Faith Without Deeds is Useless
Lesson Text: James 2:14-26.
I. Review of Chapter One. This chart is about successes and failures in faith testing exercises.
1. A Christian’s faith develops by hearing – and hearing again – God’s word. James told us we should have formed our new “faith identity” from our encounters with God’s word. Our true identity will be manifested by our behavior. 1:22-25.
2. A Christian’s faith will be tested in order to develop patience; therefore, strong character. (1:2-4). Faith in its “raw form” (that which comes from hearing God’s word) is not all that God desires. He wants our faith to be perfected, just as Abraham’s faith was “made perfect” by God’s testing. (See 2:22 in our text).
3. God’s general view of all mature people fall into one of two categories. We are either lost and need the gospel of grace to save us, or we are the “firstfruits” of His creation. Every Christian should value all of his or her brothers and sisters as the firstfruits of God’s creation. We do not regard their social stratification by world norms. “Faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” includes God’s view of all mature people. This is also one focal point of our hope. It motivates an appropriate action in response to God and others. 2:1-11.
4. A Christian’s faith should control his or her behavior toward those in need of basic things, especially church members. 1:26, 27.
III. Word study.
1. Verses 14 and 16. “Profit” is translated from the Greek word “ophelos.” It means “to increase.” James’ question is, “What is the advantage of increase?” This word has been translated gain in I Cor. 15:32. Faith’s work is to develop a mature Christian (1:4); therefore, the discussion is about the advantages and disadvantages for a Christian’s spiritual growth. How does “perfected faith” benefit spiritual growth?
2. Verse 14. Save, Gr. Sozo means to be delivered from danger. This word is used in 1:21 where James speaks of “the word engrafted.” The subject is spiritual growth. It is a vital part of saving our souls.
3. Verse 20. Dead (KJV) and useless (NIV) is translated from the Greek word “argus.” It means to be barren, idle or yielding no return. See II Peter 1:8.
4. Verse 17, 26. Dead is translated from “nekra.” It describes a condition in which the object is powerless to produce. We often hear it said, dead means a separation, but that is only a partial explanation of the condition. A Christian is dead when they are “ineffective and unproductive.” II Pet. 1:8.
5. Verse 20. Vain (KJV) and foolish (NIV) is from the Greek word “kenos.” It means empty with special reference to quality.
6. Verse 19. The Greek word “phrisso” is translated tremble (KJV) and shudder (NIV). It means “to be rough, to bristle,” then, to shiver, shudder or tremble.
A Christian’s faith cannot be defined unless we can pinpoint his or her specific hope. God provides the spiritual points of hope with His promises which can become a person’s faith. These promises and other theologies and ethics become our “door of faith” into the spiritual kingdom of God. Acts 14:27. It is ours to open or shut. The following are all deep studies within themselves; however, James believed the church understood them because he did very little elaboration on the theologies he used to make ethical points.
The following are crucial theologies for the development of Christians’ faith. They can be understood from the content in Chapter One:
- God created all people. V 18.
- He is the Father of heavenly lights from which “every good and perfect gift” comes. V 17.
- He is Christians’ source for wisdom. V 5.
- Truth can be found in His word. V 18.
- Evil does not tempt God, nor does He use evil to tempt His children. V13.
- He does not change. V 17.
- He desires righteousness. V. 20.
- God offers life principles that give Christians freedom to grow. These laws define our very nature; the way we have been created to develop as children of God. V 12, 25.
The following is a summary of what God promised Christians in Chapter One, plus Jas. 2:5.
- God made just one promise for mature people in the world. They can have a new birth. 1:18.
- For faithful Christians, we have the promise of a crown of life. 1:12.
- God has promised His wisdom for Christians who ask in faith. 1:5.
- Happiness is the result of our behavior that has been faith motivated. 1:25.
- Faithful Christians have the promise of the inheritance of God’s kingdom. 2:5.
Promises belong to our past. They were made to us before this point in time – this hour. Hope is a part of the definition of faith. Hope is possible because human beings have been endowed with imagination. We can imagine being what God said we could be. Hope in a promise belongs to our future and it energizes our present daily lives. Christians’ faith creates support for our present life. It gives substance to God’s promises before they are fulfilled; that is, the thing promised, combined with our faith, becomes the value system in Christians’ present lives (Heb. 4:1, 2). It defines the realm in which we exist. What we value forms our paradigms for viewing reality. This is the way God’s promises become empowering goals as well as present support. Christians’ maturity of character can be seen in their righteous behavior.
Please note, God’s promise for our happiness is only for those who love Him (Jas. 1:12; 2:5). The aim of this introduction is to show how all the foregoing doctrines and promises are compatible with the way God created mankind. To accomplish this aim we must understand the learning processes for our personal development as a son of God. Since faith comes by hearing God’s word, we will want to understand how we learn (Rom. 10:17).
The following excerpt is from my book entitled, “Parables of Jesus,” Part II, Lesson Four, “Build Your Foundation before Tribulations Come.” This is a study of Jesus’ parable in Matt. 7:24-27. Please note how, in the first sentence of His parable, Jesus touched the three inherent learning stages found in every normal human being. Jesus impacted our first learning stage when He said, “hear My words.” In this stage we take His words into our memory and seek to understand them to the point we can restate them in a meaningful statement (cognitive learning).
When Jesus said, “Everyone who comes to Me,” He may have been saying that first of all we need to have faith in Him as the “Prince of life.” Acts 3:15. Unless we have learned to have faith in Jesus as the One through whom life was created we may not be able to have faith in His teachings about life (Heb. 1:1-3). Faith is developed in our “affective” learning stage.
When we learn to “act upon them,” we have finished the third learning exercise (behavior). Jesus does not mean we should practice selective behavior. He means we make our understanding of (cognitive), and our faith in (affective) His teaching our habits (behavior). James said our faith is shown by our habits (James 2:18). Christian learning, being a disciple of Jesus, is accomplished in all three stages – or not at all. End of Excerpt
James may have been present when Jesus used this parable to teach the Israelites how the Ten Commandments and other aspects of the Law could be fulfilled in their lives (Matt. 5:17; Rom. 8:1-4). Matthew placed the parable at the end of his presentation of what is commonly known as “The Sermon on the Mount.” The content of this sermon is what James called “the perfect law that gives freedom.” Jas. 1:25. While Christians listen to this law and are doing what it says, the word of God is being implanted in our hearts and minds. This is the spiritual growth part of the new covenant. Christians accepted the new covenant in our repentance before our baptism and we are continuing to accept it in our sanctification.
V. Lesson: We “are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom.” Jas. 2:12. James’ “train of thought” has moved us in the scripture text for this lesson from the subject of our final Judgment to the question: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” Jas. 2:14. This is a rhetorical question. James thought the recipients of his letter knew enough about the new covenant and the three exercises of Christian learning to think through this matter and arrive at the correct answer. However, in case they were foolish enough to fail to do so, he helped them “think through” the correct answer by asking: “You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” Jas. 2:20.
Therefore, as we enter the study of the text for this lesson we will want to keep “Judgment Day” in mind along with other topics James introduced. What we want to keep in mind about Judgment is how James introduced the subject of Christians’ deeds. This is another subject he introduced, but did not explain the details. We need to know what the recipients knew about the basis for the judgment of Christians. We need to know how our Father, “who judges each man’s work impartially,” now and on Judgment Day, to read this text properly (I Pet. 1:17).
The recipients knew Jesus had taught about the “sheep and goats.” Matt. 25:31-46. The church in the first century had been taught they would inherit the kingdom, if they were identified as one of the sheep in Jesus’ parable. The sheep served other people. Their faith in God’s exercises for developing the attitude of mercifulness in themselves had energized them to speak and act with mercifulness – perhaps, to widows and orphans (Jas. 1:27; 2:12; Matt. 5:7). “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” The merciful Christians can expect mercy on Judgment Day. Grace is for now “in Christ.” To many peoples’ astonishment, Christians’ deeds will be the main subject on our Judgment Day.
Jesus taught the Jews their deeds would be judged (John 5:28-30). Paul also taught this fact to the church of God in Corinth (II Cor. 5:10). James made the connection between our faith and our deeds. He is helping us understand how to prepare to receive the “crown of life” and our “inheritance of the kingdom of God” on Judgment Day (Jas. 1:12; 2:5). In this text, he is making the connection between our faith and our deeds. We will need to understand how God created our learning capabilities. Please review the foregoing excerpt. Deeds will be the “bottom line” for our judgment.
James is helping us understand: “What kind of faith will save faithful Christians now and on Judgment Day?” At the same time, he taught the grace Christians enjoy when our faith is credited to us for righteousness. It is through this grace that other “good and perfect” gifts come to us from our Father of lights (Rom. 5:21). The seating of Christians in “heavenly places with Christ” is where we are now being prepared for good works according to God’s definition of good works (Titus 2:11-14). Our good works must be in line with the righteousness of God (Rom. 6:16-23).
Please read Romans 4:1-3 and James 2:20-24. By employing the tools of Biblical interpretation principles, we can understand how these statements about justification by faith are compatible. This assignment is given as a convincing exercise. It should convince us of the importance of knowing the context while seeking to understand the content of the Scripture we are reading.
VI. Questions and topics for discussion.
- How does James’ statement, “mercy triumphs over judgment” (NIV) or “mercy rejoiceth against judgment” (KJV), serve as a transitional sentence from the previous thoughts to the content in our assigned text? W. E. Vine (Greek Dictionary) defines this phrase: “Mercy boasts itself superior to judgment,” See Jas. 2:13
- Review James 1:22-25. If the subject in this text includes a Christian’s identity, then what is one good (beneficial) thing for the “self” of a Christian who has a living faith? Jas. 2:14.
- Who else is benefited from the foregoing type of faith? Vs. 15, 16. How is God and the giver included in this scenario? See II Cor. 9:12-15.
- What is the scope of discussion about James’ question; “Can (such) faith save him?” Is he speaking of the Day of Judgment only, or is there more, and if so, what? V. 14.
- In verse 17, James describes the condition of a Christian’s faith where there is no deeds done in response to a situation where it is God’s will we do something. In this case faith is just a religious word. This brother’s or sister’s faith is so weak, it does not move them to “act and speak.” Jas. 2:12. Explain the personal spiritual development of a Christian who has faith that is accompanied with righteous action.
- What is the “show me” element of a living faith? V. 18.
- What is the “no show” of a dead faith?
- From our foregoing study of the text for this lesson and a study of I Cor. 13:1-3, we know how Christian’s faith relates to his or her character and personality. We see how our deeds are motivated by faith. Faith is a human characteristic that develops in the heart stage of learning. Belief is developed in mind learning. How does this explain the difference in what one may believe about God and to have faith in God? Compare the character of a Christian, whose faith is shown by his or her deeds, and the devil’s character who believes there is one God? The answer to these questions should help us understand verse 19.
- Abraham believed God’s promise to make him the father of many nations through Isaac (Gen 17:5, 15, 16). He also believed God could raise the dead (Rom. 4:17, 21). How did God perfect Abraham’s faith? V. 22. What was said about Abraham’s character that could not be said before he drew his knife to kill Isaac? See Gen. 22:12, 15-18; James 2:21-23.
- Please note how James leaned heavily on the use of the literary tool of asking the recipients questions. We know he was appealing to their, and our, ability to reason in regard to the subject of faith. How did James’ use of the story of Abraham to provide something for peoples’ reasoning power? Vs. 20-26.
- God formed a body from the substance of the earth. He breathed into this body the breath of life. He became a living soul (Gen 2:7). God named this first living soul, Adam. Death of a human being happens when our bodies do not function properly enough to support our spirits that came from God (James 2:26). What is one great difference in human beings and all other creatures God created?
The next lesson will be a review of this lesson with some added commentary.