“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom 3:28). We all know that we are justified by faith, not by works.
However, here in James, the writer emphasizes the necessity of works for salvation. He says explicitly that faith without works (deeds, ergon in Greek) is dead, and such faith cannot save man.
We are confused whether we are justified by faith or by works. It is well known that Martin Luther also said that the book of James was an epistle of straw due to this seeming contradiction. Of course, there is no contradiction in the Scripture, but our eyes reading the Scrip-ture can deceive us.
We are justified (saved) by faith, not by works. Basically, James does not say that we are saved by the works of the law. This is obvious if we read James 2:10: “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” By this verse, James also says that we cannot be saved by the works of the law. In fact, James and Paul speak in the same way.
How is this?
14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, 16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? 17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. 18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. 19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. 20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? 22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? 23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abra-ham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. 24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. 25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? 26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
Faith and Works Are One
James says, “Faith without works is dead.” First, ‘faith’ is the life of Jesus, which comes to us who have the sinful life, through the life begetting process. In this process, we are to meet Jesus and follow Him to the cross to destroy our ‘old man.’ And when this is done, Jesus will be resurrected in us as Christ, and at this moment, we will have the life of Jesus, a new life. This is how we are justified and saved by faith.
Please keep this definition of faith in mind. It is the initiative of the life of Jesus, as grace, to give us His life. It is not through our believing initiative, i.e., legalistic efforts. The ‘works’ refers to our actual obedience to the initiative of the living Jesus, the life. Faith and works are one, and they cannot be separated. If we have sound faith, we will do sound works. If we have dead faith, our works will be ‘dead.’ Nobody stops going to heaven knowing that he is going to heaven, and nobody goes to hell knowing that he is going to hell.
Think about the Pharisees, the holders of dead faith, who sent Jesus to the cross. Jesus spoke about them as follows in Luke:
Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.
They had legalistic faith, so they did dead works unwittingly. If they had known, they would not have done so.
Likewise, so far we have known faith as our believing efforts, which is not from true faith. Consequently, we have been doing dead works unwittingly. Faith and works are one. In this respect, the term ‘faith without works’ is a paradox, if we read faith here as the true faith of Jesus. It is ‘dead faith,’ which produces ‘without works.’ Needless to say, ‘(dead) faith without works’ cannot save us. Consider the simple illustration below.
(a) faith = works = justification (b) (dead) faith = (dead) works (=deeds of the law) = non-justification
Paul says we are justified by faith (a), without the ‘deeds of the law (b). James also says in line with Paul that ‘faith without works,’ which is the ‘deeds of the law’ (b) above, cannot justify us. Do not be confused by the terms ‘faith’ and ‘works,’ but you should be wise to know what they truly mean in context. Let us read James together with this basic understanding.
Faith Without Works
14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
What is the ‘faith without works,’ which cannot save us? When you read this word, you think that God through James urges you to do works, so you try to do works. What works are you going to do? You have done enough works so far. Under this situation, whatever you do you are not doing works. Works come from faith. Dead faith produces dead works. So if you are not doing works, you first check whether your faith is sound. Surely, it is dead, that is why you are without works.
To be justified, we should follow the real Jesus to the cross. As long as we are doing so, our every step is the work of faith, and after all, we will be justified by such works. If we digress from this process of faith, that is, do not follow through to the cross, all our works will be in vain. In this case, the works we do have nothing to do with justification. The works we do will not be counted as works. This is the ‘faith without works’ that James speaks of.
We all think that we have faith, as we attend church and read the Bible and try to love neighbors, hoping for a new life. However, the faith we know is not that which is testified to by the Scripture. As mentioned above, faith is to follow Jesus to the cross to destroy our old man, and to have Jesus resurrected in us. If we have an incorrect concept of this faith, automatically the works we perform will be dead works. Can this faith save us? Definitely, not!
Depart in Peace, Be Warmed and Filled
15 If a brother or sister be naked, and desti-tute of daily food, 16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? 17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
When you read this message, you may think you are not one of them who do good works only by mouth, because you practice doing good things like donation, sharing and stretching out a helping hand to the needy in Jesus’ name. So you are sure that you are someone who has works and faith together, and think that these verses should be heard by the lip-service believers out there.
Actually, however, it is you who is helping the needy only with mouth. You do so, not because you want to do so, but because you do not understand what the Scripture refers to as faith and works. If you are in the process of true faith, you should already have known the meanings of ‘giving clothes to the naked,’ ‘giving daily food’ and ‘giving them peace.’ The meanings of these works are spiritual, not of the flesh.
Read the following passages.
For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ
I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.
Jesus gave clothes of righteousness for the naked (sinners). We have to do these works after laying down our ‘old man’ on the cross first. Also Jesus gave daily food for the poor. Consider John.
56 He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. 58 This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever.
His flesh means the Word, and when we eat the Word, we can have eternal life. And this food, we should be able to give to our neighbors, when the Word is written on our hearts, after going through our cross. Also Jesus gave us peace.
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.
The peace that Jesus refers to is not the peace that we generally know, but the peace between the sinful man and God, which is only possible by His crucifixion and resurrection in us. We, as believers, should be able to give this peace to others.
So you may be doing the works of good according to moral codes, but you are not doing the works spiritually. Of course, you may also say that you are giving spiritual clothes, food and peace as written in the Scripture, but in reality, you do not know what they are all about. So you cannot help them spiritually. James is enlight-ening this darkness within you. This is the case that “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone,” that is, the legalistic faith.
Devils Also Believe
Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. 19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. 20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
Faith is inside our beings and is unseen. Works are the fruit of faith, which are seen. The one who has dead faith cannot show sound works, but only dead works. For example, the Pharisees, who do not want to know what sound faith is, have dead faith of their own. Under the circum-stances, whatever they do, it has to be dead works. So they can never show their faith. Jesus rebukes such scribes and Pharisees as follows in
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.
The Pharisees, after reading the Scripture, were only concerned with the works they do (make clean the outside). Figuratively speaking, they put grapes on thistles, and say, “Look, I have fruit.” This is their faith and works, which are surely dead. They are hypocrites, the holders of legalistic faith.
They believe in God superficially, but in reality, they cannot do any works of God. That is, their faith exists in their thinking and talking, and they produce no works. This is the faith of demons (daimonion in Greek). A demon is a being that is considered to have a spirit only without a body. So is the faith of the Pharisees. You can understand ‘faith without works’ as one term, and it is another expression of legalistic faith.
Justification of Abraham
Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? 22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? 23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. 24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
Abraham is the prototype of man who has sound faith. He of-fered Isaac his son upon the altar and became a man justified by faith. We easily think of this as a historical event and praise him for his faith to offer his beloved son whom he begot at the age of one hundred. If we construe this event as such, surely Abraham is the elder of faith. So then, what is that to me? I am not Abraham.
Many believers try to have the faith of Abraham by doing works that imitate his. So they are offering everything that they have, be it mental or physical, to God. However, we cannot have the faith of Abraham in this way. This is apparent if we think about ourselves who spent several decades trying, and do not yet have such faith. We are misguided. In order to possess the faith of Abraham, we also should offer Isaac upon the altar as he did.
Then, who is the Isaac whom we should offer to God and how? Isaac is the figure of Jesus, and we should offer Jesus to the altar according to faith. So we should meet and follow Him and during this process, our ‘old man,’ the body of sin, will be crucified. When this is completed, we are justified. Read Romans.
Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. 7 For he that is dead is freed from sin.
In this way, we offer Isaac (Jesus) upon the altar like Abraham, and so we will have the same faith as Abraham. James refers to Abraham as being justified by works. The works refer to the offering of Isaac on the altar.
Here, we should know that faith requires works in two stages, first, to offer Isaac on the altar for the justification and salvation of ourselves, and second, to love our neighbors as ourselves (to save others as Jesus did). And this is what Jesus says in Matthew.
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Above verses 37 through 38 speak of offering Isaac, the be-loved son of each one of us and at the same time our old man, on the altar for justification. This is explained by the cases of Abraham and Rahab in this passage. And verse 39 speaks of the agape love we get from God after offering our Isaac on the cross. This is explained under the heading of “Depart in Peace, Be Warmed and Filled.” As Jesus says “And the second is like unto it,” the first and the second are connected as one. That is, when we receive agape love through the cross, with that love we can love our neighbors.
As Abraham offered Isaac, it was said that he believed God, and so he became righteous, and was called the friend of God. We also should be so by offering Isaac.
Faith of Rahab
25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? 26 For as the body with-out the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
Rahab was justified by works. This is not to mean that Rahab was justified by one single deed. She was justified by following the process of faith to the cross. This is signified as follows: Rahab received the messengers of Joshua. The spiritual meaning of this is that Rahab met Jesus (the messengers of Joshua), which is the first coming of Jesus to her. She had sent them out another way, to let them live at the risk of her life.
This means spiritually that she followed Jesus to destroy her ‘old man’ on the cross in spite of her life (‘old man’) in peril in order to allow the new life to grow in her. This is her offering of Isaac upon the altar. Then, Joshua came into Jericho where she was, and she was received by him (Jos 6:17). This means spiritually that she received Jesus in her as Christ (the Holy Spirit), which is the second coming of Jesus, and thus was justified.
Rahab was doing works according to faith, so the works saved her. “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (Jam 2:26). Only works by faith can save us. ‘Works by dead faith’ or ‘faith without works’ are dead, they cannot save us.
James speaks of works, which should be in accord with faith. He wishes to reveal that we, the believers, are doing works not ac-cording to faith, but according to our own man-made moral codes. So from the standpoint of the truth, we are doing no works. Such faith or works will not justify and save us. The faith without works, that is, legalistic faith, exists only in our imagination like demons. And it is dead. Therefore, this is what James says in this passage: “Follow the living Jesus to the cross, and this is works of faith that you should do. When you complete this, you will be justified, and you will do works of faith thereafter forever.”
Taken from the Book: ‘Fresh Eyes to Read the Bible – Book 2 – The Real Jesus’