Three Kinds of Faith

TEXT: 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. (ESV)

INTRODUCTION:    The Epistle of James has been something of a problem for Protestants – Luther called it “an epistle full of straw” – mainly because James seems to contradict Paul’s teaching that salvation or justification is by faith alone and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). But the contradiction is more apparent than real. My task this morning is to show that there is no contradiction between James and Paul, and that there is a need for us to heed James’ teaching in order to counteract some people’s abuse or misinterpretation of Paul’s teaching. I will in this message reaffirm what Paul has to say about salvation or justification, that it is by faith alone from first to last, never by works; but at the same I will also uphold what James has to say, that faith without works is dead, and dead faith cannot save anyone. In order to do that we will have to distinguish between three kinds of faith as taught in this passage. Two of them cannot save; only one does.

 1. DEAD FAITH (James 2:14-17)

 In order to understand this passage properly it is important for us to observe that it is one thing to claim to have faith; it is another thing to really possess it. “Saying” faith is not necessarily saving faith. It is very easy to say that one has faith, but how can one know that you really have it? The answer can be found in this passage, as well as in Matthew 7:17-20. “You will recognize them by their fruits.”

 A) It does not produce good works. The example given by James involves a person who does not have true compassion for a brother or sister in need. Mere words unaccompanied by compassionate acts are useless in helping such a brother or sister. In the same way, merely claiming or saying that you have faith is equally useless. To claim that you have faith is very easy to do; the question, however, is: Is your faith genuine? If it is, it will produce good works.

 B) It does not save anyone. Faith that does not produce good works does not save anyone for the simple reason that it is no faith at all. It is a mere claim. It is nothing but an allegation of faith and not necessarily a possession of it. In verse 14 James asks a rhetorical question, “Can that faith save him?” The answer is “No.” Please take note that James is merely teaching that which our Lord Jesus himself taught in Matthew 25:41-43. The Apostle John also taught something similar in 1 John 3:17 (c.f. Romans 5:5).

 2. DEMONIC FAITH (James 2:19)

 A) It is mere intellectual assent. Knowledge of doctrine in the head does not save anyone. It must come down to the heart. Some people’s faith is nothing more than mere knowledge of the way of salvation. But is one thing to know the way, it is another thing to be actually in the way of salvation and walking in it. In Matthew 7:21 the Lord Jesus here refers to people who knew him as Lord but for all that were never saved in the first place (cf. Matthew 7:23).

 B) It produces conviction but not change. The demons’ faith produces conviction, i.e. they know and believe enough of the truth to make them tremble. But they remain demons still. Some people, upon hearing the gospel, are temporarily affected by it. The problem is they are not changed by it. Such was the case of Herod in Mark 6:20. But people who have true faith and not mere knowledge are not only convicted by the gospel, they are converted by it; for which reason, they no longer tremble, but have peace with God (Romans 5:1).

 3. DEMONSTRATIVE FAITH (James 2:18). True faith bears fruits. It can prove its existence. Its effects can be seen in the lives of those who have it. In this verse we can see that James is not contradicting Paul. James’ point is simply this: if you have faith, show it! How? By your works. How can people know that you really have faith if you produce no evidence of it?

  A) It involves commitment. (James 2:20-24) In the case of Abraham he proved that he had faith by his willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. I am reminded of an example given by Pastor Andrew about a tightrope walker who asked someone who watched him cross a chasm if he believed that he could walk the tightrope and cross the chasm while carrying a man in his arms. The man said, “Yes, I believe.” Then, the tightrope walker said, “Are you willing to be that man?” And this time the man kept quiet. He believed in his head, but he did not trust in his heart. The Lord did something similar in Mark 10:17-22. Jesus’ method of evangelism here seems to be a far cry from our own. Why did Jesus require that this man give up all his possessions? Was not faith in him enough to save that man? Yes, but Jesus wanted that man to prove, to demonstrate, that he really had faith by giving up all his possessions. The fact that that man was not willing to make that commitment only goes to show that he did not really believe that Jesus is worth following.

 B) It produces change. (James 2:25). The story of Rahab can be found in Joshua 2. Suffice it to say that she shifted her allegiance from the King of Jericho to Israel because of her faith in God. And at great risk to herself she hid the spies sent by Joshua because she believed she could find true safety only in the God of Israel. I am emphasizing this change of allegiance to show that true and saving faith produces change. So says Paul in effect in 2 Corinthians 5:17. In fact, if there is no change in your life, it only goes to show you were never saved in the first place (1 Corinthians 6:9-11; c.f. Hebrews 12:14).


 It is possible that after hearing this message you remain confused. Are we really saved by faith alone or are we saved by faith plus works? Does not James 2:24 clearly say, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone?” To answer this we must first remind ourselves of what Paul says in Romans 3:28, Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 11:6. So how do you reconcile James and Paul at this point? Pastor Andrew gave the answer in a message he delivered a few weeks ago. It appears that James and Paul are both using the same term “justified” but mean different things by it. James uses the term “justified” in the sense of justification before men who cannot see our faith unless we prove it by our works. And Paul uses the term “justified” in the sense of justification before the tribunal of God who sees our hearts. The distinction here is between declarative justification and demonstrative justification. The proof that this interpretation is correct can be shown in the different ways that Paul and James use the example of Abraham. James uses the example of Abraham’s offering of Isaac as proof of his justification. But in Romans 4 Paul says Abraham was justified – declared righteous – before he was circumcised, i.e. even before Isaac was born. So before Isaac was born Abraham was already justified by faith and not by works, and then when he offered Isaac as a sacrifice he was justified by works. Clearly, Paul and James are using the same term differently. James here is using the word justified in a way similar to Jesus’ use of the word in Luke 7:35. Wisdom is justified by its results; in the same, we prove that we really have faith and that we are truly saved by the works our faith produces.

 But probably the best way to clarify the relationship between faith and works in the matter of salvation is to go back to Ephesians 2:8-9. Please take note that Paul does not stop at verse 9. He goes on to say in verse 10 that we are created in Christ Jesus for good works! To be created in Christ Jesus is just another way of saying that we saved in Christ. In that case he is saying that first we are saved by grace through faith and not by works. However, if we are truly saved, then we will produce good works, because this is one reason why God saved us. This was his plan all along. Faith and salvation come first; salvation is by faith not by works. But where true faith is, works will follow. He says something similar in Titus 3:4-7. But he does not stop there; in verse 8 he says that those who believe in God must be careful to do good works. The sequence is clear. First, salvation or justification by faith alone, not by works. But where true faith is, again works will follow. So at the end of the day, both Paul and James agree: both faith and works will be found in a person who is truly saved. However, I must say that it is Paul who is the more precise theological thinker in this matter. James, like Paul, was inspired by the Holy Spirit in what he wrote; but in inspiring him the Holy Spirit did not override his personality; instead, he made use of it. The bent of James’ mind was practical; the bent of Paul’s mind was theological. James’ emphasis was on what could be seen and demonstrated. That’s why his battle cry was, “Show me your faith.” James’ message is important especially for people who think they have faith when actually they don’t. But for purposes of precision, Paul’s sequence stands: We are saved by grace through faith and not by works; but if we are truly saved, works will certainly follow; otherwise, it may be that we were never saved in the first place. Works, therefore, are a consequence of salvation, a necessary accompaniment of salvation, but not the cause thereof.

 To end, we can put it like this: faith and works will be found in a person who is truly saved. But we are not saved by faith plus works; we are saved by faith that works. Or to paraphrase Martin Luther: We are saved by faith alone, but the faith alone which saves is not alone, or cannot remain alone for long. If it is really faith worthy of the name it will produce good works. Faith first, works follow. Faith saves, works supplement. Faith is the (instrumental) cause of our salvation; works are the (inevitable though not automatic) consequence of our salvation.

[Ikthus Villa Angela – Bacolod City; August 4, 2013]

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

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