I am planning on doing a series of post on James 2:14-17. Before I get into the passage I just had a few introductory thoughts that might set the table for a study of this passage.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
A Few Thoughts To Get Us Started
This can be a very difficult passage to understand. If one were to simply skim over the contents of these verses they could easily become confused by the contents. But I think that with some careful study, a proper hermeneutical approach, and the help of the Spirit we will find that these verses fit properly within the teachings of the entire NT, including Paul.
It is important to understand what James is writing about as he leads up to this particular passage. Some would say that the nature of James writing is such that there is not much of a forward progression; but rather that James jumps from one idea to the next somewhat indiscriminately. I would argue that James writing flows from one idea to the next in such a way that the new themes are building on the previously established ideas. Let’s take a look at 2:14-17 and the passages leading up to it, and see if we can find this to be true.
James immediately opens his letter with an encouragement to those in the midst of trials. James’ advice is to consider the trials joy because God has chosen to do an eternal work through earthly trials.James next addresses those who lack wisdom. Specifically James is writing to those who lack the wisdom to see how God is working in their lives through earthly trials. His advice is simple; ask God for the wisdom that you need. James does add one caveat to this advice, which is to ask for wisdom in faith. James is not giving his readers the secret formula for having their prayers answered; his point is much simpler than that. James’ point is that you cannot expect to receive the wisdom to see how God is working in your life through earthly trials if you do not have the faith to believe that God is at work in the earthly trials.
Next James addresses human social status. This continues to build on his teaching about trials. The Jews to whom he was writing had been persecuted, and were poverty stricken due to that persecution. In advising them of the temporality of material riches James was teaching them how to deal with their trials. He was showing them that the trials they were currently facing were nothing in light of their eternal inheritance.
On the heels of the previous point James moves on to point out who the truly blessed individual really is. The blessed individual is the one who endures the trials, by the love of God, and receives the crown of life. This is even further motivation to consider you trials a joy, and highlights James’ emphasis on looking beyond the temporal into the eternal. At this point it is not difficult to see James’ line of thought as he seeks to help those who were formerly under his care deal with their current situation.
To some James’ next thought seems somewhat unrelated to his previous stream of thought. James’ next thought is to remind his readers that God is not the cause of their sinful inclinations. I see this point to be directly related to the previous points. As has already been mentioned the people to whom James wrote were in the midst of great persecution. In the midst of this persecution it would have been very easy for one to succumb to the temptation of doubting God’s work, and not viewing the trials as an occasion for joy. James’ point is that this is no excuse; they were still responsible for this sin. Just because God ordained the trial does not make him liable for the sin. To sin in this way would be to take a God given gift meant for sanctification, and turn it into an opportunity for sin. James further illustrates this point by reminding his readers that every good and perfect gift comes from God above. Specifically God gave the good gift of Christ through whom we are a type of firstfruits in creation.
Next James addresses his readers with regard to their anger. This may seem to be a stretch, but I think that James is continuing to teach his reader how to deal with trials (Specifically in the lives of his readers, persecution). His point is that you deal with trials by putting away anger and sin, and receive the word.
James then goes on to teach his readers that in order to receive the word we must be doers of the word. The point is simple. If you don’t do what the word teaches then you have not truly received it. Understanding what James teaches here will about the word will prove invaluable in understanding what James will later say about faith.
James progresses by showing his readers what doing the word will look like. The one who is properly dealing with trials by receiving the word will do the word by not discriminating against the poor. This was apparently quite a problem for James’ readers. Discrimination was at the root of their persecution, yet for some reason they had allowed it to be a part of their conduct. For James this was unacceptable, and the ones showing this discrimination were condemned by the word that they did not accept. James’ teaching, more than likely, would have been opposed by those were showing this discrimination. They may have even said something to the effect of “I have faith, and that is all I need.”
This leads us to our passage in which James’ deals with those who claim to have faith but are not enduring in the midst of trials like the blessed man who will receive the crown of life. These individuals, with a saying only kind of faith, were not the blessed individuals that James spoke of in 1:12. And based on their actions they were not putting away sin in order to receive the word. In fact, the only thing that these individuals had that resembled a follower of Christ was a profession of faith. They said the right things but their actions did not match their words, and the one thing that James cannot stand is profession without practice and words without deeds.
At this point there are many who would say that James’ teaching on faith contradicts Paul’s teaching on faith. As we progress in the passage we will deal with this problem, but for now I will say with absolute certainty that James does not contradict Paul. In fact, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, James is not combating Paul but those who would abuse Paul’s doctrine. James’ emphasis on faith is a universal NT emphasis. It was the preaching of John the Baptist that men should prove the reality of their repentance by the excellence of the deeds (Mt 3:8; Luke 3:8). It was Jesus who taught that men should live so that the world might see their good works and give glory to God (Mt 5:16). Christ insisted that it was by their fruits that men must be known and that a faith which expressed itself in words only could never take the place of one which expressed itself by doing the will of God (Mt 7:15-21).
*I hope that this will help the set the context for our passage. Look for more on this passage in the coming days.*