James 2:14-16: A Real Faith Works

With each passing year, Americans are becoming less religious. According to the Survey Center on American Life, one-third of Gen Z (those born after the mid-1990s) does not affiliate with any religion. With less involvement in church, people generally view the Bible differently. They are more likely to be skeptical of its claims. As Christians try to understand the message of Scripture, they must also seek to be “ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks [them] for a reason for the hope that is in [them]” (1 Peter 3:15, CSB).

This month’s passage is one that often leads skeptical individuals to conclude that the Bible is full of contradictions. James’ central message is that faith without works is dead. At one point, he claims that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24, CSB). Paul, however, states in Galatians and Romans that God justifies Christians by faith: “and yet because we know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we ourselves have believed in Christ Jesus. This was so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified” (Galatians 2:16, CSB). How can both Paul and James be right?

Several considerations help us to understand James’ message. First, James and Paul were both trying to keep one group of Christians from looking down on another group of Christians. Throughout James 2, James was seeking to keep the rich from mistreating the poor. Specifically in James 2:14-16, he was preventing the rich from using “faith” as a cop-out from helping the poor. Paul encountered a situation in Galatia where Jewish believers were refusing to eat with Gentiles (Galatians 2:12-14). In other words, they were treating Gentiles as if they hadn’t yet been justified. Both Paul and James, therefore, were fighting the urge to treat some Christians as second rate.

Another important consideration is that James and Paul were defining words differently. For Paul, the word “works” typically refers to the “works of the law,” like circumcision. For James, “works” refers to good works like giving to the poor (James 2:15-16). Galatian believers trusted that their works of the law (like circumcision) would justify them. The Christians James encountered assumed that justification by faith meant that they didn’t need to help the poor.

Secondly, each writer used the word “faith” differently. For Paul, faith was acknowledging Jesus as Lord; this faith leads to “obedience” (Romans 1:5, 16:26). For James, “faith” is simply intellectual agreement, which is why demons can have “faith.” They “believe” in God without submitting to him.

Lastly, James and Paul used the word “justify” in different ways. For Paul, justification occurs at the beginning of a person’s walk with Christ (Romans 5:1). Good works come later (Ephesians 2:10). For James, justification comes after conversion. Abraham demonstrated his justification when offering Isaac (James 2:21). For Paul, justification is God declaring us righteous; for James, justification is God demonstrating our righteous status that came at conversion.

In a secular age, it’s good to provide an answer to the charge that the Bible contains contradictions. But it’s not enough. James’ message warns us that an insincere profession of faith will not get us into heaven. We must demonstrate our faith through actions. Without “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6), to paraphrase Brennan Manning, an unbelieving culture will find us unbelievable.

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