15 November 2013

James 2:8-26

“So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (v. 17)


This is the text for which the letter of James is best known. He speaks on a theme which he has already introduced in James 1:22-25, where he writes about being doers rather than just hearers of the word. He writes in an argumentative style, probably because he is speaking out against what he sees as false teaching. Genuine faith is not just expressed in verbal terms. Even the demons believe in God (verse 19). Genuine faith includes actions. Faith without works cannot save (verse 14), it is dead (verses 17, 26), barren (Verse 20), and cannot put us right with God (verse 24).

But before James gets to that point in the letter, he writes about attitudes to "the royal law" (verses 8-13). In verse 8 he quotes Leviticus 19:18, which Jesus singles out as one of the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:39). The idea that by breaking one of God's laws meant that you had broken them all was a common Jewish idea, but it was sometimes overemphasised to give undue weight to the ceremonial laws. It is unlikely that this is what James means here, as he quotes murder and adultery as examples prohibited by the law. Rather, he is looking at the Old Testament law as interpreted by Jesus. Thus in verse 12 there are echoes of the Lord's Prayer with its ideas of the Christian's obligation to forgive as they have been forgiven by God.

In arguing that faith without works, or actions, is dead, James is emphasising the completeness of a Christian life, but he uses two examples from the Old Testament to illustrate his point. Abraham is an obvious example. In being willing to offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice (Genesis 22), he was showing his utter dependence on God and putting faith into action. As the spiritual father of Israel, it might be expected that Abraham would be held up as an example, but Rahab the prostitute (Joshua 2:1-21) is an interesting choice. Both patriarch and prostitute put faith into action.

To Ponder

  • Can you think of new ways to express your faith in action? What might they be?
  • Have you tried living by a rule of life? If so, how do you prevent this becoming legalistic? 

Bible notes author

The Revd Richard Bielby

Richard is a supernumerary Methodist presbyter in Stockton on Tees. He is a part-time prison chaplain and also serves as a voluntary chaplain at Durham Cathedral.