Lesson Focus: Faith, along with works of compassion and mercy, works together to prove our faithfulness to God.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson, students should:
Understand that there is no disagreement between the Apostle Paul and James regarding salvation.
Understand that our good works are an outflow of the salvation we have received by grace.
Be encouraged to pray and think about how they live out their faith through their good works.
Catch Up on the Story As we move along with James’ letter, the purpose and intention of his letter come more clearly into focus. James wishes that we would have the wisdom to know how to live rightly in the world as God’s people. This includes learning from where our trials and temptations come. Some have begun to think that these trials and temptations have come from God, but James debunks that notion.
Temptation and trials come not from God but from our own selfish and disordered desires. James not only wants us to have the wisdom to know where our temptations come from but also from where our help comes. All good and gracious gifts come from God.
God is helping us become the first fruits of his renewed creation by helping us defeat temptations and overcome trials. But this entails continued discernment and contemplation as to who we are and who God is creating us to be.
We must not just be hearers of the word but doers of it as well. For James, being doers of the word means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep ourselves unstained by the world.
In the passage that we’ve skipped getting to this week’s passage, James articulates just a little bit of what it means to keep oneself unstained by the world, not showing partiality or favoritism to those who are wealthy and important. Indeed, James will say, fulfilling what we are called to do comes down to loving our neighbor as ourselves. Mercy, both to those who deserve judgment and to those who, like the orphans and widows, find themselves distressed, is crucial.
What Good is It? James begins this section of his letter with two questions. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?”
These are loaded questions. In our protestant evangelical tradition, we’ve placed a lot of importance on the saving grace of faith.
Martian Luther, who set out to reform the Catholic church but inadvertently sparked a great reformation and the formation of Protestantism, keyed in on Paul’s insistence that it is through faith, and not works, that we can be saved.
I won’t bore you with the theological battles that have raged over a supposed contradiction between James and Paul. One side insists that sola fide or faith alone in Jesus is what saves us. Therefore, as long as you believe, you’ll be ok and what you do, for good or bad, doesn’t matter as much.
Any insistence that we might earn our salvation through the work that we do is rejected. And, to a certain degree, I think they’re right. Then, James’ letter is almost heretical with what it suggests from these two questions and the answers that James gives.
The conflict regarding salvation that some would read into the works of James and Paul isn’t there. Again, I won’t bore you with all the details, but what Paul and James mean when they say something like “works” are different things.
First, Paul’s letters focus on helping believers be free from “works of the law,” not just generic works.
Many in the early days of Christianity wanted Christians to continue to follow all of the Jewish laws. Paul and the early church leaders thought this was unnecessary. For the Jews, the law was mainly about making and keeping oneself and God’s people pure. They felt that if they could follow the law well enough, then God’s kingdom would come.
For the early church, the Jewish law no longer had any power because Jesus had fulfilled it, bringing God’s grace and salvation to us who were still sinners.
Paul never mentions works apart from the context of the law.
On the other hand, James isn’t as concerned with the “works of the law.” As the rest of the passage will show, James is concerned with Christians living out the content of their faith. James’ first two questions were rhetorical, and he goes on to answer them with an illustration. Imagine for a moment that a brother or sister shows up to your worship gathering, and they are clearly in need of assistance. They’re poorly dressed for the weather and are desperately thin, indicating that they have not eaten well for some time.
They take a seat in the gathering and worship together with you. Then, when all is over and done with, you greet these two poor and downcast people and usher them out the door, saying, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill!” Then you turn and don’t give a second thought about the pair.
James wants to know, “what is the good of that?” No, if as James suggested at the end of chapter one, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress…” then a faith that does nothing for those who are oppressed and impoverished is dead!
It doesn’t matter one bit if you say that you believe in God and Jesus Christ. If you have not put action to your faith, your faith is dead.
James is saying that faith that does not manifest itself in works of mercy and compassion, that does not concretely care for others, is useless. It doesn’t matter how much scripture you can quote.
But someone will say… It’s clear that James is engaged in an imaginary argument with a segment of the people he knows will read his letter. He’s anticipating their argument, or he’s already heard what his conversation partners will say in response, “You have faith, and I have works.”
James’ response is, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I, by my works, will show you my faith.” What James wants to know is how faith that is divorced from concrete actions might shape your life? To further drive home his point, James says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe-ad shudder.” Faith must be more than just mental assent to some idea about God. Faith must result in transformation in both character and action.
Demons, according to James, believe all the things about God. “They genuinely believe in God. But the irrefutable fact is that despite the depth of their belief, they remain demonic in their orientation and practice. In other words, their beliefs make no essential difference in their lives and behavior.”
James is likening those who “have assented intellectually to Christian doctrines (made decisions) without ever actually appropriating authentic, saving faith” are like demons! At the very least, it puts you squarely out of sync with what God is doing in the world.
Synergy James goes on to offer an argument from the Old Testament, the faith of Abraham. Using the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, James points to the fact that Abraham’s faith is worked out in obedience.
Verse 22 is the key, “you see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by works.”
The word that James uses for “active along” is the word from which we get synergy, which means “to work in partnership…to work together producing through a partnership something that could not have been produced separately.”
Synergy! As crucial as believing correctly is, it cannot in itself produce the kind of fruitful and faithful life that must characterize the Christian existence.
Faith in God and the salvation we have is the beginning. We believe that God created the world and that God, through Jesus, is actively working to bring about the redemption and restoration of all things.
We believe that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, sin and death have been defeated, and we have a new life, cleansed from our sinfulness. It is to that faith that we respond with works of mercy for those around us. Jesus’ words should ring in our ears here, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you…” and “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Our faith in God, working together with our response to the love and sending that we have received from Jesus, produces something neither faith alone nor good works alone can produce, life and salvation in the fullest sense.
So What? There is no disagreement between James and Paul in regards to salvation. Both understand that faith in God is vitally important. Both know that we who believe must demonstrate our faith through how we live and act. In other words, we cooperate with our salvation.
What does this look like for us? I think it means that we demonstrate our true faith in God through how we care for those around us. It means that when we see a need in our community, we seek to meet it. And it doesn’t even need to be grandiose. You, we, don’t need to solve poverty or any of the other social ills that plague our world by ourselves. Instead, it is simple acts of mercy, kindness, and generosity. That means, however, that we must go around with our eyes open wide, seeking to see where we might prove our faith by our works of mercy.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Define faith. How do people know that you are a person of faith?
What do you make of the questions James poses in verse 14?
Reread verses 15 and 16. What is James’ point? Have you ever responded to someone’s needs in a similar fashion? If so, what made you do so?
“So faith by itself, if it has not works, is dead.” This is what James says in verse 17. What kind of works do you think James is talking about?
James says that he will display his faith through his works. What does that mean?
What do you make of James’ example about the demons who believe in God? What’s the difference between the faith that you have and the faith the demons have?
Why do you think James is so worked up about faith and works?
In most Protestant churches, it is affirmed that we are saved by grace through faith and not through our works. Is that in contradiction to what James says in verse 24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone?”
Make a list of some of how you might show your faith through the things you do.
 J. Michael Walters, James: A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 1997), 98.
 Ibid., 101.