3 February 2024

Wisdom in James: Is our faith ‘accompanied by action’?

Major Marjory Parrott

Major Marjory Parrott reminds us that God works through us when we do what we can.

Key text

My high school religious education teacher introduced me to Martin Luther’s opinion that James’s letter was an ‘epistle of straw’. This was based on the belief that James promoted salvation through actions, rather than salvation through faith in Christ. Nevertheless, James was not pitting faith against action, but comparing faith with action to faith without action. With his focus on practical Christianity, perhaps James would have made a good Salvationist.

This letter’s original recipients were familiar with Paul’s teaching. Indeed, the first few verses are comparable to Ephesians 2:8–10, where Paul reminds readers that, although they have been saved by God’s grace and not by their actions, they have been saved to do good actions.

It is important that our faith is shown in action, but we must never presume that doing more makes us better Christians. Otherwise, if we become less capable of such action, we might feel frustrated or useless.

The story of Charlotte Elliott, who, during years of illness, composed the hymn ‘Just As I Am, Without One Plea’ (SASB 503), was instrumental in Billy Graham’s faith journey.

It is a reminder that if we are willing to do what we can just as we are, God will work through us.

Pause and reflect

  • How much value do you place on showing your faith through your actions?
  • Do you equate your level of activity with your level of faith? Why or why not?

According to commentator Paul Cedar, James defines faith in four ways: saving faith, which includes actions (see v14), faith without action, which is dead (see v17), intellectual belief, which costs nothing (see vv19 and 20) and biblical faith, as seen in Abraham and Rahab (see vv23–25).

This first example of faith in action involves the local congregation. He understands that, if we cannot show compassion within church, we will struggle to show it elsewhere. Cedar recounts asking conference attendees if they had Christian friends whom they could contact with a middle-of-the-night emergency – no one did.

A photo shows a wilted rose.

James 2:17

In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Read James 2

Imagine one church member saying to another: ‘I see your need. Goodbye. God bless! Go and sort yourself out.’ The need remains unmet, and the faith remains dead. Another possibility is that those who are left in need might find their faith destroyed – made dead – when they see that Christianity does not positively impact behaviour, especially if those who do not profess a faith behave more like Christ.

Pause and reflect

  • Do you have friends who you could call in an emergency? Are you that kind of friend?
  • Are there times when we don’t admit our need, for fear that others will reject us?

James passionately wants his readers to understand that faith without action is dead, so he repeats the idea three times (see vv17, 20 and 26). When a person dies, although they are the same person, they are lifeless. Likewise, actionless faith is lifeless.

In verse 18, James highlights another danger: presuming that some Christians specialise in faith while others major in actions. We might prefer playing to our strengths, but God wants more. James is promoting neither intellectual faith nor faithless action. If our relationship with Jesus is to be alive and effective, faith and action must be joined.

In verse 20, the Greek word for ‘dead’ is often translated as ‘useless’. This word is also used in the parable of the vineyard workers to describe men standing idle in the marketplace (see Matthew 20:3). In effect, James is saying that faith without works does not work.

Pause and reflect

  • Do you lean more towards intellectual faith or action?
  • How can you address the imbalance?

James underscores his point with the examples of Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith, and Rahab – two people at either end of a social spectrum. They illustrate that faith in action is required of everyone.

Abraham is commended because his great faith in God made him willing to sacrifice his only son. Faith in action may be challenging and exciting but it is also costly. Abraham’s action deepened his relationship with God, but it was still frightening. Likewise, we show our faith in God by our willingness to obey, even when we don’t like what he says or think we know better.

Abraham was not saved by his actions, but by the faith that made him act. What we do does not make us better Christians, but it does deepen our relationship with Jesus.

Rahab seems an unlikely character to be held up for imitation. She was a prostitute and she betrayed her fellow citizens by protecting those who would eventually annihilate her city and its people because their God told them to do so.

Rahab’s obedience to God’s prompting provided physical salvation for her and her family and results in her inclusion in the genealogy of Jesus (see Matthew 1:5).

Bible commentator Douglas Moo writes: ‘Words – sermons, prayers, confessions of faith, wise advice, encouragement – are indispensable to true Christianity. But they are shown to have real meaning, James reminds us, when people can see actions that correspond to those words.’

Pause and reflect

  • How do you discern God’s guidance for your actions?

Bible study by

A photo of Marjory Parrott in Salvation Army uniform

Major Marjory Parrott

Corps Officer, Swadlincote

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