James 2:20

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? James 2:20

James has spoken of faith without works and works which demonstrate faith. From there, he used demons as an example of belief which is void of any value. They believe in God and yet they tremble.

One can believe in something without having faith in it. A person can believe that an arrangement of wood in the corner of a room is a chair, but he may not have faith that the chair is capable of holding his weight. A person can believe in God, and yet he can also have no faith in that same God. A person can even believe in Jesus and yet not have faith that Jesus died for his sins and was resurrected proving His own sinlessness.

James now asks a question to get his reader to think this matter through. He begins with, “But do you want to know, O foolish man.” The word translated as “foolish” is kenos. It means “empty,” either literally or figuratively. It would indicate a man whose head is empty from not thinking clearly. He is lacking in moral content. To understand, one could think of almost any liberal in the world today. There is no substance behind their thought process.

James’ words are general, as if he is speaking to anyone who hasn’t figured out what he is saying. There needs to be faith behind knowledge. The two need to work in harmony with one another. And so in order to complete his question, he says “that faith without works is dead?”

The word translated as “works” is the same common word that he uses twelve times in this chapter alone, ergon. It is a deed which accomplishes what is initiated by an inner desire. James says that faith without such “is dead.” Here, there is a variance in some manuscripts. Some say nekra, or “dead,” while others say arge, or “worthless.” In the end, they come to substantially the same meaning. A tree can have fruit which is shriveled up and dead, or it can have fruit which cannot be eaten for some reason. And so either way, the fruit is not able to accomplish that for which it was intended.

To support his statement, James will next give two examples directly from Scripture. He (and thus the Lord who inspired the words) obviously finds that these two examples (Abraham and Rahab) are sufficient to convey the exact intent of what he means here. As he does, so should we. What is it that Scripture says about these two that James finds worthy of note, and what is it that Scripture itself also elsewhere says about these two which will help us to understand what James is conveying?

Of the concept of faith without works being dead, Albert Barnes says –

“That the faith which does not produce good works is useless in the matter of salvation. He does not mean to say that it would produce no effect, for in the case of the demons it did produce trembling and alarm; but that it would be valueless in the matter of salvation.”

Is this correct?

Two things need to be considered. First, it was argued in verse 2:14 that James’ words, “Can faith save him?”, were speaking of another, not the individual with the faith. That was substantiated by the fact the example which immediately followed the question was referring to helping another. Secondly, even if this was speaking of the person with the faith, then to support Albert Barnes’ statement, it would have to assume that in Genesis 15:6 Abraham was not yet “saved” (meaning declared righteous), in the sense of pleasing God and being justified by Him. As will be seen, this is entirely incorrect.

And so the question is, “If faith without works is dead, then what ‘works’ prove that the faith is alive?” Charles Elllicott, in line with almost all reformed thinkers, says, “Works are the natural fruit of faith, and without them it is evident that the tree is dead.” This statement, however, explains nothing concerning “what works,” demonstrate or prove saving faith.

How can a person read such things and feel any more secure in his walk than before he read them? He is left with nothing but a dubious sense of, “I need to do works to prove my faith.” From there, he goes and does and does and does, but his doing never satisfies because nobody told him what “works” are considered acceptable. One might as well go back to Roman Catholicism under such an explanation of “works which demonstrate saving faith.”

Life application: Jesus said, “But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:22).

Raca means “empty-headed,” and it is what James appears to be calling people here. But he is using the term in a general sense to explain how someone may not be thinking an issue through clearly. Further, Jesus uses the term moros, when speaking of a fool (think of our modern term “moron”). Paul uses that term when speaking of others because the Bible already describes who a fool is for us, such as –

“The fool has said in his heart,
There is no God.’
They are corrupt,
They have done abominable works,
There is none who does good.’” Psalm 14:1

Therefore, one valid definition of a fool is a person who denies the existence of God.

But, a person claiming to have faith and yet lacking the proper deeds of faith could also be considered foolish. Keep this in mind because it bears on the examples James is going to give and how we can know what deeds are relevant to saving faith. One reason this is so important is that anyone can claim any deeds are necessary fruits of a converted person. If so, then if someone else doesn’t do what the individual determines is necessary to prove his faith, finger-pointing and accusation results – “He can’t be a Christian because…”

This is exactly what happens in churches and denominations all over the world. All because people set their own standards of “deeds of righteousness” rather than looking to the Bible to determine proper deeds which result from saving faith. We will determine what they are in the verses ahead. Sure we will… Have faith!

Lord Jesus, we know that You have accepted us because of our faith in Christ. We have this certainty because we called on You in faith and because You then sealed us with Your Holy Spirit as a guarantee. It was the sweetest moment ever! May our deeds now reflect this, all the days of our lives. Amen.

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