In the opening verse James asks the question "what good is it for a person to claim to have faith when their actions do nothing to show it", REB. "Can such faith save?" James goes on to answer the question, arguing that a faith without works is not authentic, it "is a dead thing."
v14-17. James contends that a faith which claims to look to the mercy of God, but does not show itself in acts of mercy, is a fraud. Such religious faith cannot save since it has no substance; it is nothing more than an expression of religious piety. Such faith is dead and means nothing; it is false, futile and barren. The fruit of this "dead" faith is a cold, hard, callous disregard for the needs of others. In simple terms, "faith without deeds is a dead thing."
v18. James now presents his argument in the words of an imaginary objector, v18-19. The objector separates faith from godliness, holding that faith can exist apart from deeds, and this against James' argument that genuine faith issues in deeds of mercy, in godliness. James now issues a challenge which he will answer in the following verses. "I challenge you to prove to me that you have faith in any other way than by actions", William Barclay.
v19. James now sets out to answer this challenge himself. First he points out that a "faith" which is little more that a verbal profession is next to useless. The demons believe that God exists and shudder at the thought of their coming judgement. So, just saying "I have faith" means nothing in itself.
v20. Whereas a profession of faith evidences nothing, James now shows that deeds do indeed evidence genuine faith, so proving his point that "faith without deeds is a dead thing." He illustrates this fact in the life of Abraham and Rahab:
v21-24. First, an illustration from the life of Abraham. From two quotations, the first from the book of Maccabees and the second from Genesis, James makes the point that both Abraham's deeds and faith are integrally linked to his justification. In the life of a justified person, a person set-right with God, their faith is evidenced in their deeds. The illustration drives home the point that a genuine faith in the mercy of God will show itself in deeds of mercy.
v25-26. Second, an illustration from the life of Rahab. Again, James shows from scripture that Rahab's deeds and faith are integrally linked to her justification. As a justified person, the quality of her faith is evidenced in her deeds - she did all that she could to protect God's servants in Jericho. As the absence of breathing in a body indicates an absence of life, so the absence of good deeds (acts of mercy, forgiveness, love, obedience...) indicates the absence of genuine faith.
How do we approach a passage like this? At first sight, it seems to be an exhortation to obedience. It is certainly surrounded by passages encouraging us to obey - don't show favoritism, tame the tongue. Yet, it would be dangerous to take it as an exhortation to obey. If we took it that way it would be saying something like.... "demonstrate your faith through obedience". This would be a strange exhortation, and in any case, if we have faith we will automatically tend to act in a loving way. We probably do need to be reminded to allow the motivating love of the indwelling Christ to shape love in our lives. It is good to be reminded of our little love and draw anew from the cleansing presence of Christ. Yet is this the point James is wanting to make to us?
In this letter, James is not so much encouraging his readers toward deeds of love, as to genuine faith. He makes the point that if we are unwilling to walk before the Lord in deeds of love, then we really have no claim on him. He is obviously not our friend. There is no value in trying to find security in religious faith while our lives are lived out in rebellion, for a genuine faith will show itself in good deeds. So the passage removes the false security of an intellectual faith, and forces the reader to see their rebellion for what it is. If we are unwilling to listen to exhortations to do good, then such unwillingness only shows we have not come to a saving faith in Christ. James is driving us back to the cross to seek forgiveness.
Just as there is no security in law-obedience, so there is no security in an intellectualized religious faith. Our only security lies in the mercy of a loving God whose mercy makes us more merciful. Where does our security lie if we are not merciful, if we show partiality 2:1-13, if we use our tongue as a "restless evil, full of deadly poison" 3:1-12?
1. A person can have faith apart from deeds, v18. Discuss this claim.
2. Relate the intellectual belief of demons to the human equivalent, v19.
3. Discuss the "cross bearing" example of Abraham and Rahab.