The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Applying James 2: Faith without Works is Dead


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This is a continuation of Applying James 1.

In Chapter 1, James made a couple of comments that revealed he has a rather low opinion of rich people and an exalted view of the poor. As we begin this new chapter, he returns to the topic of economic status.

My brothers, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For example, a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and a poor man dressed in dirty clothes also comes in. If you look with favor on the man wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here in a good place,” and yet you say to the poor man, “Stand over there,” or, “Sit here on the floor by my footstool,” haven’t you discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (Jam. 2:1-4)

So far this is sound advice: God certainly doesn’t want us having condescending attitudes towards the poor, nor does He want us schmoozing the rich just so we can earn their favor. If you’ve never been in a church where Christians are acting this obnoxious, it’s easy to think this kind of behavior just doesn’t go on among Christians today. But how about all of those gushing letters we get in the mail from other Christian ministries that go on and on about how generous we were to send in a donation last month? Once you’re on certain ministry mailing lists, there’s no getting off. Give them a hefty check, and you’ll be elevated to “gold star” status. And as they fill your mailbox with pleas for more financial aid, notice that expensive glossy paper and those full color pictures that are meant to impress you. How about all those free gifts that get dangled in front of you? “Just donate $100, and you’ll get a free copy of Dr. So-and-So’s new book.” Christians are constantly buttering each other up to try and squeeze money out of each other and it’s very repulsive to God (see Buttering Up in the Name of Jesus: Using Carnal Strategies in the Church).

Listen, my dear brothers: Didn’t Yahweh choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love Him? Yet you dishonored that poor man. Don’t the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Don’t they blaspheme the noble Name that was pronounced over you at your baptism? (Jam. 2:5-7)

So much for not showing favoritism. According to James, the poor are chosen by God while the rich are a bunch of creeps. Well, no, this is absurd. Being poor doesn’t guarantee you a place in Heaven. Plenty of poor people are obnoxious little rebels. The lust for money can certainly lead people away from God, but this issue comes up in every economic class. Plenty of poor people are consumed with the thought of getting more money, and there are plenty of rich people who are sincerely seeking God in their hearts. James is wrong to condemn the rich here. He’s doing exactly what God doesn’t like: judging people based on their economic status.

Indeed, if you keep the royal Law prescribed in the Scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well. But if you show favoritism, you commit sin and are convicted by the Law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the entire Law, yet fails in one point, is guilty of breaking it all. For He who said, Do not commit adultery, also said, Do not murder. So if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you are a lawbreaker. (Jam. 2:8-11)

When Jews talk about the Law, they are referring to the Old Covenant Laws that Moses jotted down in Exodus through Deuteronomy. But let’s remember who James is talking to here: Jewish Christians. A man doesn’t become a Christian in God’s eyes without acknowledging his desperate need for Jesus to atone for his sins. So what’s with this lecture about failing Yahweh’s Old Covenant Law? James’ audience should already know that they have failed Yahweh’s Law—in fact, Jesus made it quite clear that it was impossible not to fail that Law. What is James’ point? That Christians should return to striving to satisfy Old Covenant Laws after they are saved under the New Covenant? Well, yes, that is what he is saying. The New Testament authors grew up under those Laws and they just don’t want to let them go. James wants his audience to return to striving:

Indeed, if you keep the royal Law prescribed in the Scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well. (Jam. 2:8)

This is useless. No one is succeeding at keeping Yahweh’s Law. So now what does James expect Christians to do?

Speak and act as those who will be judged by the law of freedom. For judgment is without mercy to the one who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (Jam. 2:12-13)

Here’s more terrible advice. James is leading us farther and farther away from truth. First he talks like we all need to return to keeping the Old Covenant Laws. Now he tells us that we won’t be saved unless we are merciful to others. Notice the language here:

For judgment is without mercy to the one who hasn’t shown mercy. (Jam. 2:13)

In other words, God is going to nail you in eternity if you don’t show mercy to others on earth. This is a complete misunderstanding of how the New Covenant works and we need to get this sorted out.

Go through the Gospels, and you’re going to find Jesus saying things like:

“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn others, or it will all come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37-38)

When we pluck these verses out of context and line them up with what James is saying, we end up with a tit-for-tat view of eternal judgment. If you’re nasty to people on earth, God will be nasty to you in eternity. Out comes the chalkboard in Heaven, on which God is making tick marks every time you sin. Suddenly it is your behavior you are being judged by—the actions and desires of your earthsuit instead of your soul’s response to God. Well, no, this is completely wrong.

When Jesus threatened people with Yahweh treating them the way they treated others on earth, He was trying to scare them into recognizing their need for a Savior. The famous Sermon on the Mount is where we find a lot of verses that make Christians feel very anxious about God’s view of them, and we can’t possibly understand that sermon correctly by picking it apart. We have to look at the whole thing in context to realize that Jesus was intentionally trying to smash people’s delusions that they could ever earn Yahweh’s favor through good works (see Know Your Bible Lesson 49: The Sermon on the Mount).

Your earthsuit is hopelessly depraved and you can’t fix it. There is no way you can go through life with righteous attitudes. God has intentionally set you up to fail. To teach Christians that they are saved by grace, but that they must then hold onto that salvation by purifying their depraved earthsuits is only going to beat everyone down into despair. Demons are the ones who try so hard to drive us back into trying to earn God’s favor through works after we are saved. Demons are always trying to get us to move our focus off of our souls and onto our flesh.

The only way you can pretend that behavioral perfection is an attainable goal is to completely lie to yourself about how sinful you really are. This means willfully defying the Holy Spirit by refusing to accept His assessment of you as a hopelessly depraved creature who can do nothing good on your own. Is this pleasing to God? Not hardly. God judges us by our soul’s response to Him, and when our souls are saying, “Stuff it, God, I don’t want to hear about how depraved I am; I’ve got this perfection thing down,” this is rebellion. James is utterly delusional to propose that Christians can succeed at satisfying the Old Covenant Law, and it is totally wrong for him to be trying to reinstate a Covenant that Yahweh has thrown out.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him? (Jam. 2:14)

This condescending attitude towards faith is where the arrogance of self-righteousness always takes us. As soon as we decide it is possible for us to overcome the depravity of our flesh, we start mocking all those who are failing to do so in our eyes. As we conveniently ignore our own glaring sins and raging arrogance, we start condemning all those who are engaging in our personal list of “terrible sins.” What’s this—you got a divorce? You got an abortion? You’re gay? For shame! Look through the New Testament epistles and you’ll find the apostles harping on certain sins over and over as if those sins are far worse than any others. How many times have you heard it said that sexual perverts will burn in the lake of fire? To even quote such a verse demonstrates how defiant we are being, for according to God’s definition of sexual sins, we are all perverts. Revising God’s definition of sin for Him is a favorite game among humans, and when we play this game we are engaging in soul rebellion. It is our souls that we will be judged by in eternity (see Will all Christians be equal in Heaven?).

So then, are you saved by works or faith? The answer is obvious. Works is something you do with your earthsuit. Faith is something you do with your soul. God judges you by your soul. Salvation comes through faith alone.

If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself. (Jam. 2:15-17)

We’ve already seen James get nasty towards the rich. Here he’s thoroughly shredding all those who do not have sufficient works to “prove” the validity of their faith.

But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith from my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe—and they shudder. (Jam. 2:18-19)

This entire “show me” challenge is garbage. Other humans are not your judges, God is. You don’t need to prove to your pastor or other Christians or some dead apostle that you are sincere in your submission to God. What goes on between your soul and God is no one else’s business. God intentionally prevents other people from being able to see into your soul. Why do you think this is? Because God wants you to focus on His opinion being the only one that matters. As we mature, the Holy Spirit teaches us to stop looking around and caring about what other Christians think of us. When God tells you to do something and you obey Him, and it turns into a royal mess, other Christians are going to judge you and say you disobeyed. When God is telling you to wait on Him, and you keep turning down opportunities to serve at the church out of obedience to Him, are your brothers in the Lord going to applaud your loyalty to God? No, they’re going to call you a carnal slacker and try to make you feel bad. Other people cannot see into your soul. They don’t know what’s really going on between you and God, and because of this they will constantly misjudge you.

It is impossible for you to gain the approval of your Creators and people, for these two groups want very different things from you. We have to decide that we are only going to please our Gods in life, and then we have to be ready to take a lot of flak from other Christians for doing so. Look at how rotten James is making his audience feel with this acrid little letter. Christians who lived 2,000 years ago struggled with the same depravity that you struggle with today. Imagine some poor soul who was sincerely wanting to please God, yet was unable to keep their flesh reined in enough to produce all of the righteous works James was demanding. How discouraged would that soul have been by this rot that James is putting out? “Oh, so you’re just longing to please God in your soul and you think that’s good enough? Well, it’s not! Until you get your flesh under control, Yahweh is despising you! You’re no better than demons in His sight!” What a lousy shepherd of the flock James is turning out to be.

Foolish man! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless? Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was perfected. So the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed Yahweh, and it was credited to him for righteousness, and he was called Yahweh’s friend. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by a different route? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (Jam. 2:20-26)

This teaching is complete rot from Satan. James teaches that salvation through Christ is not enough. The cross is not enough. You have to add to your salvation continuously through righteous behaviors, or else God will cast you out. No, no, no, this is not how it works under the New Covenant.

Like Paul, James likes to mangle Scriptures for us. He tries to tell us that Abraham was justified through his sacrifice of Isaac—this is utterly ridiculous. Long before the sacrifice of Isaac, we’re told that Abraham simply believed God in his soul and that is what made God pleased with him.

And Yahweh took Abram outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And Yahweh said to Abram, “So shall your descendants be.” Then Abram believed in Yahweh; and Yahweh reckoned it to Abram as righteousness. (Gen. 15:5-6)

What did Abraham (aka Abram) do? He believed. What do we believe with? Our souls. James is playing games by trying to choose an action of Abraham’s and say that the action is what really got him in a good standing with Yahweh. This is not what the text says.

Rahab was a non-Jewish prostitute who saved the lives of some Jewish spies by hiding them from the authorities in her city. Rahab lived in Jericho—that famous city whose walls collapsed by the power of Yahweh. Why would a foreigner like Rahab want to help spies who were on a mission to destroy her people? This was the explanation Rahab gave:

I know that Yahweh has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard Yahweh dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for Yahweh your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” (Josh. 2:8-11)

Rahab has only heard rumors of Yahweh’s actions, yet look at how her soul is responding to Him. She has clearly put her faith in this new God and she has come to believe that He is the supreme Authority over all things. It is Rahab’s faith that saved her, not the fact that she hid some spies in her room. It isn’t being nice to Jews that gets us saved—it’s our soul’s response to God. James is leading us astray by intentionally mangling these two Old Testament accounts.

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (Jam. 2:26)

This is the key conclusion that James wants us to just swallow whole. But no, we’re not going to swallow it. We’re going to reject it as the rot that it is. faith is never “dead”. God never spits on people who are sincerely seeking Him. It is rebellious, delusional James who wants everyone to work their tails off and prove their sincerity to God in ways that He feels are valid. Well, James is not going to be your judge in eternity, and neither are other humans. You need to listen to God on the subject of eternal judgment, and He is going to tell you that your soul’s response to Him is everything.

UP NEXT: Applying James 3: Warnings to Teachers

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