“But supposing someone says, ‘Well: you have faith, and I have works.’ All right: show me your faith — but without doing any works; and then I will show you my faith, and I’ll do it by my works! You believe that ‘God is one’? Well and good! The demons believe that, too, and they tremble! Do you want to know, you stupid person, that faith without works is lifeless? Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by his works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You can see from this that faith was cooperating along with the works, and the faith reached its fulfillment through the works.” James 2:18-22
Many modern Christians struggle with James’ teaching on faith and works. They believe that James and Paul are somehow at odds with each other. First, we need to get that out of the way. James and Paul say the same thing. Here are a couple of quotes from Paul:
“You have been saved by grace, through faith! This doesn’t happen on your own initiative; it’s God’s gift. It isn’t on the basis of works, so no one is able to boast. This is the explanation: God has made us what we are. God has created us in King Jesus for the good works that he prepared, ahead of time, as the road we must travel.” Eph 2:9-10
“For in the Messiah, Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any power. What matters is faith, working through love.” Gal 5:6
Second justification does not mean salvation. Biblically, salvation is the deliverance from our idolatry, the life of sin that supports and empowers it, and the dehumanization, disintegration and death that ultimately results from it. And salvation is the deliverance to the restored human vocation as God’s image-bearers in his creation.
Justification, on the other hand, is a term from the law-court. The image is a law court where the Christian is on trial in order to determine if they are actually a member of God’s covenantal people. In the Old Testament, covenantal membership was based on ethnicity. Israel was God’s chosen people, receiving both the covenantal blessings (land, law, and temple) and responsibilities (to rescue and restore the nations and God’s creation).
This ethnic-based membership was summarized by the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” Deut 6:4-5.
Ethnic Israel was God‘s chosen people. Yet, Jesus, Israel’s true king, redefined covenantal membership, opening it up to the nations, and redefined the covenantal vocation.
James is dealing with Jewish Christians, who seem to continue using the Shema as the basis of their covenantal membership and vocation and thus excusing themselves from caring for the poor and needy.
In this law-court image, James is saying let’s look at the evidence. As Jewish Christians you are presenting the Shema as your evidence. You loyally declare and adhere to the statement that God is one and you love God with your heart, soul and strength. Well, first, even the demons believe that God is one, so that doesn’t take you very far.
And second, the Shema is adhering to only half of the covenantal vocation as redefined by Jesus, Israel’s true king. The Shema is the old standard. Jesus’ royal law is to love God with all of your heart, soul and strength AND to love your neighbor as yourself. If you are loyal to Jesus, then you must be loyal to his redefinition. And loving others is practically expressed through the loving care for the least in society — the poor.
These works, says James, are the true evidence that he’s a member of God’s covenantal people. The ethnic declaration of loyalty is no longer valid evidence for covenantal membership and vocation. The true evidence is loyalty to God demonstrated by love for him AND acts of care and kindness to others. These works demonstrate loyal adherence to Jesus’ redefined covenantal vocation as expressed in his royal law. In this way you are justified, declared “right” in God’s law court, that you are truly a member of his covenantal people.
Faith must leap into action through service. Serving others is not optional. It’s why we have been saved and invited to join Jesus’ covenantal people — to do creative, beautiful and sacrificial goodness for the sake of others. In this way our faith reaches its fulfillment through our works.