Our discussion of James 2 in my men's Bible study was quite interesting. There are two main themes in this chapter. The first is about showing (or not showing) favoritism. The key there is not that we can't recognize who is poor, rich, old or young, but that we tend to judge people based on external appearance, and to discriminate against them based on this faulty judgement. The text reminds us that we too will be judged, and that mercy triumphs over justice.
The most challenging part about James 2 is the teaching on the relationship between faith, deeds, and salvation.
- v14 asks if faith unaccompanied by works can save us? (v20 answers it's foolish to think so)
- v19 points out that even demons "believe" - that's not enough
- v21 suggest Abraham was "considered righteous" for his deeds (v22 expands that his faith and deeds were working together)
- v24 "You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone." (NIV)
So, what's the problem?
- Hebrews 11 talks about the supreme role that faith plays in salvation and righteous living, noting that Abraham was a man of faith
- Romans 4 and Galatians 3 seem to be crystal clear that salvation comes through faith alone, and in fact say Abraham was made righteous because of his faith. For example: "We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness." (Rom 4:9, NIV). Also v24: "God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead."
- Eph 2:8-9 is also clear: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast." (NIV)
Are these two authors teaching a contradictory view of salvation?
The answer is clearly: No. Paul is focusing on the angle of the means and cause of our salvation (repentance that results in faith in what Christ has done to save us from our sins) while James is simply looking at another angle - the natural result or demonstration of a faith that in fact saves is a manifestation of a changed life, of good deeds that spring from understanding and living in God's love. Paul's target was non-Christians (Jews) who were trying to justifying/save themselves by their good deeds and following the law. James is speaking to Jewish Christians (especially those suffering from persecution) who would prefer to rest on their laurels of believe and live life the way they want.
How do we confuse this? We've reduced the word "believe" to mere mental assent. (The demons believe in Christ.) Faith is believe in action. If you tell me that you believe an old wooden chair will hold you, but will not sit in it, then your believe is not faith. Faith is demonstrated by sitting in the chair. The act sitting down isn't what makes it faith, but shows it. The same Greek word 'pisteuō' is sometimes translated as 'believe' and other times 'to have faith'. The original readers didn't see two words - it is the modern mind which cheapens the idea of believe to an intellectual agreement. The other point of confusion is that the greek word 'dikaioō' sometimes means "declared righteous" (as in Romans 4:2, 5:1, 5:9) but can also mean "demonstrates righteousness" (as here in James 2:21, 2:24, 2:25). The completed work of Christ on the cross, an act of grace received by faith, is what justifies us (makes us righteous), but our deeds and love for one another demonstrate that this righteousness has been made real in our lives. I John 1:6-7 point out that if we walk in darkness, with no fruit or good deeds, our faith is a sham and the truth is not in us, while if we walk in the light, then Christ's blood in fact has paid the price for our sins.
Its no coincidence that Ephesians 2:10 follows v8-9: "For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." We are saved in order that we might do good works - it is not true that we must do good works in order to be saved. This is a critical distinction, but one that should be clear from studying all the passages mentioned above.