What We Believe: The Doctrine of Justification (V) – Can a Lonely Faith Justify? The Teaching of James (Part B)

What is the question?

As a seminary professor, I often have the task of evaluating student papers. In doing so, I have come to recognize that a good paper ordinarily has a clear statement of the question it addresses. Thus, one of the basic questions I raise in the course of my evaluation is—to what question is this paper addressed? When no question is being asked (and no answer is therefore given), it’s likely not a very good paper.

Verse 14. I mention that because, as we look together at James 2, it becomes immediately evident that James is a good preacher by this standard. He tells us at the outset in verse 14, what question he wishes to address. It is a question consistent with the character of the epistle generally, which is full of practical instruction in the Christian life: “What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?”

There are some things that require careful notice in this opening verse. Notice first that James is posing a question regarding a man who is presently claiming to have faith. He uses the present tense of the verb: “What use is it, brothers, if a man says he has faith?” The focus is upon a professing believer, someone who is claiming to be a Christian. Furthermore, James uses language to call attention to the kind of faith of which this man boasts. “If a man says he has faith, but he has no works, can that kind of faith save him?” Literally, the text reads, “Can the faith save him” (not “that kind of”). It has the definite article, suggesting that James means to emphasize that the faith of which this man boasts is a faith devoid of good works—an empty faith, you might say. And the precise question he is asking is: Can a man who boasts of his faith, but a faith of the kind that is empty of good works, be saved by means of that kind of faith? The force, moreover, of the language James uses is such as to imply the answer, “Certainly not.” Like many rhetorical questions, the answer to this one is not left in doubt.

Now that’s not an unusual or difficult thing for us to understand. We are likely familiar with the words of the Lord, “This people comes near me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” These words refer to people whose religion is of the lip and the teeth and the tongue alone. Or again, consider the words of our Lord in Matthew 7, addressed to those who professed to have done many mighty works in His name: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord!,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” It is the one who does the Father’s will whom Jesus will acknowledge as truly one of His disciples. To those who do not do the Father’s will, however, He will say, “Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.”

And so the question here in James chapter 2, beginning at the 14th verse, is the question: Can a mere profession of faith, though it be a faith devoid of good works, save anyone?

Verses 15–17. But now we must go on to verses 15 through 17. In these verses, James provides a concrete example of the kind of thing he is talking about: “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so, faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” Of what use, James is asking, is a faith that has no company in good works, that is “by itself,” all alone in the comer, having no fruit or evidence that it is alive?

The illustration James uses is a simple one. He describes a Christian brother or sister who comes needing clothing and food. What good would it do to wish such a person well, but without doing anything to help in his or her need, James asks. The expression James uses here, “Go in peace,” is much like our English expression, “goodbye.” What good would be accomplished by tossing out the expression, “goodbye,” wishing the person in need well, but without any accompanying action to alleviate his or her need?

This illustration reminds me of our common practice of greeting people with the expressions – “How are you?”, “See you later,” or “Have a good day.” Perhaps you have been caught up short, as I have, by someone who responds to one of these expressions as though you literally meant what you were saying. What happens when someone responds, for example, with a lengthy explanation of the terrible day that they have had? Or they ask you, when do you hope to see them next? Usually, you feel rather sheepish, recognizing that these expressions are only a “manner of speaking,” and do not reflect any serious intention of any corresponding action on your part. At a deeper level, this is the kind of thing of which James is speaking here, when he uses this rather simple illustration of a professing someone well, but has no real intention whatsoever of acting upon their words.

Verse 18. But now we come to verse 18. If you read commentaries on James 2, you will find that some of them go on for pages on verse 18 alone, dealing with such questions as: Where does James begin to speak? Where does his interlocutor, or his objector, begin or end his speaking? Much of this discussion is beside the point, however. The point of what James says in this verse is not difficult to see. Suppose, says James, someone comes and says, “You have faith, I have works. Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”



The critical issue that this verse raises has to do with whether there is an inseparable link between (true) faith and works. Or is it possible to separate between them? Is a faith, separated from any good works, the real thing? Because the issue has to do with this relation between faith and works, James speaks a little later in this passage of faith “working together with” works. The term he uses in this expression is synergy. The implication of this is that we may not divide between, or tear asunder, what God has put together. Faith and works are two sides of a single coin; if you have the one, you will necessarily have the other. There must be a synergy of faith and works.

To summarize: the question that this passage addresses is whether a dead, lifeless faith can save anyone. Even before James proceeds to his answer, the implication is clearly that it cannot.

However, it is not enough to have a clear understanding of the question James is addressing in this passage. It is also critical to notice that it occurs in a very particular setting. That setting is one in which there is a question among men as to the genuineness of the faith of a professed believer. The issue is not whether God is able to discern the genuineness of a believer’s faith. No doubt, as One who alone is able tobeliever who wishes examine the heart, God knows precisely whether anyone is a true believer or not. But this dispute as to the genuineness of faith takes place among professed believers. The context of this question is a profession of faith which needs to be tested by others as to its genuineness. Though God knows perfectly well whether this claim to have faith is a valid one, the concern of this question focuses upon how others can be assured that this claim is true.

Though the importance of this setting for understanding the kind of question James is asking will become more clear in our next article, it seems quite apparent that God does not have to wait until our faith expresses itself in good works to know whether it is the genuine article or not. If I may run ahead a little bit in the text, did God have to wait until Abraham demonstrated his obedience in the matter of the sacrifice of Isaac in order to know for the first time that the faith that “was reckoned unto him as righteousness” in Genesis 15 was a true faith? Thus, the context for the question here is a dispute between and among those who profess to believe. I stress that, because the issue of justification, as we have previously argued, is where do we stand with God, not the question, is our faith confirmed, evidenced, and shown to others to be genuine by our doing of those works that proceed from faith?

Verses 19–20. Notice, as we go on in this passage, what is further stated in verses 19 and 20. “You believe,” says James, “that God is one. You do well. The demons also believe and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless or dead?”

In these verses it becomes especially clear that the faith of someone who professes to believe, but who does no good works, is no true faith at all. Such faith is the kind that even the demons possess. The apostle James uses vivid language in verse 19, “The demons also believe and shudder.”

One commentator on the text observes that James uses an expression that suggests the behavior of a cat when it has been frightened by something. It draws itself up and, in a state of trembling and fear, faces off against its enemy. Similarly, the demons, though they know who “the Christ” is, tremble at the truth concerning Him. They know that God is one, but this knowledge is not the expression of a true and living faith.

Perhaps you are familiar with the common distinction in Christian theology between the three aspects of true faith—knowledge, assent, and trust. True faith requires, but does not consist only in, a knowledge of the truth (notitia), for example, that God is one, or that Christ is the Son of God, or that He made atonement for our sins. It also requires, in addition to the knowledge of the truth, a conviction of the truth of what is known (assensus). It involves a knowledge and an assent to what is known. However, even knowledge coupled with assent does not constitute true and saving faith. True faith includes more than such knowledge and conviction. One can know and even be convinced of the truth, and yet lack that trust (fiducia) that belongs integrally to true faith, namely, the confidence of salvation in Jesus Christ. Unless a person knows about, assents to, and trusts in the saving work of Jesus Christ, true faith is not present.

James, accordingly, argues that the faith of the demons is no true faith. For, though the demons believe, their believing is devoid of any conviction or trust in Jesus Christ unto salvation. The faith of the demons is not the rich and living reality of true faith. Contrary to true faith, which is marked by confidence in God’s grace and works through love (compare Galatians 5:6), the faith of the demons yields only a fearful prospect of God’s judgment. The language of verse 19 reinforces this contrast. This verse speaks of the demons believing “that God is one.”

It doesn’t speak of their believing “in” or “upon” God. However, in the New Testament, when the true faith of the Christian is described, it is commonly described as an act whereby someone believes “in” or “upon” or “into” Christ or the promises of the gospel.

Perhaps a simple analogy will prove helpful here. I have a daughter who is fifteen and only recently obtained her permit to drive. She has completed driver’s training class, and I know she did well. She even has a certificate to prove it! There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that she has done all of this. I’m convinced that it’s all true. However, the real test of faith at this point remains: Will I get into the car to go on the expressway with her as the driver? To press the analogy here, true faith includes not only a knowledge of and conviction about the truth of the matter, but a trusting confidence that readily acts upon the basis of what is known. That’s the way it is with true faith. Unlike the faith of the demons, who shudder at the knowledge that God is one, the faith of the true believer brings joy and hope in God, and expresses itself in the way of Christian obedience.

Well, admittedly, that’s a rather homely and perhaps not a very good analogy. But the basic idea should be clear. The faith of which James is talking here is not the genuine article. It’s that orthodoxy that we call “dead,” because it is lifeless and unproductive. That is the great question, then, of James 2: Can that kind of faith, namely, a lonely faith, separated from a life of good works, save anyone?

(Part C – What is the to be continued in the November/2000 issue of The Outlook)


2 Though it is incidental to James’ purpose, perhaps it is appropriate to remark here that he provides no encouragement to the kind of preaching or teaching in the church that “leaves the application” to the hearer. James’ teaching involves the exposition and application of the Word of God. The preacher of the Word of God who only expounds, but neglects to apply the text of Scripture has neither done his duty nor followed the example of the apostles.

Dr. Cornelis Venema, a contributing editor of The Outlook magazine, teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana.