Real Faith

March 10, 2024 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: James

Scripture: James 2:14–26

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 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. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 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? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

Several years ago, a friend of mine who is not a Christian asked me to tell him what the gospel is. Excitedly, I explained to him that the Christian gospel teaches that we are saved by faith, by faith in Christ alone, and that our works have nothing to do with our salvation. Looking somewhat puzzled, he looked and me and said, “But surely we need Christians to do something, right?”

Have you ever been corrected in your theology by a non-Christian? You see, James 2:24 says, “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Not by faith alone? No wonder Martin Luther had a hard time with the book of James!

As we study the book of James, and come now to this interesting text, we should resist the temptation to make it fit somehow underneath other texts of Scripture. We need to take them all with the same authoritative force and see how they go together. After all, James is in our Bibles, so the early Christians did not see anything here as a contradiction to what we find elsewhere. They didn’t have a problem with this passage, so we shouldn’t either.

Perhaps it’s time we admit that without an appreciation for what James is saying here we end up misunderstanding what the Bible has to say about salvation and justification and faith. Real faith, at least. James is concerned about faith in these verses, and is intent on showing us that real faith saves, persists, and justifies.

Real Faith Saves

When James says, in verse 14, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” ‌notice what is implicit in his question. While he casts doubt on the salvific power of a faith that one claims to have which is not backed up by works, he does not question whether faith is a necessity for salvation. James affirms that faith saves; it’s just that not all that goes by the name “faith” is real, genuine, saving faith.

Genuine Faith

James is very much concerned about genuine faith and does not think that salvation, or anything else for that matter, comes to us from God without it. Remember what he said in chapter 1? If anyone lacks wisdom, he is to ask for it from God, because God “gives generously to all without reproach” (Jas 1:5). However, the next verse says that the person who lacks wisdom must “ask in faith, with no doubting” or he will not “receive anything from the Lord” (Jas 1:6-7). So, faith is absolutely essential. No one gets anything from God without it.‌ No one can be saved without it.

James is imagining there in chapter 1 a “double-minded” person who asks God for wisdom but does not get it. Why? Because he lacks genuine faith. That’s interesting because most of us would probably think that a person who “asks God” for something, a person who prays, is expressing faith in the asking. But not so fast. Genuine faith, real faith, cannot be so easily defined.‌

A Faith that Works

How shall we define it? We tell people to “have faith.” But what does that mean? We tell people not to “lose faith.” But how does that happen? If you have faith at one point can you actually lose faith at a later point? And if so, does that mean we can be saved one moment and not saved another moment?

Here again we should notice what James is not saying. He gives no hint that a person might possess genuine, saving faith and then all of a sudden not possess it. What James is concerned about is a false faith, a faith that does no good. A faith that can’t save. And part of the reason why some of us have had quite a time trying to make sense of what James says here about faith and works is because we have misunderstood what salvation means.

Take a look at verse 15. Here James gives an illustration to prove his point that a person who claims to have faith but who has no works possesses a faith that is worthless. Suppose a Christian was in serious material need, and another Christian wishes him well (“Let me pray for you”) but does not do anything to meet that material need, James asks, “What good is that?”

Now, we might say, “Well, prayer is doing something, right. Surely it would do some good.” But, James says, it is worthless. It doesn’t do any good. And then he applies this to the issue at hand. “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Really? Wouldn’t “faith by itself” do me some good, even if it doesn’t “work” or do anything for anyone else? Wouldn’t it get me to heaven?

Even if we could hypothesize that it would at least do that, we would have to ask, “Well, what then?” What would you do in heaven? Would you then, all of a sudden, do something about the brother or sister in need? Why would you not do something for them now?

A faith that saves is a faith that does something, because salvation in the Bible is all about doing something. Salvation is all about life overcoming death. It is about healing, restoration, and flourishing. To be saved is not simply to have your ticket punched to a glorious afterlife; it is to have the glory of God restored in you. It is to be a true human being, alive forever in God’s new creation.

Do You Want to Be Saved?

And so we see why faith—faith in Jesus, of course (Jas 2:1)—is necessary for salvation. Because you can try to be a true human being without faith in Jesus. You can work and work and work, you can meet as many material needs as possible—all really good things. And you can aim to live as long as possible, staving off death for as long as you can.

But Jesus is the only hope for this salvation that James is talking about. And once we realize that this is what salvation means, we have to ask ourselves if we really want this. Do we even want to be saved?

Real Faith Persists

Let’s assume that you do. If salvation means that, if it means having your humanity fully restored, living forever as real humans in God’s restored world, then what must we do? What must I do to be saved? “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ,” that is the answer to the question (Acts 16:31). But this believing is not a “one and done” thing. Real faith must persist.

Objection Raised

In verses 18-19, James affirms the priority of faith, and shows us that this kind of faith necessarily leads us to action.

James confronts the idea that genuine faith and righteous works can be separated from each other. “But someone will say,” verse 18 begins. It looks as though James now takes on an opponent who raises something of an objection to what James has just said. But this is a rhetorical device that James is using to advance his argument. That’s clear because an opponent to what James is saying here would not say, “You [James] have faith and I have works.” James is the one insisting that real faith must also have works.

What he is doing here is confronting head on the manifold ways in which we try to isolate faith and works from each other. He’s confronting the idea that says, “One person has faith alone while another person has works alone. So what? Both are important. Are not faith and works just two different gifts that God gives to some people? Is it really necessary that a person has both faith and works?”

Some people are known more by their faith and what they say they believe. They can run theological circles around anybody. They have an answer to every question. Others are known more by their works and what they do. They are not so interested in a Bible study as they are in getting their hands dirty with some great cause. So, which one is more important? Which of these two are “saved”? Are we saved by faith or by works?

The Proof of Faith

James’s answer, also in verse 18, is this: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Again, faith is absolutely necessary, but faith alone is insufficient. A person who has faith cannot prove that he has real faith if he has no works. But a person who has works can thereby prove he has real faith. Righteous works prove saving faith because they show that faith is active, alive, that it persists.

Now, James is certainly not siding with “works” here over against faith. He is not saying that works have to be added to faith and only then can you be saved. Nor would he encourage someone to start with works hoping they will supplement an insufficient faith.[1] He would agree with Paul that saving faith is prior to righteous works, in precisely the same way that we must hear the word prior to being able to do it.[2]

But, having heard the word, a person who is “saved” cannot go on refusing to do it. Saving faith—real faith—will come out in righteous works. It will do good in God’s world because this is what real faith—the real religion that James discussed at the end of chapter one—is all about. It is about taking care of the needy. It is about doing what the world needs done, but doing so without becoming just like the world. How do we do that?

God Is One

‌In verse 19, James reminds his audience where to start, and it’s in a familiar place. His original audience were Jewish Christians. They believed “that God is one.” James is citing from Deuteronomy 6:4, words that faithful Jews returned to day by day. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” You believe that, right? You do well. Real faith begins with assent to true statements.

‌But faith that goes no further than assent to true statements, that does nothing more than affirming orthodox doctrinal statements like the Apostles’ Creed or your favorite points of systematic theology, is worthless. After all, even the demons possess that kind of faith. The demons are orthodox theologians!

You might even say that the demons go one more step forward. They, at least in some sense, do not have a dead faith. What they believe, what they know to be true, causes some response in them. They shudder!

What ought our response be as we respond to true doctrines? Just keep reading, keep reciting from Deuteronomy 6. The next verse says, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Real faith begins with assent, but it moves to commitment, to love. “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:2, “but have not love, I am nothing.” The only thing that counts, Paul says in Galatians 5:6, is “faith working through love.”

Real faith includes not only an assent that something is true but “a relish of them as good.”[3] Something is seriously wrong, then, if a person says he has faith but it does not lead them to love. And love necessarily must be shown. It must act. Real faith is not just belief, not just commitment, but persistence. Real faith is faithfulness. Faith and faithfulness are two different words in English, but they are not in Greek or in Hebrew. Faith means belief, but it can also mean belief over time and through difficult circumstances. In other words, faithfulness.‌

Think about it like that in a marriage. It’s one thing to say, “I love my wife,” but it’s not exactly the same thing to prove that love over time and through difficult circumstances. “I love you” does not mean the same thing on the wedding day as it does on the 10th, 25th, or 50th anniversary.‌

So it is with faith. But a faith that does not go on, faith that does not end up being faithfulness, is what James says cannot save a person.

Real Faith Justifies

Finally, James shows us that real faith justifies. In verses 20-26, he looks back at two Old Testament characters, Abraham and Rahab, in order to prove that “faith apart from works is useless” (v. 20) and “dead.” But real faith is not useless. It is not dead. And the person who has it is “justified by works.”

Justified by Works?

Wait a minute! Justified by works? That’s what James says, three times in these last seven verses (vv. 21, 24, 25). Verse 24 sounds like a bald contradiction to what the Bible says elsewhere. “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” James says. But Romans 3:28 says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” What is going on here?

James looks at Abraham and Rahab because they have something in common. They are the only two characters in the Old Testament of whom it could be said, based on the text of Scripture itself, that they were justified by faith. James’s point is that in both cases, as important as their faith was, it was confirmed by works.[4]

Justification must not be confused with regeneration. The latter is how one becomes a Christian. We must be “born again” by the regenerating work of God’s Holy Spirit. But justification is not the same thing as regeneration. Justification is God’s declaration that a person is “in the right.” When a person is regenerated, they express real faith in the real God, and God declares them to be in the right. But then, James says, the righteous works that follow after this initial justification demonstrate that God’s initial declaration was correct. In that way, James can say, these righteous works also justify.[5]

Or, to put it another way, James says in verses 22-23, that faith is completed by works just like a prophecy in Scripture is fulfilled. When a prophecy was made in the Old Testament, that prophecy was true the moment it was made. It was, at that initial moment, “in the right.” But, of course, this can’t be separated from the fulfillment itself. When the Scripture is fulfilled, we can now again say that the prophecy is justified, proven to be right, completed.

The Testing of Faith

This is what James sees in both Abraham and Rahab. Both expressed faith in God, but like a prophetic statement, their faith would need to be completed, proven, justified.

So, it is with us. Real faith can never be understood simply as a definition. If we want to know what real faith is we have to see it acted out. We have to see it in practice. Real faith must be tested, and as Eugene Peterson observes, “we cannot be trusted to test ourselves.” God tested Abraham’s faith in that dark, mysterious story in which God commanded Abraham to offer up his only son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Rahab’s faith, expressed in Joshua 2:11, was tested by committing an act of treason against her own people in order to side with the people of God. Peterson observes that “untested faith does not yet qualify as faith” because what we often call faith may be only wishful thinking. So, “If the test dissolves whatever we were calling faith into romanticized sludge or pietistic ooze, we are blessedly rid of what will dissipate our life in self-deception.”[6]

So, if you’re wondering what works you must do in order for your faith to be fulfilled, completed, justified, don’t worry. God will make that plain soon enough. He will put your faith to the test in your own way. At some point, at many points actually, your faith will be tested. Will you obey God or will you turn away from him?

Working with God

No one who obeys God in such a context of tested faith could ever be said to be relying on that obedience for acceptance with God.[7] Those kinds of works are not legalism or a works-righteousness that come under fire in other places in Scripture. That’s not what James is interested in here. Verse 25 does not say, Rahab the prostitute was justified by works when she finally gave up her prostitution and finally started living a clean life. James cannot be read here as smuggling in some legalistic demand that we clean up our lives so God will finally accept us.

What James is trying to show us is that what all of this is about is the purpose of faith. Abraham’s obedience to God in his test of faith resulted in not only in his justification. But he was also “called a friend of God” (v. 23). This is remarkable. A friend is someone you can trust or rely on with your most precious things. Someone to whom you could entrust your spouse or your children—everything really. A friend is a partner, a co-laborer, a trusted confidant.

And that’s what God wants to do with your faith and mine, too. Real faith is not simply about getting in to the kingdom of God; it is also about living in that kingdom as God’s partner, God’s friend, doing the works of sacrifice and love that point the way to where real salvation may be found.


[1] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, Second edition, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021), 153.

[2] Ibid., 154.

[3] The quote is Thomas Boston’s, cited in Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance–Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 231-32.

[4] Richard Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, New Testament Readings (New York: Routledge, 1999), 125.

[5] N. T. Wright, Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978–2013 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 34.

[6] The citations in this paragraph are taken from Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus Is the Way (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2011), chapter 2.

[7] Bauckham, James, 134.

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