James 2:14-26Good News Translation (GNT)
14 My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Can that faith save you? 15 Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. 16 What good is there in your saying to them, “God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!”—if you don’t give them the necessities of life? 17 So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead.
18 But someone will say, “One person has faith, another has actions.” My answer is, “Show me how anyone can have faith without actions. I will show you my faith by my actions.” 19 Do you believe that there is only one God? Good! The demons also believe—and tremble with fear. 20 You fool! Do you want to be shown that faith without actions is useless? 21 How was our ancestor Abraham put right with God? It was through his actions, when he offered his son Isaac on the altar. 22 Can’t you see? His faith and his actions worked together; his faith was made perfect through his actions. 23 And the scripture came true that said, “Abraham believed God, and because of his faith God accepted him as righteous.” And so Abraham was called God’s friend. 24 You see, then, that it is by our actions that we are put right with God, and not by our faith alone.
25 It was the same with the prostitute Rahab. She was put right with God through her actions, by welcoming the Israelite spies and helping them to escape by a different road.
26 So then, as the body without the spirit is dead, also faith without actions is dead.
This passage of James should be compared with a typical passage from Paul such as chapter 3 of Galatians:
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! 2 The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? 4 Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. 5 Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?
6 Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, 7 so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. 8 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.’ 9 For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.
James is defending what he calls actions (Greek, erga) while Paul is attacking what he calls the works of the law, (Greek, the erga of the law). James is writing from a tradition established by Jesus about hearing and doing the word, according to which mere hearing without doing is a sham, whereas Paul is reassessing the complete Jewish Torah in the light of trust in Jesus. As a missionary to gentiles, Paul insists that the Torah tells you how to be a Jew, whereas trust in Jesus is God’s way of rescuing you from sin and putting your life to rights.
We can say that probably James had not read Paul’s letters but rather come across followers of Paul’s teaching, who may have expressed it crudely. Doubtless he did not understand Paul’s radical conviction that Gentiles did not need to become Jews, but had direct access to God through Jesus.
There is a real issue nevertheless, as James’ shrewd criticism shows. In essence he insists that faith and actions belong together, whereas Paul, having got rid of the Torah, seems to be left with faith alone. In his favour we can quote Jesus’ teaching that sound actions come from a sound person as good fruit comes from a good tree. Perhaps we can explain the disagreement by noting that Paul picks up the bit of the Jesus’ tradition that emphasises becoming like little children, or being born again, as part of a radical faith that can move mountains; whereas James picks up the bit of the Jesus’ tradition that emphasises discipleship, obedience and the practical care of the neighbour.
Both writers use Abraham as an example. In this regard we may think that Paul has the better of the argument, as the scripture does commend Abraham’s trust or faith in a time prior to the giving of the Torah. James is left quoting a verse which says the opposite of what he wants it to mean. My guess is that most believers incline to the down-to-earth wisdom of James, but if we are non-jews we should perhaps reflect that our access to Christian faith was made possible only by Paul’s separation of faith in Jesus from the Jewish Torah.
A glance at various translations will show that the first part of 2:18 is difficult to understand. I think the Good News tranlsation above has got it right. James is arguing against someone who thinks that faith and actions are just different emphases, and that it doesn’t matter which you prefer. He is clear that an emphasis on faith alone can speedily lead to hypocrisy.
The Jewish wisdom tradition, of which Jesus was part, taught the unity of faith and action, worship and obedience, person and practice. Anything that destroys that unity is likely to be a mistake.