I. Martin Luther called James a book of straw (1 Corinthians 3:12-15), meaning that the letter would (or should?) be burned up. He thought that it conflicted with the doctrine of salvation through faith alone. His aversion to the book was ironic, as he himself said that he should be called the ‘doctor of good works’[1].

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?

Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 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? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

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. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.

You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 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. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

There is a foundation on which any argument is built and we can miss that foundation if we assume we know what it is. Our initial assumption on reading James’ letter is that he is saying ‘Salvation isn’t by faith alone: you must also have works.’ We assume that there is a conflict between James’ theology and Paul’s. Most Protestants try to reconcile this by saying that Paul and James define faith differently: that Paul defines faith as ‘commitment’ but for James it means merely intellectual agreement – ‘You believe there is one God; so do the demons’.

Certainly we must understand how each writer uses the word ‘faith’: we shouldn’t assume that, because He is the ultimate author, God overrode each writer’s individual style. So James may use ‘faith’ differently from Paul without it being an illegitimate use of language. Before we assume this, though, let’s see what foundation James has rested his argument on.

In fact, the foundation of this section of James is at the beginning, in verse 14: specifically, one word in that verse. Firstly, read this sentence: ‘What good is it, my brothers, if a man has faith but has no deeds?’ Now read verse 14. Can you see that crucial word? Finding it was my ‘Eureka!’ moment: it was the key that opened up most of the passage. Immediately after, I found a spare key, the second sentence in the verse: ‘Can such faith save him?’ Note what James doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, ‘Faith in Christ alone won’t save you’: in fact, he assumes that it does.

James’ actual question is: what type of faith truly joins us to Christ Jesus? Faith that is merely intellectual assent – the same faith the demons have? Or is it faith that not only prays because everything depends on God but also works as if everything depended on us? All Christians should agree that saving faith is of the second kind; faith that acts on God’s word. The first kind is insufficient [2]. James isn’t saying that if we believe, we must act. He is saying that our actions show what we believe. ‘You claim to have faith in Christ Jesus – so what? If you do have faith that Christ alone saves, your works will show it.’ Jesus said something similar: ‘By their fruits you will know them.’[3]

Salvation: faith in Christ → salvation.
Christian life: faith in Christ → salvation → works.

II. Any theory must encompass all of the relevant evidence, or it is inadequate. Those of us who hold to the doctrine of ‘salvation by grace along, through faith alone, in Christ alone’ could wish that James had been less synthetic in his combination of faith and works in his examples. This is because we are too familiar with the idea that righteousness refers primarily to our legal standing with a just God. We get worried when we think of ‘righteous’ actions. For the Israelite, righteousness was not just one’s standing before God, it was also a standard of behaviour, implying action that was moral, suitable or just plain good. A few examples in the Old Testament are: Psalm 15:2 ‘who does what is righteous’; 51:19 ‘righteous sacrifices’; 119:75 ‘your laws are righteous’; 119:21 ‘I have done what is righteous and just’.

In the Old Testament, the Bible pictures two types of people: the righteous and the unrighteous. This referred not only to their standing with God, but to their lives as well. If you were right with God, this would be seen in your life. This was only a rule of thumb, of course: King David would still be considered as a righteous person, even though his evil actions in seducing Bathsheba and murdering her husband were far from righteous. (And as a result of it, he rarely had any ease for the rest of his life.) Rather, the general tenor of his life was one of dependence on God. The same was true of Moses, who committed murder and dishonoured God in front of the whole nation. And also Abraham, whom God chose to bless all people, disobeyed and lied was still considered righteous.

The traditional interpretation of this passage of James is that Abraham’s acts demonstrated his faith in God. God knew that Abraham’s believed him (Genesis 15:6) but we could only see Abraham’s belief when he obeyed God in going to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18). The same was true of Rahab: she believed that the Israelites would conquer the land, so she acted to preserve her life and that of her family. We could only see Rahab’s faith through her actions.

The main stumbling block for a ‘faith alone’ interpretation of James is this verse (24):

You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

This doesn’t mean righteous works are necessary to salvation: James doesn’t say we’re justified ‘before God’ by faith and works, but we assume that’s what he means. Our doctrinal hackles raise because we’re used to interpreting ‘righteousness’ and ‘justification’ words, which are from the Greek dikaiosunē, as referring only to our salvation but not to how we live. A more wholistic concept of righteousness doesn’t damage the concept of imputed righteousness; it adds an extra dimension to it, which is not only vertical – how we stand before God – but horizontal – how we act towards others.

In the verses immediately before verse 24, James writes: ‘You see that his [Abraham’s] faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.’ This isn’t saying that Abraham was saved by works, which James immediately goes on to reject. He quotes the verse (Genesis 15:6) that calls Abraham ‘righteous’: this event happened long before the interrupted sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22). What this amounts to is that what we believe affects what we do: our faith can only be seen through our actions.

This is what James seems to mean when he says (in verses 22 and 23) that Abraham’s faith was made complete by his actions. James doesn’t say that Abraham’s salvation was made complete by his works: his faith was. This reflects the Hebrew mindset that righteousness was both a standing with God and a way of living.

James completes his argument by the body-spirit analogy: the body without the spirit is dead. If the spirit is in the body, the body is alive and its movements will demonstrate the life within. If a person doesn’t move, you don’t know if they’re alive; still less what they believe. But movements don’t give life to the body; only the indwelling spirit gives both life and movement.

[1] Luther: man between God and the devil. Heiko Oberman.
[2] The first kind is the straw man of ‘faith alone’ that Christians (Protestants, usually) are accused of preaching.
[3] Matthew 7:16,20.

Copyright 2007 Troy Grisgonelle.