“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” — James 2:18
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Do you have any electrical appliances or tools that no longer work? If an electric screwdriver will no longer drive screws, can you still call it a screwdriver? If a remote control button stops opening the garage door, it may be remote, but is it still a control?
The man who wrote the book of James asked the same questions, but of people. He saw those who call themselves “Christians” acting in hurtful or selfish ways, and that bothered him. He sought to help them understand that true faith is demonstrated not by form, but by function – not by talking the talk, but by walking the walk.
Is it a steeple that makes a church? Or pews? Or hymn books? Is it the outer shape of a building, or the inner life of a congregation? If the church family functions more as a social club than a ministry organization, can you still call it church?
And what makes a Christian? Is it a stated belief in Christ? Is it membership in a church? If someone lives with little or no reference to Christ, is it still appropriate to use the name “Christian”?
In today’s text, James proposes a series of tests to help his readers determine whether they should continue to call themselves by labels such as “Christian” and “church.”
The problem with partiality(vv. 1-7)
James had observed well-dressed and jewelry-studded people getting a warm welcome when they came to worship, while poorly dressed or unkempt people were pushed to the rear. That didn’t strike him as being very Christian.
My college career happened to coincide with the “Age of Aquarius.” Somewhere along the way, I became acquainted with an unwashed young man who called himself “Link.” Day in and day out, he wore the same ragged jeans, dirty T-shirt, and stained sweatband in his long and unruly black hair.
Link professed to be a Christian, and one Sunday evening I persuaded him to attend church with me. As we strolled down the aisle, I could see some of the same people who had welcomed me as a clean-cut Baptist boy now looking at Link as if he were from Mars. But, as I settled into a pew beside my long-haired, bearded, sandal-clad friend, a little girl whispered excitedly on the row behind us. “Mommy,” she gurgled, “is that Jesus?”
My experience with Link reflected the same hypocrisy that was rife in the first century. Church members often pooled their resources to help one another. This made the church especially attractive to the needy, but it also put a real strain on the available resources.
Perhaps this made the members trip over themselves in welcoming wealthy guests. First-century society was very class-oriented. The privileged aristocracy ruled over the middle and lower classes. Widows, orphans, and slaves huddled at the bottom of the social ladder. Showing favoritism to the rich was only natural – but that did not make it right.
James dares to question whether the faith of those who showed favoritism was genuine. Pushing aside a poor sister who was rich in faith in order to show special attention to a wealthy patron was dishonorable and inconsistent for those who claimed faith in Christ. So he asks, “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” (v. 1). Genuine faith produces genuine care; ignoring the poor and downtrodden while catering to the rich calls the sincerity of one’s faith into question.
The poor people that James has in mind were not just low wage earners, but people who were destitute and unable to provide for themselves due to age, infirmity, or societal position. If anyone deserves special care, it is the poor. Recall James’s earlier insistence that real religion is shown in acts of charity and personal purity (1:27).
The law of love(vv. 8-13)
James knew that the problem of partiality would not exist if believers seriously followed what he called the “royal law,” summed up in the command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 8, citing Lev. 19:18). Jesus had defined “neighbor” as anyone with a need (Luke 10:27-37). Those who show partiality toward the rich at the expense of the poor are guilty of breaking the law by failing to love the neighbors who truly need them.
James resorted to an argument typical of the Jewish rabbis to illustrate the serious nature of partiality. Breaking one specific law makes a person guilty of transgressing the whole law in general, he argued (vv. 9-11, cf. Gal. 5:3). As far as James was concerned, those who favored the affluent while ignoring the indigent were no less law-breakers than someone who had committed murder or adultery.
But while Jews lived under the Mosaic law, Christians were called to live under the law of liberty that sets us free from the heavy weight of ritual demands and calls us to love others as ourselves. James stressed that even under this law, sin is serious, judgment is real, and those who withhold mercy from others can hardly expect to receive mercy from God (v. 13a). Creeds without deeds accomplish little, and those who profess faith without practicing faith betray lack of true love for Christ.
A test of common sense(vv. 14-19)
James’s appeal to common sense is undoubtedly the best-remembered section in his epistle. Here he draws a clear distinction between true faith seen in loving works, and false faith revealed in empty words. Note that James is not teaching that salvation results from works, but that those who are saved by faith will prove it by their actions.
What good is it to claim faith if one’s life does not show it? How can those who show no compassion claim to know the love of Christ? The poor are not aided by words, but by works; not by best wishes, but by best efforts. “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” James said (v. 17). Faith without action is not really faith.
This is common sense. James shouldn’t have to explain it, but he continues in the same vein, arguing that true faith is no faith if it serves only self. James had learned from Jesus that not everyone who called him “Lord” would enter the kingdom (Matt. 7:21; 25:31-46), and even Paul, that great proponent of grace through faith, taught that Christians saved by grace are called to do good works (Eph. 2:8-10).
Faith without works is dead because it is not true faith to begin with. A majority of Americans continue to tell pollsters that they believe in God, but they are practicing materialists: their primary allegiance is to their stuff.
Those who think they are Christians simply because they believe in God are victims of a poor and shallow theology. The evidence of genuine faith is not found in the words of a creed, but in the works of a changed life.
Test cases(vv. 20-26)
James closes the chapter with two Old Testament illustrations of his point. The first is an obvious choice. Abraham was famous as a man of faith (Heb. 11:8-12), but his faith was demonstrated by obedience to God. He followed God on a most difficult path, and because of his faith-in-action, God “counted it to him for righteousness” (vv. 21-24).
James’s second example is a more unlikely character. The woman Rahab is generally thought of as a prostitute. Yet, when she came in contact with God through Israelite emissaries who had come to spy out the town, she was willing to risk her life to hide the men and to help them escape. Rahab was no theologian, but she understood that faith requires action (vv. 25-26).
Faithful Christians and faithful churches seek a balance in life: We believe in Christ and call on others to trust in Jesus for their eternal salvation. At the same time, we are aware that persons have physical and emotional needs, so we also share Christ’s love in tangible ways. We educate the mind, care for the soul, and feed the body. We demonstrate both faith and works.
When we examine our lives, what do we see? Do we find faith that only claims the name, or faith that truly plays the game? Does our faith work?
One of my favorite musicals is Les Miserables. The lead character, Jean Valjean, had been imprisoned for 19 years for a crime no greater than stealing bread to feed a starving nephew.
After his release from prison, a priest showed Valjean mercy and it changed his life. As an ex-convict, however, he was rejected on every hand until he violated his parole by changing his name and identity, no longer showing the card that identified his prison record.
He became a successful businessman and was even elected mayor of his town. On a fateful day, however, Valjean saw the police arrest another man, accusing him of being Jean Valjean and taking him to jail. Valjean knew the innocent man would suffer for no reason, and decided to risk his own life by stepping forward to confess his identity to save the other man. One of the most moving scenes in the play has him singing a song that asks the question: “Who am I?”
Who am I – really? Of many names that might apply to me, is “Christian” one of them? BT
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for September 6, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: James 2:1-26
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
“Prove it!” “Show me!” “Let me see it!” For many of our students, they need to see to believe. This is tough when they are trying to form a relationship with God who isn’t physically in front of them. It also makes it easy to point out when you see God in them. When they perform acts that are “acts of God” then we need to point them out. It is our responsibility to help them see where God is until they can start to readily identify God themselves. To do this, you first have to start doing it yourself. Where do you see God in your daily life? How is God moving? Share these stories with your students so that they will start to look for God as well.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Who Am I?” from Les Miserables
Read Scripture online: James 2:1-26