In this episode, we look at the difference between living faith and inactivity. Beginning in Chapter 2, we continue to explore the famous question that James addresses: can faith and works be separated? Is it possible for one to exist without the other? Winning at life takes more than a morning devotion or weekly church attendance. Is it our works or our faith that saves us? What is the relationship and the balance between both?


James 2

Alright, we come to James 2. And James 2 is a chapter that generally really confuses people. In fact, the book of James usually confuses people. I’ve talked to friends who’ve said, “I just stopped trying to figure it out.” Martin Luther, I believe, said something to the effect of, “I just don’t get James. I think he called it something like the “strawy” epistle, or something like that. 

So I’m going to go through this chapter a little differently. I’m going to kind of blaze through the first half and mainly focus on the second half. If we have time, we’ll come back and unpack the first half. 

But I want to do it all because I want you to see context. I think the reason why this is confusing is because some of the words are confusing; but people focus on the confusing words instead of looking at the context. And I think if we look at the context, we can make this fairly simple.

These are beloved brethren, and Jesus is their Lord.

Chapter 2:1 starts with my brethren. Now remember, brethren 15 times in this book. We’re talking to brethren. 

My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. 

So, Jesus Christ is whose Lord? Our Lord. James and all the people he’s writing to. And remember, he’s writing to Jews who are believers in Messiah, who have been persecuted and scattered throughout the world. So these are persecuted believers, believers being persecuted for their faith. 

Count trials as joy and disregard circumstances

And he started this whole epistle off with “Count it all joy when you encounter various trials.” It’s good that you encounter various trials. Why? Winning. You know, this is how you win at life. Walking in faith in the wisdom of God is how you win at life. 

 And don’t look at your circumstances. Circumstances are just circumstances. 

You have humble circumstances. You say, “Wow! What a great opportunity to trust God!”

You have prosperous circumstances. You say, “Oh boy! This is a tough trial because I might trust my riches instead of trusting God.” 

Because every circumstance is just an opportunity to win at life. And how do you win at life? Well, you’re faithful, and you get the crown of righteousness. You get the heir of Jesus. That’s the context here.

Self-serving works are useless

And he just got through telling us in 1:26, if anyone of you thinks he’s religious and doesn’t bridle his tongue, he’s just kidding himself. He deceives his own heart, and his religion is useless. His piety is useless. He may go to church. He may do devotional time. He may teach Sunday school. He may do all this stuff. But it’s useless. It’s not helping anybody. 

If you want to help somebody, then do stuff like help people that can’t pay you back, like widows and orphans. And keep yourself unspotted by the world. Don’t get into the world. Stay apart from the world. That’s how you have useful faith. 

And so he told us what to do. And now he’s going to tell us what not to do: Do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ with partiality. So, do visit widows and orphans. Don’t give preference to rich people. So, somebody comes into your assembly—

For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

What is the particular evil thought in this circumstance? “What can the rich man do? Maybe I can get some of his money.” “What can the poor man do? He can’t do anything for me.” Right? 

Do for me. That’s what I’m focused on. Well, that’s evil thoughts because pure and undefiled religion says, “What can I do for you?” 

He says, have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Instead of letting God judge who judges the heart, now I’m judging, and I’m judging from my perspective what these people can do for me. 

Listen, my beloved brethren—These are not only brethren, they’re beloved brethren—Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith

If you have humble circumstances, you glory in your exultation because this is a great opportunity because you can trust God. But God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 

So, this is winning. Not only do we get a crown of righteousness, if we live faithfully in the wisdom of God, we become joint heirs with Christ. 

Now to a Jew, who believes they’re children of Abraham and that the kingdom is coming to Israel and that the kingdom will have a Messiah, now you’re telling them if you live faithfully, you will share that messiahship with the Messiah. They would understand what a big deal that is. That’s amazing. It’s awesome. It’s a phenomenal opportunity. It’s an incredible reward. They would get that.

And who gets that? Those who love him. If you love God, what do you do? You do what he says. You actually do what he says. You don’t just say “I believe that,” and do religious stuff. You actually love your neighbor as yourself. 

But you have dishonored the poor man. Verse 6. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts?

People that get rich, on the whole—not completely, but on the whole—are really good at getting rich. You know, people who have tons of money are usually good at making money flow into them, more than out of them. Right?

So, you’re giving preference to somebody who’s going to suck stuff out of you anyway. Just be practical here! It doesn’t even make sense for you to suck up to these people. 

Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts?

They’re the ones who can afford lawyers.

Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?

Practical advice on how to win

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; 

So, it’s not, “What can they do for me?” It’s “How can I love them as much as I love myself? How can I treat them the way I want to be treated?” If you do that, then you’re doing good. But if you’re saying, “How can I get something from this rich person?” you’re actually becoming a judge with evil thoughts. 

but if you show partiality, you commit sin—my beloved brethren who jointly with us have Jesus as Lord—and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 

For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.

For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 

You break one, you break them all. 

So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.

We’re not going to judge others. That’s not the permanent thing, us judging others. What others think of me, or what I think of you, that’s not going to last. 

What’s going to last is Jesus who’s going to judge us for how well we loved other people. The extent to which we treated our neighbor like we wanted to be treated. That’s how we’re going to be judged.

So live like that. Don’t live like, “What can this person do for me?” and “How can this person help me?” versus that person. Don’t live that way. Live like, “How can I have God say, ‘Well done,’ because I did stuff for other people?”

For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy.

You know, Jesus said, how you measure to others will be measured unto you. And so, if you want mercy from the Judge of all, then grant mercy because mercy triumphs over judgment.

Mercy triumphs over judgment.

So don’t judge with evil thoughts. Don’t judge with partiality. Don’t say, “Well, this person is good so I’m going to treat them good; and this person’s not good.” Judge in such a way as to say, “What can I do for this person that’s going to help them?” 

If I were in their spot—to the best I can understand, and I can see their perspective, and I understand where they are—how can I actually help them? Not just give them what they want. Often that hurts people. How can I help them actually get where they ought to go, if I were in their spot?

Mercy triumphs over judgment.

You see what we’re doing here, we’re getting practical advice on how to win. We’re getting practical advice on how to have a life that would give you the heir of the kingdom because you’re loving God.

So he goes on:  What does it profit, my brethren—not only now are we getting these amazing rewards because we are getting crowns of righteousness—this amazing reward of being an heir of the kingdom—now we’re getting profit. Does anybody like profit? Everybody likes profit.

Some people criticize others for getting profit, but the only reason they’re criticizing others for getting profit is because they’re jealous and they want it for themselves, right? We want profit! 

Can faith and works be separate?

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?

Now he’s turning to a different question, and the question is can you have faith and it be separate from what you do, and it be okay? That’s what this whole section’s going to be.

Can you judge with partiality? No. Can you say one thing and do another? No.

Can you say, “Well, my faith is kind of in a silo here. Faith is faith, and how you live is how you live.”

Now, this is a popular notion. Have you noticed? “Don’t bring faith up in the public square. Don’t bring faith up in family. Just leave your faith at the church door.” 

Well, there’s nothing new about that sentiment. There was a group of people in this time that said, look, don’t mix religion and deeds. You know, the world’s the world, and religion’s religion. Don’t mix the two. They don’t go together. 

And he says, “Well, what good does that do?”

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but doesn’t do anything consistent with the faith? What good is that? Can faith save him?

Now here’s the first big confusing thing that comes up. If we talk about brethren, and we’re talking about people whose Lord is Jesus Christ, and we’re talking about living that faith consistently, and whether we do love God or whether we don’t love God, whether we do walk in faith or we don’t walk in faith, whether we walk in the wisdom of the world or not the wisdom of the world. And going back even to chapter 1 where it says you don’t have any temptations that come from circumstances; they all come from within you. They come from your own heart where you conceive sin, and then you birth sin, and then sin grows up, and it becomes death. That’s your problem. 

What do we need to be saved from?

If that’s your problem, then what do you need to be saved from? 

Well, we need to be saved from being a judge with evil motives. We need to be saved from living in a way that’s selfish and self-centered. We need to be saved from partiality. We need to be saved from this sin that’s within us that’s overflowing that we can set aside and replace with meekness with the implanted word. 

And if we’re not saved from those things, then we’re not going to get profit, and we’re not going to have a fulfilled life. We’re not going to be loving God, and so we’re not going to get the rewards that go with that. 

Your devotional life is not enough

You can’t have a great devotional life and expect that to please God. That’s not the way it works. What God wants us to do is take what we believe and actually do it. Do something about it.

If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, verse 15, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?

If somebody has a great devotional life, and they go to church all the time, and they know Bible verses, but they don’t help the people right in the road in front of them, what good is all that Bible study doing? If they go to classes and they understand relationships, and then they treat other people like dirt, what good did it do to go to the class? What good did it do? What profit is it?

Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

What’s dead faith?

Now, dead faith. That means you’re going to hell, right? Well, obviously, with James talking to people who are being persecuted in the world who have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and he’s trying to get them to be a profitable life, and suddenly he would turn and say you’re probably not really saved; you’re probably going to hell. Would that make any sense whatsoever? That makes no sense. 

What does dead faith mean? Well, let’s skip ahead again to verse 26. He’s going to culminate with this. But let’s go there first.

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

A body dies. The spirit leaves. The spirit goes to heaven. The body’s still there. It still exists. But it’s not doing anything. 

You’re not going to invite a dead body to your wedding. You’re not going to invite a dead body to your party. You’re not going to have dinner with a dead body. They’re not very good conversationalists. They’re not going to elevate the conversation because they don’t do anything. Dead bodies just lay there.

See the point? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith—which is like a dead body—without works is just laying there! It’s not doing anything! It’s useless to us. 

You want faith to come alive then you do something. Works is what makes the dead faith stand up and walk. It’s not whether we have faith or not, it’s whether it’s doing anything useful. That’s the point.

The objector’s objection

Now we get to the part that really confuses everybody. Now James says—

But someone will say,

Now there’s a few things that are really clear. Some of this is going to be a little murky. I’ll do my best to tell you what I think it says. 

But this is really clear. When James says, “But someone will say,” this isn’t him talking. Isn’t that clear? That’s really obvious. “But someone will say.” So, here’s the someone now.

“You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 

You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!

But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?

Now this sequence really turns people sideways. So, let me just make some observations about what’s really clear.

Number one: When he says, “But someone will say,” this is an objector. Now, he introduced this whole passage with this statement: What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? That’s the question. 

So when he says, “But someone will say,” that’s going to be someone who disagrees with James’ point of view. It’s an objector. That’s number one.

James’ response to the objector

Number two: James says to the objector, But do you want to know, O foolish man—So, whatever the objector’s saying is, according to James, foolish. 

So this is going to be an objector. He’s going to object to the statement, “What does it profit if someone has faith but does not have works?”. And James is going to claim that whatever the objector says is foolish. That seems pretty clear. What’s inside those two things is not so clear. But here’s something we can say that will make it clear, I believe. 

He says, But do you want to know—in verse 20—O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?

So whatever it is that this objector says inside this clause is the opposite of “faith without works is dead.” So that’s pretty clear, right? 

So there’s an objector. The objector is, according to James, foolish. And the objector is going to be saying the opposite of “faith without works is dead.” 

Well what is the opposite of “faith without works is dead?” What’s the opposite of that? 

Faith without works is fine! You can have a living, vibrant faith full of glory and holiness and righteousness and have a great religious perspective and be stealing from people and giving preference to others and committing adultery and all that. Just don’t embarrass anybody. Just keep it kind of below the surface. It’s fine to have a few girlfriends. Just don’t embarrass your wife. Just keep your profile clean. And then it’s okay.

Ever seen that before? That’s a pretty common view, even today, isn’t it?

The actual objection

So, the objector has an objection. Let’s now unpack the objection, which is kind of the confusing point. Now remember—

[Audience input. Undecipherable but something about quotation marks.]

Yeah, well, I’ll get to that. I’ll get to that. I’m trying not to confuse—I’m hoping everybody doesn’t even notice. For now. I’ll just say there’s a lot of translations with no quotation marks. Let’s use those for the time being. 

So, “Someone will say.” So, now, here’s the objector, and the objector is going to be arguing that faith and works—faith can be living and active and wonderful, and have works that contradict that, and it’s fine. They’re two separate things. That’s going to be what the objector’s arguing. That seems clear, right?

So, here’s the objector. “You have faith, and I have works.” The objector’s talking to who? James. So let’s play this like I’m the objector and you’re James. A plural James, you are. 

“I have faith; you have works.” What do I have? I’m the objector. I have works. What do you have? Faith. 

So you have faith; I have works. The objector has set up a scenario here. And he’s going to talk about faith and works because that’s the question, right? Let’s just say you have faith, James. And let’s say that I have works. That’s the scenario. 

Now, so far, has he made a persuasive case? It’s just a scenario. So, let’s say that that’s the case. 

Argument number one

Now here is objection number 1. I’m going to really nail you.

You show me your faith without your works. Prove to me you have faith without doing anything. I’ll wait. I don’t see anything. You’re just sitting there. Can you prove to someone what you believe without doing anything? Pretty good point he has, right? 

See? You have faith. Faith is something internal. Who knows? So far he’s doing pretty good. 

I, on the other hand, will prove to you I have faith by my works. I’m going to go and give to the homeless. I’m going to go do that, and I’m going to help a little, old lady across the street. And that proves I’m a righteous person inside.

Well, does it? Are there rotten, nasty people that do all that just to be seen by other people? Yes, there are. He’s got a pretty good point so far. You can see why this would have legs.

So James is repeating something that, apparently, is pretty commonly said. That’s argument number one. Can’t prove it. Can’t prove they’re connected. 

Argument number two

Argument number two. James, you believe there’s one God, and you do well. You do good stuff. You’re a holy guy, you know? You see widows and orphans, and all that. That’s fine. You believe there’s one God; you do good stuff. 

The demons believe there’s one God too! Were the demons atheists that come to Jesus? Jesus comes to the man with ten thousand demons in him, Legion; and the demons say, “We don’t believe in you!” Is that what they said? 

They said, “Leave us alone!” They trembled. They shuddered! They bristled! They said, “Leave us alone! Please don’t send us into the abyss. Let us go into the pigs!”

James, you believe and do good; the demons believe the same thing, and they don’t do good at all. They’re not connected. 

Not bad. 

James’ response

Here’s how James answers.

But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?

What you’re saying is foolish. 

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?

Now, again, confusion. Because what are we justified by? According to evangelical Christianity? Faith alone. Through grace alone.