James 2:14-26: Real Faith Results in a Changed Life
October 5, 2023
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
We come now to one of the most controversial parts of Scripture! It is for this reason that Martin Luther infamously called James “that strawy epistle,” recognizing how James – particularly this passage we are looking at today – has been interpreted to be in conflict with Paul’s teaching about justification.
At first glance, it certainly seems to be. While Paul teaches in Romans and Galatians and Ephesians that we are justified by faith without works, here James is apparently saying the precise opposite. So in Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul writes:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
But here in James, he says,
“a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”
Before we offer the solution to this apparent conflict, it is worth also noting that it is not just Paul who teaches that we are justified by faith without works. The same teaching is throughout the stories of Jesus and his sermons, most famously in the story of Pharisee and the Tax Collector. There Jesus describes how the Pharisee who was outwardly righteous in what he said and did was actually not justified before God, while the humble repentant tax collector was justified. So in Luke 18:14, Jesus says that it was the tax collector – trusting in God alone through humble repentance who was justified:
“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.”
The same lesson is found in multiple encounters that Jesus had with the Pharisees. For instance, in Matthew 23:27 Jesus says,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
And we could add that the author of Hebrews (whoever he was) had a similar view of faith alone being responsible for salvific bravery in the face of great odds, as he describes at great length surveying the heroes of faith of the Old Testament in the famous chapter 11 of Hebrews.
So how then can all this (not just James vs. Paul, but James vs. the testament of Scripture that we are saved by faith) be reconciled?
The answer is not as difficult as it may first appear. Various solutions have been offered down through time, but the best to my mind is the simplest. It is, of course, logically possible that James simply does contradict the rest of the Bible, but we should not assume that without attempting to find a solution. And in my mind the simplest solution is that James is correcting a misunderstanding of justification by faith and applying that misunderstanding to a particular prevalent problem among the people he is addressing. The misunderstanding of justification by faith that James is correcting is an extremely common misunderstanding: that being justified by faith means that we do not need to do anything good or be active in any good works. This is a complete misunderstanding of the doctrine. The point is not that good works are not a necessary part of the saved Christian life. The point is that what saves us is not our good works. It is a question of order. When we are saved by faith, we become a new creation by God’s Spirit. We are made new and have new desires to serve God, and, yes, perform good works. If there is no fruit (to use Paul’s language from Galatians), then we may well wonder whether we are really saved. For (to use a phrase frequently employed by the Puritans) we are justified by faith alone but not by the faith that remains alone. A new creation will have new desires and new activities, just like a newborn baby will grow and desire and want to eat and learn to walk and all the rest. If there is no new life at all, then we are right to question whether there is any real salvation. But what saves us is not the activity or the good works, but the seed of God’s Word received by faith.
So I think James in his context is correcting a common misunderstanding about the teaching of justification by faith. If he were not correcting the misunderstanding, why would he use the familiar phrasing? He even uses the same story of Abraham. And what he argues is that if someone is truly justified by faith (as Abraham was), that will result in a changed life, as it did also for Abraham himself. After the famous text about Abraham believing God and it being credited to Abraham as righteous, we read in the story of how Abraham trusted God enough even with the life of his own son Isaac, thus evidencing his changed life that came about through faith and the good works that are a necessary result of that faith.
Not all the language that James uses can fit neatly into a systematic theology – but he was not writing a systematic theology in a Western academy. And the idea that he is communicating is clear enough: don’t think that “just believing” and “doing nothing” will save you. Even the demons believe like that. Real faith results in a changed life!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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