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. James 2.14-19.
How we Christians shy away from the letter of James! Martin Luther called it “a right strawy epistle” and was of the opinion that it was actually inconsistent with the teachings of Paul. In particular, he saw today’s passage as contradicting Paul’s great statement in Ephesians 2 that, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2.8-9). But is there really any conflict or inconsistency between these two passages?
Surely James is merely spelling out the nature of saving faith — how you can recognise it and know whether someone has it or not. “Suppose,” he says, “that there is in the local church a Christian who falls on such hard times that he is desperate — naked and destitute are the Greek terms used — and someone else in that church — a person who professes his faith in Christ — is so unconcerned about his plight that he merely bids him a cheery farewell — ‘Go in peace’, is the Greek — and adds a preposterous ‘Take care, won’t you? look after yourself!’ as he heads off home for Sunday lunch. Has that man really got anything that Paul or anyone else would recognise as faith?”
It is a good question and an important one. The principle James lays down is a God-given one and it is this: that when something is alive you can recognise its life by the fact that it breathes and moves and does things … so with living faith; it will be dynamic and productive and fruitful of good works. If it isn’t, it is dead.
Earning salvation is not the issue here. James knows just as well as Paul that you cannot earn your salvation by any amount of good works. But what concerns him is that, by placing all the stress on faith, we lose sight of the fact that genuine faith — the kind through which Paul says we are being saved — is a faith that by its very nature outworks itself in loving, caring, compassionate activity in the real world.
Going back a long number of years, I was for a time involved with a group of Christians who sneered at what they called “the social gospel lot”. By contrast, we were a very “spiritual” bunch. We spent all our time with our noses in the Bible or at prayer meetings and never gave a thought to the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the destitute. How James would have laid into us! “Show me your faith without deeds,” he says. And the fact is that, if I have no deeds … if there is no outworking of what I claim to have within me … then I have no genuine faith; all I have is a creed.
And that is what James is saying at the end of this morning’s reading. Twice every day, any devout Jew — even perhaps those who had embraced Christianity — would recite the Shema — “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6.4). “Good for you,” says James. “That’s fine. It is indeed a core belief. But don’t forget that the devil believes it too, and if you think he has ‘saving faith’ you are very much mistaken! Don’t confuse accepting the truth of something with having faith. There is a lot more to faith than just having a creed and believing it.”
The proof that I have faith is not my intellectual assent to a set of Christian propositions but a changed life that increasingly reflects the character of Jesus.