith this way: It begins with intellectual assent---it has to---but it cannot stop there. Because, while intellectual assent is a necessary part of the life of faith, it is not the whole life. Our minds, our wills, our emotions---all of our being must be committed to serving God and keeping His Commandments. That would explain James's odd reference to demons: they believe, they have an intellectual knowledge that there is one God, but that knowledge will not save them, because they will not serve Him.
JAMES 2: 20-24
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.
Abraham is an appropriate example of doing. Although he was justified by faith well before the time of the offering of his son Isaac on the altar, the very fact that Abraham was willing, perhaps 30 years later, to give up Isaac and thus jeopardize his hopes for a heir witnessed to the faith he still had that God could even raise that son from the dead, if necessary, to fulfill His promises. Abraham's example is an example of the very essence of what saving faith is about: believing and acting on what God's Word says, no matter what the immediate consequences, because one knows that God's ultimate purpose will not fail. It is important to realize that the offering of Isaac was not a mere showcase to provide later generations with a good story, something good for others but of no consequence to himself. Rather, what happened justified his justification, his justification in some sense being verified by his living faith. Every step of faithful obedience in some way testifies to the grace that enables us to believe and obey. Though we often speak of faith and works as separate, in the Biblical framework they are closely related. Genuine Christians persevere in the Christian life because they have faith; we know they have faith because they persevere.
Abraham is called “our ancestor,” the father of the faithful, because his spiritual descendants have the same faith that he had, and their lives follow the pattern of his life. Those who are justified by grace through faith---and show it---are Abraham's seed (see John 8). They, too, are in some sense God's special friend (vs. 23). God did not hide from Abraham what He proposed to do and hence permitted Abraham to see something of the great plan of redemption He was working out in history. What a privilege then to be counted with him as faithful.
JAMES 2: 25-26
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.
The brief mention of Rahab the harlot is extremely intriguing. She, too, is mentioned in Scripture as an example of faith (see Hebrew 11). As a Canaanite she committed the remarkable act of hiding two Hebrew spies sent by Joshua to explore the land around Jericho in preparation for the first great battles for the conquest of the Promised Land.
Not only did Rahab misdirect soldiers who came looking for the Hebrew spies, but she also persuaded the rest of her family to seek shelter in the protection of her house while the Hebrews marched around the city without showing any signs of attacking! Like Noah, she was an ark of safety for those related to her, and like Noah and Abraham, she believed God in the midst of incredible circumstances. It is good to be reminded that, though the matters of faith may sometimes seem academic for us today, real faith is never merely academic.
James clinches his argument in verse 26 with a striking image that compares faith and works with body and spirit. Works are the spirit or dynamic that makes visible the faith we possess. If our faith does not produce good works, it is like a body without life. We would probably want to reverse the image and consider faith as related to the spirit and works as related to the body, but that probably only shows how far we have strayed from Biblical teaching on faith.
QUESTIONS TO PONDER:
1. Do you have friends that seem to be trying to work their way to Heaven? How can you relate to them that only a faith that works truly saves?
2. Do you know of people who seem to believe that Christianity is true, but who do not seem to be changed by that belief? Can you think of ways to show them that the intellectual faith they have must become a life-style commitment?
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