The third example is intended as further biblical precedent, but of a complementary sort. Abraham was the respected patriarch. Rahab represents the opposite extreme, both because she was a prostitute and because she was a comparatively minor figure in Old Testament history. Yet even Rahab had to carry out her faith in the true God by actions of obedience. It would not have been enough for Rahab to have said to the spies, "I hope you don't get caught"; that would have been comparable to the pious but useless wishes in 2:16. On the basis of her actions to help the spies, the identical verb is applied to her in 2:25 as to Abraham in 2:21, translated "justified" (NASB) or "considered righteous" (NIV). Thus Rahab's example demonstrates the universality of the principle.
This leads James to a summarizing conclusion about Rahab and about the entire discussion in 2:14-26. He states his conclusion by the analogy of a body without a spirit, enlarging on his labeling faith without actions as dead in 2:17. It is an apt analogy at this point. As final as death, it brings an end to the hypothetical debate in which James has engaged. It also conveys meaning along with emphasis. If faith without actions is dead like a body without a spirit, again faith without actions is no genuine, Christian, saving faith at all. It is a meaningless, useless, powerless, lifeless impostor.
If we take seriously this section of James's letter, there will be important ramifications for various aspects of our life together in the church.
The church's gospel. Some churches will have to reevaluate their fundamental understanding of the gospel, for James does not endorse a two-stage relationship with Christ in which a person trusts Christ as Savior at one point in life and then submits to Christ as Lord at a later stage. In James's assessment, faith without submission to Christ's lordship is no genuine, saving faith at all. The biblical truth can be taught this way: If sin is our act of managing our own lives instead of giving God his place of rule, then we cannot legitimately ask Christ to save us from sin and then go on managing our own lives; it is self-contradictory.
The church's discipline. Many of us will have to upgrade our practice of church discipline. First, discipline needs to permeate relationships throughout a local church, for church discipline is the discipling of church members. Though church officers properly carry special authority for discipling, nevertheless discipline is a ministry to be owned by all church members. We need to do for each other exactly what James does in his letter—hold each other accountable for a life of faith. Second, our discipline should not dilute the standard of Jesus' call for anyone to "deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mk 8:34). This was not just a call for actions that come easily according to one's personality or temperament or circumstances. It was a call for actions that may be painful and sacrificial (like Abraham's), or risky and frightening (like Rahab's), or uncomfortable and inconvenient (like getting to know poor and homeless people face to face by spending nights helping at a homeless shelter, or by building friendship with a poor family for long-term help out of a lifestyle of poverty).
Third, in our exercise of discipline, church members need to be hearing faith and deeds as a unity instead of a dichotomy. The unifying of belief and actions will help our discipline of each other to accomplish both of its intended purposes: restoring and purifying people's lives. When the church neglects faith in favor of deeds, we burden people's lives with expectations to do more, and we fail to give the assurance of God's grace; then discipline no longer accomplishes restoration of the sinner. When the church neglects deeds in favor of faith, we tell people to believe God's forgiveness, but we omit the appropriate acts of faith; then discipline no longer accomplishes purification of the sinner's life.
The church's balance. James obviously condemns the pattern of dead orthodoxy. His illustration of demons inescapably shows that reliance on one's correct grasp of theology will not save. At the same time, James equally rejects a pattern of faithless humanitarianism. From the earliest verses of the letter, he has affirmed the necessity of faith and the importance of believing the word of truth. In 2:14-26 we have found him to be pressing not deeds instead of faith but deeds in completion of faith. The example of Abraham's deed suits James's intent precisely because Abraham was a man of faith; he believed God. So the church will maintain a complementary balance of orthodox doctrine and orthodox practice. We will teach correct doctrine and pursue social justice, and we will do both energetically and aggressively.
The church's activities. James's teaching helps us avoid being driven by guilt and fears and demands, as is so common even among Christians in our society. It is important to acknowledge now the definition that James has implied for deeds. They are not actions such as making the dean's list, scoring goals in a soccer game, publishing a research paper, reaching a high income level or getting a promotion. Those are achievements, but they are not what James means by deeds. He does not even mean having large numbers of people come to one's Bible class or other Christian ministry. That may be success, but even when success is experienced in a Christian ministry one is not necessarily performing what James means by deeds. The unity of faith and deeds means that deeds are simply actions taken because of one's faith.
Therefore the message of this passage does not demand that we drive ourselves to do more; it calls us to do differently. James calls us to live by faith. What deeds will we do when we understand that the necessary deeds are those done specifically because of our faith?
First, we will do deeds of devotion—prayer, Bible study, worship and sacrifice. Abraham's action in sacrificing Isaac is an example; he placed that which was dearest to him in this world on the altar, because he loved God more than he loved his own son. Deeds of devotion are to be done because God is worthy of them. They are also done because we have a need for them; they keep us in touch with God and nourished by God, so that we have the resources for carrying out the other two kinds of deeds. We must not allow the achievements of life, or even the deeds of ministry, to leave us with only a pittance of time for the deeds of prayer, Bible study and worship.
Second, we will do deeds of morality—doing what is right to purify our speech, thoughts, attitudes and behavior. Rahab's action in this passage is an example of morality. It was not that she had been praying about the needs of homeless spies and decided to start a shelter ministry. She was simply confronted with a situation and responded by doing what was morally right, because she had heard about the God of Israel and had faith in him (Josh 2:8-11). Helping the needy is a deed of morality incumbent on all Christians simply because it is right to do.
Third, we will do deeds of ministry, but this is where we get into trouble with being driven. Every Christian needs to do the deeds of devotion, and the biblical moral standards are prescribed for all believers. All Christians are also called to ministry, but Scripture says we have diverse spiritual gifts and therefore diverse ministries. The application of faith as the source of deeds will help us pursue appropriate deeds of ministry. We do those deeds of ministry to which we believe by faith that we are called; we do the deeds of ministry relying by faith on God's power rather than our ability; we do deeds of ministry seeking God's glory and surrendering our desires for success and achievement; and we persevere in deeds of ministry by faith, obeying the calling God gives.
The church's mission. That James's illustration in 2:15 involves fellow Christians does not limit its application to the church's internal discipline, for his burden is the essential unity of faith and deeds. Even if the needy people were non-Christians, all of James's arguments would still apply: the faith of the one withholding help would still be offensively useless, ineffective for salvation and as dead as a body without a spirit. Therefore James's message can be properly applied to the church's mission to people outside the Christian community.
James's synthesis of belief and actions must be the model that holds the church on course with evangelism and social action. John Stott has outlined the church's three historical attempts at holding evangelism and social action together by treating social action as: a means to evangelism, a manifestation of evangelism or a partner of evangelism. Stott finds the first two insufficiently biblical and argues for the partnership model between evangelism and social action: "For each is an end in itself. Both are expressions of unfeigned love" (1975:26-27).
The essential unity of belief and practice, especially as applied by James to acts of charity, means that it is not yet genuine faith to have good wishes or sympathetic attitudes toward the needy. We can make statements in all sincerity of mind and emotion: "I feel sorry for the poor; I don't condone racism." But James will say, "What good is that if you aren't doing something to help the poor or to heal the distrust and injustice between races?" Some Christians attempt a stance of personal belief without personal action, saying, for example, "I personally disagree with abortion, but I won't try to change others' minds." James persists in asking us: What are you doing to protect the victims—both the victimized baby and the victimized mother?
Answers to the social problems are not easy, but the biblical message requires individual Christians and local churches to get busy setting definite goals for specific actions with mercy ministries as well as evangelistic messages.
Click the button below to continue.
Now that you've created a Bible Gateway account, upgrade to Bible Gateway Plus, the ultimate online Bible reading & study experience!
Bible Gateway Plus equips you to answer the toughest questions about faith, God, and the Bible. There's no software to install; it's all integrated seamlessly into your Bible Gateway experience. Try it free for 30 days!
Three easy steps to start your free trial subscription to Bible Gateway Plus.