The Letter from James almost didn’t make it into our Bibles. The primary issue was the conflict concerning the roles of faith and works (or good deeds). Consider these two verses. Paul wrote, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.” (Romans 4:2, NASB95) James argued, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?” (James 2:21, NASB95) On the surface, they seem completely contradictory, but are they?
Before we can continue our study of James we must solve the dilemma of faith and works. The first thing we must understand is that James agrees with Paul. Faith is preeminently important for justification before God. Consider, “But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord,” (James 1:6–7, NASB95) I like to see the apparent conflict between James and Paul in this light. Paul is teaching theologically and warning against using required acts of the Law to assume being right with God. James is teaching that for faith to be faith there must be practical, visible, and corresponding action.
The key is Abraham. When Paul talks about Abraham’s works and faith he is considering the stumbling block of circumcision. The conflict of the day was whether non-Jewish believers needed to follow the Law of Moses. Paul’s conclusion is that works in accordance with following the Law cannot save us, only God’s grace through faith can. James nods in agreement but points out Abrahams radical act of obedience (an act that would have violated the later Law) – the near sacrifice of his son. We are saved by faith, but faith must, by its very nature, have practical, powerful, concrete, and perhaps even radical actions. Works can’t save us, however, they are evidence that we are saved.
Returning to our study let’s consider the trouble, joy, and endurance concerning practical faith. James points out our trouble early in the letter. “But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” (James 1:6–7, NLT) Some translations call it double-mindedness.
Our faith can waver between many different anchors. We can have faith in our ability, our experience, and our good works. Promises of the world, of technology, of effort, of programs and formulas, and of success can attract our faith. Our faith, however, must be entirely focused on God; the one right answer in a sea of wrong answers.
James identified the joy as completeness. Like the satisfaction of placing the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Practical actions expressing our faith in God complete the picture. James provides two examples.
We’ve already touched on the first example. That moment when Abraham put his faith into action and prepared to sacrifice his only son. James considers it in 2:21-24, “Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete. And so it happened just as the Scriptures say: “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” He was even called the friend of God. So you see, we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone.” (James 2:21–24, NLT) Can you imagine Abraham’s joy as he untied Isaac and lifted him from the altar? Abraham’s faith was completed in God.
(For the sake of clarity I believe that Abraham’s radical action was a one-time thing that released the hand of God to offer his own son for us all. I would severely doubt the faith and sanity of anyone claiming today that God told them to sacrifice their child.)
The second example James provides is an unlikely candidate for faith. “Rahab the prostitute is another example. She was shown to be right with God by her actions when she hid those messengers and sent them safely away by a different road.” (James 2:25, NLT) Why does James lift Rahab to the same level as Abraham? Rahab had three strikes against her, she was a non-Jewish resident of Jericho, she was a prostitute, she was a woman in a male-dominated society. Abraham lived a journey of faith, Rahab didn’t. But when the time came Rahab recognized God and chose Him over her country, her society, and her safety. She placed her faith in God and acted on it.
The endurance of faith and good deeds is keeping faith continually focused on God. It’s easy to shift our focus without realizing it. Perhaps we have that mountaintop experience with God where everything comes together. Lives are changed, people touched, and God glorified. We return to the mountain thinking that God is still there, it worked then it will work again. Our faith has shifted from God to experience. He may not be on the mountain but desiring us to follow Him into the valley for a completely different need. That’s the endurance faith and good deeds require.
Here are some questions to consider. Are we following Jesus or someone else? Are we free to move wherever the Spirit blows or rooted, waiting for Him to return? Are we focusing on the needs of people or the answer God wants us to demonstrate? Am I trying to repeat something that is already completed but blind to the new opportunity already at hand? Have I discounted or pushed aside promptings of the Spirit because I feel of unworthy, lack the ability, or have fear? Am I trying to please God and earn His favor by keeping the rules? Are we doing it or just saying it?
James’s point is that action will always follow faith or it’s not faith. But we should avoid actions not driven by faith. It’s easy to repeat an action because it worked in the past but shift our faith from God to the act. We may attend church every week, tithe every paycheck, pray every day but they need to be from faith and not habit, routine, or an attempt to buy God’s favor.
On the other hand, we must be ready to radically act in faith. Open our home to the stranger and the needy. Give our last dollar to someone in need. Risk pushing obligations aside to lift someone out of a real or metaphorical ditch. Decide that pounding roof nails for someone that can’t afford a roofer is the same as worshipping God with raised hands and loud voices. Sacrificing our reputation and perhaps even our job for the truth of God’s love by speaking up or standing with someone is being put down. To be honest, the list is endless.
Neither Abraham’s or Rahab’s act of faith was easy. Both carried great risk and called for radical action. The question is this: what radical act of faith is God asking today of you today?