Sometimes Hollywood celebrities promote acts of kindness, leaving the impression that they are making the world a better place. Good deeds might lead us to believe a person is of good character, but we are usually assuming falsely. Truth is, it makes them feel better about themselves. Commonly understood but not often stated, an act of kindness can boost feelings of confidence, control, happiness, and optimism. We feel as if generosity and kindness will fulfill our quest for meaning. But in all actuality, works without faith is meaningless. No matter the outward appearance of a person, faith is the common thread that unites believers of all backgrounds and abilities. As we continue to briefly study excerpts from the book of James, we must consider the original audience and illustrations. In James’ letter of faith assessment, he moves forward providing examples from the lives of biblical characters and teaching his readers to examine themselves while asking the question Is it genuine? James reminds us of dead faith (2:20) which did not save, and living faith which does save. We can recall from verses 14-15:
“The question is not, “Shall faith be able to save him?” (so the Douay-Rheims translation), but rather, “Can that faith save him?” (ESV). The faith under discussion is not genuine saving faith but the inadequate self-declared faith from the first half of verse 14. James next provides an illustration of the self-declared, inadequate, non-saving faith introduced in verse 14. The Greek language has several ways of introducing conditional sentences, and by the use of ean (“if”) in verse 15, James signals to his readers that he is describing a situation for hypothetical consideration (like the English introduction, “Let us imagine …”). – Plummer, R. L. (2018). James. In I. M. Duguid, J. M. Hamilton Jr., & J. Sklar (Eds.), Hebrews–Revelation (Vol. XII, pp. 250–251). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
The church at Jerusalem would’ve been familiar with his biographical pictures of the nature of genuine faith, both from the Old Testament. When we look closely at the lives of Abraham and Rahab they couldn’t be more different people but in this instance, James shows us how they are connected. Both biblical characters demonstrated practical righteousness – how we live before God. Abraham was right with God. His faith “was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). He was considered “God’s friend.” Abraham’s faith was seen in his obedience (Genesis 22) as he prepared to sacrifice Isaac to God. He fully trusted God. And then, from the book of Joshua, we learn Rahab’s story of a prostitute whose true faith is shown by actions. Rahab’s actions put her entirely at odds with her own people, yet she takes an incredible risk as she covers for the Jewish spies. It is because of Rahab’s faith in God’s promises to his people that she acts. Rahab is radical as she demonstrates and proves her faith.
The point James makes to his readers then and now is that unless faith is lived out, it is no more useful than a breathless body (2:26). He contends that true faith is both visible and active. No less true is the fact that Christ is the basis of our justification. Faith is the means of our justification and works are the evidence of our justification. Important to note is that both are only possible by the grace of God.
“All Christians sin (1 John 1:8), but all Christians also obey: ‘By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments’ (1 John 2:3). Sin and carnality are still present with all believers (Rom. 7:21), but they cannot be the hallmark of one’s character (Rom. 6:22).”—John MacArthur
James calls for scrutiny as those who claim to be Christians call on God himself to show us where we are. We are desperate for discernment in our need to reflect and respond beyond superficiality. Ask today, am I demonstrating deeds that come from true faith? Am I doing good things to look good, feel good, and for good of my reputation? Or, am I in danger of hiding behind claims of faith that have no evidence from the way I live my day-to-day life?
Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jas 2:20–26). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.