James 2:14-27 Correcting Misconceptions & Commendable Faith

How do you know that you have eternal life, that you’re born again?

Upon what do you base your confidence that you have God’s eternal favor?

We’ll help you to answer that question today, because most Christians think James brings it up in our passage.

We are a church that holds to a Free Grace understanding of our relationship with God. Our justification and sanctification. We are saved by grace. We live by grace.

Free Grace affirms the biblical teaching that God freely redeems, forgives, and gives an eternal relationship with God to anyone who trusts Jesus Christ to reconcile them with the Father through His death and resurrection.

We affirm that Jesus saves helpless sinners who trust Him to save them. People who cannot do the right thing. Cannot control themselves enough. People that are humbly aware that they need God's grace, apart from how they live.

We affirm what Jesus, what John's Gospel, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Revelation all affirm. Christ saves those who trust Him to save them. No works are required for salvation. And no works are required nor able to maintain your salvation.

Eternal life is eternal life. And it is a free gift from God. Thank you, Jesus. All praise to the glory of God’s grace.

That said, James 2 is one of the most misunderstood passages in the New Testament and it is thought to nullify the clear and hopeful promise of God’s free grace to the sinner who believes.

Many Christians read James 2 and agree with Jesus, John, and Paul that “We are saved by faith alone” yet then they add something odd that seems to nullify the logic and beauty of God's grace: “We are saved by faith alone... but the faith that saves is never alone.”

Or they say, “We’re saved by faith without works... but faith without works cannot save.”

Wait. What?

You may have been taught this. But to misinterpret James misses the entire point and turns the truth upside down. It is harmful to our intimacy with Christ. And it can lead to pride, doubt, and judging others.

In this view of James 2, the author tells us how to know if someone else is truly saved: Good works always accompany true faith.

So true faith endures trials. True faith overcomes temptations. True faith cares for widows and orphans. Therefore, James has been listing practical ways to be sure we have a true, saving faith. You'll live right. He also conveniently gives us a way to judge whether or not others are truly saved. Even if they think they trust Jesus, true or saving faith produces tangible, visible righteousness. That's how you know.

Yikes. Do you see any potential problems with this?

James 2:14 What use is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.

You can understand why people think James questions who’s really saved or not.

But remember the context of James.

The Letter of James is wisdom literature for born again Christians.

Multiple times he calls them brothers, beloved brothers. Even here. He’s affirmed their salvation. James assures them God’s word is planted in them. His focus is on Christian sanctification. Wisdom for living out our faith. And doing God’s word.

But like every church or group of people, they had their blind spots and sin issues.

They were devoutly religious, they prayed and knew God’s Word but they didn’t act on God’s Word. Particularly with the widows and orphans; they looked down on the poor in their church.

James affirmed their faith in Christ, they are savded, but their religious practices were worthless.

James 1:22 But prove yourselves [lit., become] doers of the word…

He says, “You know the awesome things that our Lord Jesus Christ has done. You believe God can do anything. You believe the church is a community of grace.”

But here he adds, "Yet you aren’t effectual doers. And you can live this out better. The widows, orphans, and poor in your church aren’t cared for."

Again, in James 2:14, What good is it, my proudly religious brothers, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? If you believe God can deliver you from this sin, but you don’t follow His lead, does faith alone save you from temptation? That's what he asks: If you believe God loves this orphan and gives you the means to care for her, will your faith alone save her?

Then in 2:15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled, I have faith that God will feed you. Go in Jesus’ name," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?

In verses 14 & 16, what use it as it comes to practical matters of caring for one another!

God speaks to us today, church, look around you, who needs God’s loving care? Go to them. Love one another.

This is commendable faith.

This is pure and undefiled religion.

Express your faith in love. Serve one another. Bless one another. Meet needs.

This is God’s heart. And this is James’ point.

But if we misunderstand James to say, "If you believe in Jesus but you don’t have certain good works, it’s not true faith, and you are not truly saved." Well gosh, not only do we miss the point but this interpretation causes us to act completely opposite of what James says.

Rather than lovingly care for one another, we have ammunition to judge them.

“I mean, I know that you say you trust Jesus but if you were truly saved why did I see you at the package store last week?" "I know you think you are born again, but if the Holy Spirit were in you, you’d be in church every week." Or you’d pray more. Or you’d like Christian music. "I don’t mean to judge you, but a real Christian would never do what you are doing.”  

Some people can get caught up in this and use a faulty view of James as justification.

And this misunderstanding of James creates the opposite of God’s heart.

So how do we answer James?

When James asks, What use is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? What is he really asking?!

We need to get this right because if he’s asking, can faith alone reconcile a sinner with God and save us from hell? We would answer "Yes! We are saved by faith alone in Jesus alone."

One time Jesus was asked,

John 6:28 … "What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?" 29 Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent."

What works merit God’s favor? Bring us into an eternal relationship with God? Merit God’s forgiveness and acceptance? Jesus says your faith alone is what God requires.

John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

If the question is, can faith alone save a sinner and reconcile us to God? The answer is YES! That is the only way any sinner has been saved in the history of man.

The apostle Paul wrote,

Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Yes we are not saved as a result of works, but faith without works cannot save! NO!

Romans 11:6 But if it is by grace [if we’re saved by grace], it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.

Romans 3:28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

Galatians 2:16 … Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh [no person] will be justified [by our works].

But does your faith alone save a hungry person from starving? No! Not unless you act on your faith and provide food. Does your faith alone help to watch a single mom’s baby so that she can drive to a job interview? Does your faith alone cover the bills of an elderly person who is facing a costly medical crisis.

As a church, God wants us to act on our faith and join Him in these. Meet needs in our church and our neighborhoods.

He also wants us to bring the good news to Muslims in Iran. Support at-risk Christians in Iran. Aid low-income single moms in Springfield. Send clothes to orphans in Africa. Fund a ministry that educates them so that they can escape poverty. Fill gobs of shoeboxes with treasures including the gospel printed out and to send these to needy kids around the globe. When we trust God and act with Him, God works through us to love on those who need His hands-on love.

God grants us to trust Him for others so that He can use us to bless them. If we don’t join in and physically do some of these, our faith doesn’t fulfill its purpose.

James 2:15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,"  and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.

Dead doesn't mean nonexistent. It means dead, unproductive. Useless where it should’ve helped.

Early last spring, I tried to start up my motorcycle for the first time, and the battery was dead. It doesn’t mean it was a false battery. You’re not a true battery. It didn’t produce a charge. It was unable to do the cool thing I wanted it to if it was strong.

I think that’s another aspect of this. Works rejuvenate our faith. When we say yes to God and we bless others. It becomes real. We partner with God in something holy.

Have you ever done this? You ministered to someone in need. And something deep and unexpected happened in you. And you were more blessed than the person you helped. Your faith was reenergized through obedience. Intimacy with Christ renews.

James tells us to act on our faith and do good works not because true faith always produces good works, but because our faith does not automatically produce good works. Just because I believe I should eat healthy or drive slower doesn’t mean I do.

Having just criticized born-again believers for not acting out their faith, James anticipates their argument in verses 18-19,

James 2:18 But someone may well say, "You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one, you do well. The demons also believe, and shudder.”

We see from James’ response, they felt their faith is honorable. James shouldn’t criticize their lack of love for the needy. They did religious things. We trust God for them. We pray for them. Our faith is all we need, nothing else matters.

To which James responds,

James 2:20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?

Then James selects the most respected name, and the most honored good work in Jewish history to prove that believers do not honor other believers for their great faith unless it is demonstrated through obedience and love for God. 

James 2:21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?

Catch this. When was Abraham justified before God? In Genesis 15.

Genesis 15:6 Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

But twenty years later, in Genesis 22, Abraham put his faith in practice when he obeyed God and went to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. When Abraham obeyed God, his faith was demonstrated to man.

Abraham was justified before God when he trusted God’s promise.

Twenty years later, he was justified before man by his works. He was commended, considered righteous, worthy of honor by man.

James 2:22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected [Faith led to works, which it's meant to do]; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

James is not speaking of being righteous before God, but being honored by men.  When we act on our faith and work with God, and obey God, and meet real needs.

James 2:25 In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works [honored by man] when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?

Rahab was a prostitute who lived in the city of Jericho. Not someone Israel would honor. But Israel’s leader, Joshua, sent spies to scout out Jericho for conquest. But their cover was blown, and Rahab offered to hide them in her house. They honored her, considered her righteous for her deed. When Israel attacked she was spared.

Again this is another example of someone who acted on their faith and met needs. And her faith is honored both by God and by people. She was able to put her faith to use. That’s what God wants for us. Otherwise our faith is useless to bless others.

James 2:26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

God’s heart is for us to live out our faith and love others well. To mature in faith and reflect Christ. Mature faith is expressed in love for God, and others in helpful ways.

If you trust Jesus, don’t let anyone tell you you’re not a child of God or that your faith isn’t real because you still do some bad things or don’t do certain good things.

How do you know that you have eternal life, that you are truly saved? Don’t look at your faith? Is it strong enough? Pure enough?

And don’t look to your works for assurance. All your righteousness is like filthy rags. And even if you do some really godly things yet you fail in one area, you’re guilty of sin. And if your conscience is anything like the apostle Paul’s you’ll see that nothing good dwells in you, and that so much of the good that you want to do you fail to do.

How do I know that I’m truly saved and secure with God forever?

Because the Father so loved me that He sent His Son to pay for my sins and guilt. And because nothing can separate me from God’s love in Christ, not even my failure to produce sufficiently good works to merit man’s approval. I know I am saved because Jesus Christ died for me and rose again. I know I have eternal life because Jesus Christ promised life to whoever believes in Him. Not by my works of righteousness but because Christ was righteous in my place and clothes me with His righteousness.

This is how I know I am truly saved, truly born again, and favored by God forever.