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James 2:14-26

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:

  1. Understand that there is no disagreement between the Apostle Paul and James regarding salvation.

  2. Understand that our good works are an outflow of the salvation we have received by grace.

  3. 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