'What is authentic faith?’ is a question that has plagued Christians throughout the centuries of church history. It is incredibly important for us to be clear on, for the answer dictates how we will understand our present standing before God. Within his epistle, James provides us with the answer, explaining the interplay between faith and its public expression in good works. The theme of faith and works is at the heart of James’ pursuit of the end of hypocrisy.
In 2:14-26 James enters into the debate and casts a definitive explanation. In words that have proved equally clarifying and controversial, James describes that faith in God will always result in the doing of good works. If good works are not evident, one simply does not possess active faith—their faith is dead. Good works are thus the exercising of authentic faith.
In the midst of his argument James interacts with an imagined objector. He argues that faith and works cannot be separated; faith will inevitably produce works (2:18). Faith is not mere intellectual assent, for even the demons know the truth of who God is and what He’s done in Christ for the world (2:19). James then uses the example of Abraham and Rahab to show that these great saints, who were, to be sure, justified by faith, could also be said to be justified by works because their faith was evidenced by their obedience (2:20-26). This idea can be summarized by the famous quote often attributed to Martin Luther, ‘We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.’ As Jesus said, the tree of saving faith will always bear good fruit (Matt. 7:17-20).
The crux of the controversy surrounding James’ teaching stems from 2:23-24 where he uses the same quote from Genesis 15:6 that the Apostle Paul uses in Romans concerning Abraham: ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’. James and Paul seem to take the verse in contradictory ways. This seeming contradiction can be solved by noticing the different audiences of the respective letters and therefore the different arguments Paul and James are making. Paul is writing to Jews and Gentiles in Rome explaining how one is justified (cleared of guilt) before God. The answer is by faith alone, just like Abraham. James is writing to dispersed Jewish Christians experiencing persecution, confusion, along with the temptation to live like the world. The reminder these Christians need is that their faith will prove itself to be genuine by how they conduct themselves, in the same way Abraham’s did through his willingness to sacrifice Isaac.
The application for 21st century Christians is clear. We live in an intellectual age, yet faith is not mere intellectual assent. We live in a pragmatic age, yet faith is not a blind activity. We live in an age with a great need to see Christians shine like a city on a hill. Living out our faith through the doing of good works will prove our faith to be genuine, and bring about the end of hypocrisy.
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