STUDIES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
“But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”
Imagine standing in a hospital room next to the body of a loved one who has recently passed away. The hospital machines all show that her brain, lungs, and heart have stopped functioning, and there’s even discoloration of the skin indicating the blood has stopped flowing. When the doctor walks in, you assume he has come to officially pronounce the time of death. Instead, he tries to assure you that your relative, obviously deceased, is still living and will be okay! Some doctor!
The foolishness of this scenario concerning physical life is similar to the foolishness James addresses concerning spiritual life. There are those who would suggest that saving faith is nothing more than saying a few words and going through a few motions. They believe that as long as they know the right script to speak on Judgment Day, then God will let them into heaven. Like the foolish doctor above, they want to claim there is life where no signs of life exist.
In contrast, James produces real-life examples of living faith in the hearts of believers Abraham and Rahab. In so doing, James teaches us the signs—the pulse and life breath—of a living faith. The outward good works which Abraham and Rahab produced were evidence of the faith that, by God’s grace, was alive and well in their hearts.
The living faith that justifies man before God is not a mere head knowledge of certain facts and a regurgitation of certain words. That kind of faith is dead because it is not founded on Christ and His merit, but rather it is founded on what the sinner can learn and say. It’s altogether a shallow, shoddy, man-made faith in the sinner’s own self-righteousness. Instead, living faith works good without even thinking about such works, and certainly without placing trust in them.
What James teaches here is taught in other places of Scripture as well. In Matthew 7, Jesus says, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” (Matthew 17:17-18) James was addressing those who would like to be a good tree and a bad tree at the same time. They want to be considered as Christians, “good trees,” but they still want to be able to produce their “bad fruit,” the sinful desires of their flesh and the sins they produce. But Jesus says, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (verse 19) Or as James puts it, “faith without works is dead.”
The presence of a pulse may indicate life in a person, but it is not the source of that life. No, our hearts beat because God gives us life. Just as good works are not the source of our faith, God is. The point then is that if a person is alive, his heart will be beating. For a person who has saving faith in Jesus alone for salvation, that faith animated by God’s grace and mercy through the Gospel will then simply live. May the Holy Spirit keep us in such a living, saving faith in our living Savior Jesus. Amen!
Chad Seybt is pastor of Morning Star Lutheran Church in Fairchild, Wisconsin, Trinity Lutheran Church in Millston, Wisconsin, and Peace with God Evangelical Lutheran Church in Onalaska, Wisconsin.