I think it’s easy at times to parse the Bible into neat little sections, especially as we do our daily Bible reading. What I’ve been noticing more and more over the past year, though, is that when we do that, we often miss the flow of what is being said.
So often people kind of detach these verses from all that was said before, but really, it is all part of one long argument. And this specific argument goes back to chapter 1 verses 26-27, where James talks about how true religion, true faith, leads to love, a tongue under control, and a pure life.
More specifically, this passage is continuing James’s thought of faith expressing itself in love. Paul himself talked about this, saying,
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:6)
James has been specifically talking about this in terms of how we treat the poor and lowly, and said that when we mistreat them, we are acting as sinners. We may not be committing murder or adultery, but we are nevertheless lawbreakers in God’s sight. And so James tells us, don’t judge the poor and lowly as lesser people. Rather show mercy to them. (2:8-12)
He then uses this line of thought to reinforce his general point, that true religion and faith should lead to a changed life.
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save him? (2:14)
Again, in the context, he’s talking about deeds of love. Can you claim to have faith if you have no love?
He then illustrates his point.
Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action is dead. (2:15-17)
Here, James shows the emptiness of words if it is not backed up by action. If someone tells a person in need, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” it sounds good. It sounds loving. But if it never leads to action, that lack of action proves that all those words had no real meaning behind them. They’re just empty words, and not love at all.
In the same way, if someone says, “I believe in God,” it sounds pious. It sounds Christian. But if over the course of time, that person’s life never changes, their life proves those words of faith have no meaning behind them. They’re just empty words, and not faith at all.
James emphasizes the point, saying,
You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder. (2:19)
In short, mere mental assent to the truth is not enough to save you. Merely saying, “I believe in God,” is not enough. True faith always leads to a transformed life. In particular, it leads to a life in which you truly love those around you. Change may take time. It may be a struggle. But if there is true faith, there should always be progress.
If then you look back on your life and you can’t see any changes that God has brought about in your life, making you more mature and complete in him, then it’s time to question, “What kind of faith do I have?”
More on this tomorrow.