Chapter two takes up the unfortunate attitude of so many Christians who revere wealth, power, and success, and turn their backs on the poor. Failure to keep the “royal law” of charity is tantamount to being convicted of violating the entire Law. This is the specific context of James’ argument that one cannot really claim to have faith without works.
For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment. What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
I do not understand how this passage can have been made a subject of such great controversy. Do Christians really imagine that charismatic paroxysms accompanied by ejaculations of “Lord, Lord” are what Jesus asked of us? This is not a theological meditation on justification, only a practical condemnation of Christians—in this case Jewish Christians—who said they accepted Christ as savior but refused to heed his oft-repeated injunctions.
I do not wish to enter into the theological dispute over justification, except to repeat the arguments made by John Henry Newman in various and sundry places, both as an Anglican and as a Roman Catholic. In one of his last Anglican sermons—whose text I do not have at hand—Newman lined up parallel passages in the epistles where either faith or works are extolled as the route to salvation, and he showed that the phrasing and thought were close to being identical.
One of the difficulties is the word works (ἔργα), which here refers to the active practice of Christian charity, whereas Paul so often uses it to refer to Jewish customs, such as kosher laws. Obviously, Paul’s denigration of works was aimed solely at empty formalism, while James is quite clear that he is talking only about the active expression of Christian faith. It would be a serious mistake to find a conflict between the two writers. As Newman says in Parochial and Plain Sermons. “And thus there is no opposition between St. Paul and St. James. St. James says, that justification is by works, and St. Paul says that it is by faith: but, observe, St. James does not say that it is by dead or Jewish works; he mentions expressly both faith and works; he only says, “not faith only but works also:”—and St. Paul is far from denying it s by works, he only says that it is by faith and denies that it is by dead works. And what proves this, among other circumstances, is, that he never calls those works, which he condemns and puts aside, good works, but simply works.”
Let us imagine a parallel. You have some doubts about your wife’s trust in you, and you think that she might, for no good reason, suspect you of carrying on with another woman and wishing she would die so that you could collect the insurance money. Suppose the two of you are climbing in the mountains and she falls. She is clinging to a branch, which she cannot hold onto for very long, and you make your way down and offer her your hand. She does not grab hold, and you say, “Don’t you trust me?” and she replies, “Yes, I have faith,” but still refuses to take your hand. What sort of faith is that. We show our faith in the Lord not by what we feel inside ourselves or in what we profess with our lips. It is only by living out His commandments that we practice a faith that is real.
In this section, James condemns idle chatter, boasting, rudeness, envy, and strife as causes of contention in a Christian community. Wisdom and righteousness, by contrast, are sown in peace. I should point out that the word for righteousness is dikaiosune, the common Greek word for the principle of justice, of behaving rightly towards others. The abstract noun is derived from the common adjective dikaios (from dike), “just,” which also generates the verb dikaioo, “do right,” and “think [something] right.” In the NT this is invariably translated as “justify,” and given a very precise and technical meaning. I am not altogether sure that the cause of understanding is well served by a technical vocabulary that makes us tend to forget root meanings. When a Christian is justified, whether by faith or works, he is being made or deemed just or righteous, that is, his person and behavior are being judged to be just or right. I suppose this is too obvious to be worth pointing out, but I am a simple man.