You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
These words have been cause of much debate among its readers – but it is needless debate for the matter is explained in the context itself. James is not suggesting that we are justified through anything other than faith. He had already made that point earlier in the epistle.
Real faith rests upon a revelation of God. In James 1:18 we read, “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” The meaning is that our new birth into the family of God depends upon God doing His work first of revealing the truth to us through the proclamation of the gospel. In James 1:21 we read, “Humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” The meaning of the verse describes our response to the presentation of the gospel and is a description of faith. Humility emphasizes repentance before God and acceptance emphasizes faith in Him and in the gospel message: Jesus Christ, sinless, crucified, risen, exalted, and coming. The result of real faith in Christ is that we become a “kind of firstfruits,” which is a biblical expression describing a dedicated people. Salvation comes only when we let God bend our will to His will, this is the meaning of faith, and the outcome is a life lived for Him.
The problem that James was facing was a collection of hard hearted “Christians” who claimed to be so because they “believed” but their faith was not true biblical faith, for their lives were void of evidence of anything genuine and godly. The question he posed is not whether faith saves or it does not – he has already averred that it does! – but, whether you can call what those people possessed as real faith. In James 2:14 we read, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” Saving faith is not just an opinion, or a sentiment, or even an association with Christians. James posited that real inward faith must have some outward evidence of its existence. It is not the outward evidence that replaces faith, nor even the outward evidence that accompanies faith in the sense of support, rather it is the clear evidence that such faith is real.
We may consider the similar argument with the subject of love. Love is an emotion in part but only in part. Someone may say that he loves his wife but he only proves that he loves his wife by outward acts of kindness and consideration and even of sacrifice. Faith, as love, that can be kept inside the heart so securely that it never seeks to reveal itself is not faith at all, but something else – some feeling, some sentimentality, some noble thought perhaps, wishful thinking, but not faith. Genuine faith, as genuine love will do, reveals itself through words and actions.
James went so far in making his point to borrow from the history of Israel, when spies were sent to check out Jericho they found lodging with a prostitute Rahab, who could not possibly be commended for her former way of life. She was one who needed the grace of God to start again, but even under Old Testament Judaism grace was present and she turned from her old ways and embraced the new way. She then showed the genuineness of her faith by associating with the people of God and hiding the spies. The example almost hangs by a thread but all the ingredients are found there: a life that needed grace and forgiveness, a proclamation of the new way of God, and a response that proved itself by turning to the side of the people of God.
Sometimes we see a definite break between someone’s faith and the resulting actions that verify their sincerity. Sometimes, however, the two seem to come almost at once. Through faith we are justified but real faith results in real changes in life, in our choices and our actions. How much good work is required? That is the wrong question to ask, for no certain amount is required, and we are all a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. As Jesus said, “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit” (John 15:1-2). His point was the utter inconsistency of someone claiming to be in Christ and having absolutely no fruit by which to prove it. But it is Him working in us that will produce fruitful lives. “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15.4).
Lord, teach us to rely on You, to depend on You working in us to change our hearts and lives. Show us the condition of our faith and use us in this world. Amen.