Real Faith Is More Than Just Believing

James 21920

James 2:19-20

19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?

Real Faith Is More Than Just Believing: While Paul spent considerable ink arguing for salvation by grace alone through faith alone, James spends much of his writings arguing the opposite: real saving faith is shown by good works.

The major traditional view holds that a dead faith is one that does not produce consistent good works. This view finds support from James’ mention that demons believe that God is one and shudder.

Thou believest that there is one God

This verse is the beginning of a series of challenges to James’ readers. He wants them to prove that their faith is alive and not merely mental. He draws on Abraham’s example to show that the presence of true faith is visible in a person’s works. He also warns them that knowing about God is not the same as trusting in him or obeying him.

The verb “believest” (su pisteueis) is in the present tense, indicating that the objector was still believing the same thing he always believed. He was wrong to assume that he had moved beyond believing and now trusted God implicitly. The fact that demons believe in the one God shows that mere belief is not enough. It is not even enough for salvation.

Thou doest well

Using a hypothetical scenario James illustrates the point that faith without deeds is of no avail. He uses the example of a man who has no clothes and no food. If he gets sympathy from another person, but that sympathy stops there and no attempt is made to help him, then what is the use of such a kindness?

In the society in which James lived the rich oppressed the poor, dragging them into law-courts for a farthing. It was one of the reasons why the exhortations against wealth-hoarding surface so regularly in the epistle.

James makes it clear that true, biblical saving faith is accompanied by good works. It is a dead faith without these works. A Christian who does well will be accepted by God.

Thou doest wrong

James is keenly aware of Paul’s spending considerable ink defending justification by faith alone. He counters this by giving a good percentage of his letter to teaching that such faith must be accompanied by works.

Using the example of demons who fully believe, James argues that people who profess faith but don’t show it by their actions are not better than them. Their faith may be genuine but if it doesn’t show itself in helping people, or providing food or clothes to those who need them, it is useless.

James addresses his brothers 19 times in the epistle, three of those with the intimate phrase “my beloved brothers” (adelphoi mouagape). Only Romans and 1 Thessalonians use the word more. James’s audience is not the world at large; it is his fellow Christians.

Thou doest evil

James continues to challenge his readers to live out their professed faith in Jesus Christ. He specifically condemns favoritism toward the rich over the poor, arguing that it shows that their faith is dead. Faith that does not result in good deeds is no true saving faith (cf. James 1:27b).

In this passage he calls Christians “brothers.” He uses this term 19 times in the book, more than any other New Testament author. James wrote this letter before Gentiles were accepted into the church, so he used the term to refer to the entire Christian community. It is a very intimate term, similar to the way Paul addresses his readers as “brothers” in Romans and 1 Thessalonians. It is also the only time in Scripture that the stars are called kowkab, which could refer to heavenly beings or even physical objects like planets and meteors.

Thou doest good

The point of James’s sarcastic retort to the objector is that genuine faith results in good works. Demons believe certain things about God and shudder, but their knowledge of monotheism does them no practical good. James used them as an illustration because they are the most extreme case of those whose pious confession of belief is utterly useless without the power to perform good works.

It is important to remember that blepo (“you see”) in verse 20 refers to the judgment of believers’ actual works, not their justification before God (or his declaring them righteous). This kind of judgment can lead to spiritual death in the life of a believer (broken fellowship) and physical death for nonbelievers. The judgment also focuses on the quality and motives of the works.

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