Since the very popular false doctrine of “faith only” held by many Methodists, Baptists, and others who have branched off from Calvinism, the second chapter of James has been used as a deadly dagger against the doctrine, and rightly so, for the chapter is straightforwardly contrary to the doctrine that one is saved by “faith only,” even verse 24 concludes: “you see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” But that is not what this article will be about. I believe one needs to look at every scripture with the intention to make application for one’s life first. I do not believe a sincere, self-less servant of God should point the finger at everyone else when reading the scriptures, while not giving a thought to the “plank in their own eye,” so to speak. Let me clarify, we have a responsibility to “contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude 3), and we need to continue to use James 2 to defend against the doctrine of “faith only” every chance we get. However, let’s not forget that we also have a responsibility to make application for our own heart (Proverbs 23:12) Therefore, we all need to ask ourselves, what about James 2 and me?
The second chapter of James addresses the importance of acting on our faith in God, James calls these actions “works.” James begins in verse 14 by asking two questions: (1) Is there profit in just having faith without acting on it? (2) Can faith alone provide salvation? He then proceeds to answer these questions with a series of illustrations and examples, which I will list and number.
(1) A brother or sister destitute of daily food (verses 15-16). Does the New Testament only teach us that we must believe to be a Christian and go to heaven? Or is it filled with many commandments (“works”) that we do because we believe in the Lord? Did not the Lord give us a similar example in Matthew 25:31-46?
(2) Demons believe in God (verse 19). However, the demons “tremble” because they cannot act on their belief in God, they cannot “do works befitting repentance” (Acts 26:20). Therefore they tremble because they know where they stand. In application, James tells us that one does well to believe in God, but that is not enough to get one to heaven. We must act on our faith.
(3) Abraham’s works that saved his soul (verses 21-24). Abraham was told by God to offer up his son on an altar. Abraham was a believer, but what if he decided not to obey the command? Would he have been saved (“justified”)?
(4) Rahab’s works that saved her soul (verse 25). Rahab was not a Jew, but she heard of the great things that God had done for Israel, and she became a believer. But James tells us that her belief is not what made her just, but it was her actions in delivering the spies to safety.
Taking all this into account, brethren, we need to ask ourselves, what are we doing toward justification? As I observe Christians today, I fear that many of us have fallen to the deception of Satan, thinking that we are saved because we wholeheartedly believe in God, and we don’t even make mention of all of God’s commandments that are left undone in our lives. I believe many of us suffer from this deception in varying degrees. We all point at the denominations and say “you need to act on the commandments of God if you say you have faith.” That is correct, and certainly we are not exempt from that. Friends, we cannot leave the commandments of God undone in our lives. What if Noah left undone just one commandment (the one about building the ark), would he have been saved? No, he would have drowned with all the wicked. It was “by faith” that Noah did the work he was commanded to do (Hebrew 11:7). Just as James said (2:22): “Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?”
We can obtain salvation through belief, confession, repentance, and baptism. However, if we feel that we can slide into heaven on those things alone we are mistaken. James spoke originally to individuals who had already been baptized, and he told them that “as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (2:26). So we are left without excuse if we don’t get up and get to work, lest our faith be found “dead” at the Judgment.