Category Archives: James

Study 2 of 6 – How Faith Works – James 2:14-26

Discussion opener: A problem: We noted last week that the Reformers, back in the 16th century, fought for faith as the only way for salvation – not by works! And Ephesians 2:8-9 declares this clearly. And yet, in James 2:24 we read, “…a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” The bible, on the surface, seems to be fighting with itself. (Invite people to discuss this – but be brief as we want the bible to guide us).


We began our study last week by looking at the meaning of the word faith according to Hebrews 11:1. It is a stronger word than belief since it promotes action – our faith in God is not simply knowledge about him but consists of his promises to us and our assurance that he is trustworthy.

We recalled that salvation is not through what we have or will ever do but through faith in Jesus Christ. This faith sets us off in a life of trusting him. We will study this a little closer today as we turn to James Chapter 2.

Read James 2:14-26 (you may like to read Verses 1-13 for some context also).



14-17 – The argument: faith unaccompanied with action, is dead.

18-19 – Proof one: we must be distinguished from demons.

20-24 – Proof two: Abraham is not judged by his claims but by his actions which shows his faith.

25-26 – Proof three: Evidence of faith is in what people do.

14-17 – The argument: faith unaccompanied with action, is dead.

“What good is it…?” The argument put forward by James is that you cannot simply say that you have faith but then have no signs or evidence of it. Empty words are no good to anybody. 

“Can such faith save them?” Our claim to have faith is one thing and is essential, but if there’s nothing behind it, then is that actually a saving faith? This passage is tricky because it can be easily misunderstood. A shallow reading will produce an incorrect understanding. We must read this deeply – there is no secret formula to doing this, except to slow down and listen carefully to what is being said.

“Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food…” Verses 15 and 16 are a prime example of how to take a passage out of context AND if read in a shallow way, will be misunderstood. A shallow reading would conclude that we do not have faith unless we give to the poor. That is wrong. James has raised an illustration of what actionless faith is like. If you wish for someone to be well fed and clothed but do nothing about it, then this is just empty words which are useless. In the same way, if we say that we have faith, but our lives do not show it, do we really have faith? So, James’ application is not that we should all give to the poor, but that we should walk the talk. A careful meditation on this passage will reveal that James is giving an illustration, not an application. The application is for us to understand Jame’s point: faith, that is not accompanied by action, is dead. Faith is something that we must see.

18-19 – Proof one: we must be distinguished from demons.

“You believe there is one God. Good!” Faith is more than a statement (it is traditional to recite a statement of faith in church). James points to the fact that even demons believe there is one God. In a world (in James’ time and ours) where many gods were the normal worldview and each culture had their own – a Christian may boast that they believe in One God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth – but demons believe that too! They believe it with great conviction – enough to make them shudder! How do we respond to this belief? Do we then live with indifference, with fear, or with a conviction to follow him, to listen and obey?

20-24 – Proof two: Abraham is not judged by his claims but by his actions which shows his faith.

“…his faith and his actions were working together…” James (like Paul) uses Abraham as a prime example of faith because he is the father of the faithful. When Abraham was declared righteous, it was because his faith was visible. A bystander can see it. The story is from Genesis 22 where, remarkably, God is described as testing Abraham. There is a distinction between testing and tempting (see James 1:13). God was not tempting Abraham to sin, but putting Abraham’s faith to the test – and it was proven to be real.

25-26 – Proof three: Evidence of faith is in what people do.

“…even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did…” Rahab was defined as a non-Israelite and a prostitute. Yet she is praised here and in Hebrews 11 as having faith because she acted on the knowledge that there is only one God and he is the God the Hebrews followed. She is not righteous by any other means except her faith and her faith is proven by what she did.

“As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” This is a peculiar way to conclude the argument. The science and truth of this statement is a mystery and perhaps too much for this study – but a body which we can see is only alive when it is spirited. Without deeds, faith is as dead as a corpse. Like the old movie, Weekend at Bernies – you can pretend that the body is living, but unless it can walk on it’s own, it’s dead. A Christian may say, I believe this or that, but James has argued that words are empty – faith is made complete by what it does. Another movie then comes to mind: “Stupid is as stupid does” (Forest Gump). Our faith is what it does.


Be careful that we do not conclude that faith is all about obeying to do lists in the bible – about rule keeping. Neither Rahab nor Abraham were demonstrating an obedience to the law but were demonstrating their understanding of who God is by what they did. If I believe that the greatest treasure is found 10 steps north of my current location, then you will be sure to see me moving that way ASAP. If we believe that salvation is found in nobody else but Jesus Christ, then let’s be bound to him like a person bound to a lifeboat in a storm.


Application A: Don’t give to the poor. I should say, don’t just give to the poor and don’t just give to God. Donating to charity and giving money to the church are both wonderful and good, but these ought to flow out of our faith in God rather than a response to what we think we should do. If you believe that God is eternal and our lives are just vapour, and that all we have belongs to God, then giving will not feel like giving. The point is: act on faith, not on works.

Application B: Know God better and this will increase your faith. James pointed to the demons as having a sound understanding of who God is and yet they do not have faith. It does not follow that we needn’t know God in order to have a healthy faith. We must know God and so grow up in our dependence on him. We will never trust a stranger. We can trust God – when we know him. We know him by his word – because he is not just a God of identity but a God of action.

Application C: Read your bible properly. A passage like James 2:14-26 can easily be misunderstood when read shallowly. A bad hearing of this text may conclude that Christians must give to the poor, and that we need to do good in order to be saved. To get around misreadings like that, we simply need to be good listeners. In your private bible readings be sure to read your set text of the day more than once – three times is a good goal. Read slowly and ask each word, sentence and paragraph what it is trying to say. Finally, take what you’ve read and turn it into a prayer – of thanks, request and repentance. Meditating on the bible in this way, over a long period, will surely reveal a growing faith in you.