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James 2:14-26: The Dangerous Deception of Dead Faith Print E-mail
Sunday, 05 April 2009

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We are looking at a passage this morning that has continually sparked controversy in the history of the Church. It is a passage like this that seemingly caused Luther to call James an ‘epistle of straw,’ although there were other reasons involved. Luther fought to recover the doctrine of justification by faith and those of the Catholic persuasion often pointed to James 2 to refute him. In one sense, this battle was the heart of the Reformation. Others have continually struggled to see how what James teaches here fits with Paul’s teaching on justification. These issues are still controversial today. The relationship between faith and works continues to be debated.

Yet, even though I understand the necessity of these debates, I fear the controversy has often caused us to miss the point. In the New Testament, two serious errors are corrected concerning the relationship between faith and works. The first is the belief that we have to add works to our faith in order to be declared righteous (justified). Paul battles against this error in Romans and Galatians and tells us: For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. The second error is the belief that faith in Christ will not result in changed lives. In other words, we can do whatever we want to as long as we profess faith in Christ. This is the error that James is addressing in his letter. He has already called us to be doers of the Word and told us that true religion will bridle the tongue, care for the needy, and not be stained by the world. He continues the argument in our passage this morning.

The question I want to pose is this: what do Churches look like that make these errors? Churches that believe that a person must add works in order to be saved will stress certain activities and rituals. It will tend to be legalistic and even pharisaical. Yet, Churches that believe that faith does not produce good works will be filled with unholy living and a lax stance towards sin. It will be filled with people who are not really concerned all that much with following and obeying Christ. They have their profession, their ‘faith,’ and that is all that they need. I have said this numerous times but I believe that evangelical Churches in America are plagued by this second error. Particularly in the south and within our own denomination, there are scores of people who have made professions in Christ, been baptized in our Churches and told they are believers, only to continue living for themselves and in their sin.

Thus, I understand that we need to deal with the controversy (and we will do our best this morning), but we need to see that this is not just some theological argument that does not really apply to us. No we need to hear what James is teaching us here. Our Churches and neighbors and family members need to hear what James is teaching.

The passage could be divided into three sections: the indicative statement (v. 14-17), an objection and answer (v. 18-19), and further defense (v. 20-26). For our purposes this morning, I want to simply contrast dead faith and living faith, which is done throughout the passage. We will consider this contrast along three lines: the description, some examples, and the implications. We will also attempt to address some of the controversy along the way.


Here is my description for dead faith: dead faith claims to follow Christ without the evidence of works. Look at verse 14. James introduces a person who says he has faith. In other words, this person claims to be a believer in God. They profess faith. Yet, James goes on to say that in spite of their claim this person does not have works. James then asks a staggering question: can that faith save him? We will look at this question more, but even here we see the importance of these issues. Look also at verse 17 and 26. Once again the definition of dead faith is clear: faith that does not have works is dead. James tells us this no less than three times in these verses.

So what about living faith? Well, in light of what we have already said, my description of living faith would be this: living faith evidences belief in Christ by works. Look at verse 18. The objection that James addresses in verse 18 claims that a person might have faith or works, but not necessarily both. ‘You have works and I have faith.’ James’ response is important for understanding the relationship between faith and works. He states: Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. The word translated ‘show’ by the ESV could be translated ‘display’ or ‘reveal’ and carries the idea of providing evidence. Thus, James is saying that our works evidence our faith. Look also at verse 22. Commenting on the example of Abraham, James speaks of Abraham’s faith being evidenced and completed (or confirmed, vindicated) by his works. So then, living faith evidences belief in Christ by works.

Before we move on, let me just go ahead a say a word or two about the apparent contradiction between Paul and James. Paul teaches in Romans and Galatians that we are saved by faith and not by works. We do not earn our way to heaven by adding good deeds to our faith in Christ. We could never earn salvation. James too believes that we are saved by faith and not by works. Yet, he is addressing here those who think that works will not follow faith. He calls such belief a trust in dead faith. Both teach that true, living faith, which evidences itself by works, is the only faith that saves. After teaching that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works, Paul then concludes: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10). In the places where Paul and James appear to contradict, we must remember that they are facing different errors and thus explain the relationship between faith and works from different perspectives. Instead of being contradictory, we must see them as complementary.


James gives us two examples of dead faith. First he gives us a practical example that follows on the heels of what he has already taught in the letter concerning our love for the poor. Look at verses 15-16. When a brother or sister is in need of food and clothing, dead faith will wish them well but do nothing to meet their needs. These verses remind us of Jesus’ teaching concerning the final judgment in Matthew 25. He tells us that those who act and meet the needs of one of the least of these will be welcome in the Kingdom. Yet, those who do not do this will be judged. James reflects such truth in this example. Faith that does not meet the physical needs of a fellow brother or sister is dead and worthless. The second example of dead faith involves the faith of demons. Look at verse 19. We believe in monotheism, that God is one. Both testaments teach this truth and we rightly hold to it. But a belief in monotheism is not necessarily living faith. Even the demons believe that there is one God, an idea that causes them to shudder. Good doctrine is important, but it is not enough by itself. It must change us.

James also gives us two examples of living faith. He begins with the example of Abraham. Look at verses 20-23. Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteousness when he believed that God would give him descendents as numerous as the stars. But this faith was not stagnant. No it was active and when God tested him with the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s faith evidenced itself to be true, living faith. The second example of living faith may surprise us. James tells us of the faith of Rahab, who at the risk of her own life hid the spies that Joshua had sent and got them out of Jericho alive. Her claim to believe in Israel’s God was vindicated by her actions. James uses the stories of a patriarch and a prostitute to teach us that living faith is a faith that works. No matter who you are, only true faith, which is evidenced by works, will save you.


So now we come to the verdict: what good is dead faith? As James asks: can that faith save? The repeated answer that we are given throughout the text is a resounding no. Faith without works is dead and dead faith cannot save. Such faith is as good as the faith of demons. In the end, it is useless. We can claim all day to have faith in Christ, but without the evidence of works, such a claim will never save us. It’s as good as me saying that I can dunk a basketball, when everyone who has ever seen me on the court, knows that is a lie. Thus, to trust in dead faith is profoundly dangerous. We must avoid it at all costs.

And living faith? Living faith, which is evidenced by works, can indeed save. In verse 14, James assumes the belief that we are saved by faith. His goal is to contrast two different types of faith: dead and living faith. Does James teach in this passage that we are saved by works? No. But what about the fact that he says that Abraham and Rahab are justified by their works and concludes in verse 24: You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone? A couple of things. First, the ‘faith alone’ that James speaks of here is obviously a reference to the dead faith that he has been describing. Paul and James agree that such dead faith does not save. Second, the term ‘justified’ can mean different things in different contexts. In Paul it means to be declared righteous. But in James it seems to refer to the idea of vindication. Abraham’s faith was vindicated by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Rahab’s faith was vindicated by her actions toward the spies. In this light, we can better understand all of the passages in the New Testament that speak of judgment being based upon our actions (Matthew 25:31-46, Romans 2:6-11, Revelation 20:11-13, etc.) True, saving faith will be justified by actions.

Let me close with the all important question from this passage: do you have dead or living faith? Have you been deceived into thinking that your actions do not matter, that they reveal nothing about your relationship with God? If you have, then let me encourage you this morning to repent of your sins and to take up your cross and follow after Christ. Hear the words of Jesus again: On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’…And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness (Matt. 7:22-23). My goal is not for anyone to doubt their salvation, but these texts demand that we examine ourselves. If you are here this morning and your faith is evidencing itself with good deeds, then my exhortation to you is to press on. Look for ways that you can better evidence your faith. Look for ways that you can follow more faithfully after Christ. Be committed to telling others of the difference between dead and living faith. May the Lord indeed give us all a faith that works. Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Monday, 13 April 2009 )

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