Chuck Swindoll calls James the Bible’s “Man from Missouri.” What’s the slogan of Missouri? It’s “the Show Me State.” It’s like James is saying “You claim to believe in Jesus? You claim that you belong to him? Talk is cheap. Show me!”
Today’s passage is the greatest illustration of Mr. Swindoll’s title. These few verses are probably just about the most controversial in the entire Bible. It was the battleground between Protestants and the Catholic Church starting around the early 16th century. The leaders of the Protestant Reformation, such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, insisted—based on Paul’s writings in Galatians, Romans, Ephesians, and various other parts of Scripture—that we’re saved by grace through faith in Christ plus nothing. The Catholic leaders, in turn, responded that we’re saved by faith plus works. Basically, as best as I can understand, to them faith in the person and work of Christ gets you most of the way there, but there are various things you have to do to receive (and keep) it, such as baptism, attendance at the Mass, confession to a priest, etc.
And one of the passages which the Catholic apologists loved was today’s reading. In fact, this was their main proof that we need works in order to complete our salvation. And because of this, Luther had some major problems with the entire book. He did include it in his Bible translation into common German, but he also inserted some notes in which he questioned its canonicity—whether it actually belonged in the Bible as authoritative or not. To be fair, in his later editions of his Bible he left out the notes, so apparently his qualms were somewhat allayed.
So how should we handle it? To me, there are only two possibilities: 1) James really is saying that faith isn’t enough to save us, that we’re saved by faith plus works. In that case, James and Paul are flatly contradicting each other, since Paul’s message of salvation by grace through faith is clear and repeated multiple times in his letters. James would also be contradicting Luke and John.** Or......maybe, just maybe, 2) We need to look a little bit closer at James.
Quite frankly, I’m not sure what the issue here is; it seems like folks are making this a lot more complicated than necessary. Of course, I have the advantage of living 500 years after the Protestant Reformation, so I benefit by standing on the shoulders of giants. The Reformers had to work it all out themselves. But coming from my perspective, it doesn’t seem like Rocket Surgery or Brain Science. Part of the problem is that quotation marks weren’t in the Greek. But if there was such a thing back then, I’ve no doubt that James would’ve used them around the word “faith” almost every time he uses it in this passage. It makes a lot more sense, and it coincides perfectly with what the rest of the N.T. says.
Go through this passage and put the word “faith” in quotation marks: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have 'faith' but has no deeds? Can such ‘faith’ save them?” “Show me your ‘faith’ without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”
To my humble understanding, the definitive point is that the "faith" that James describes here is the “faith” of demons. Demons aren't atheists: They know quite well that there’s a God, the same God whom they used to worship and who threw them out of Heaven. They have no personal doubts about his existence, his power, his holiness, etc. But theirs is just acknowledgement of a set of truths. In no way does their faith lead to submitting to him. They live in rebellion against him and fight against his interests at every opportunity.
That’s the solution to the supposed quandary. The standard explanation of this passage (put forth by multiple Protestant teachers over the centuries) is that we’re saved by faith alone, but true, saving faith will not stay alone. If someone claims to believe in Jesus, and there’s no desire to serve and to please his Lord and Savior, then James would say that that guy’s faith is not true saving faith: His exact descriptions of it would be "dead" and "useless." Our alleged believer might have acknowledged a set of facts (like demons would, at least amongst themselves), but he hasn’t submitted his heart to the Lord. Or to put it another way, if you have true saving faith in Christ, it will make a difference in your life. It will make a change in the way you think, the way you speak, and the way you act. If you interpret it this way, then James syncs perfectly with Paul.
We’ll delve into the details tomorrow, but for now, let’s just let him examine our hearts. Do I belong to him? Is my faith real? I know I still fall short, but do I love him? Do I show that I love him? Is he making changes in my heart, my speech, and in my life? If not, why not?
On a much brighter note, you might be wondering where I came up with the title to today’s posting. It’s the name of one of my all-time favorite songs from Rich Mullins: “Faith without works, like a song you can’t sing, it’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.” Wait a minute, I have an actual music video of that! Here it is. . .
Lord Jesus, I know I belong to you, but sometimes the evidence is not as much as it should be. All too often I give in to my sinful nature. By your grace, please continue to change me from the inside-out, until I’m a perfect reflection of your Son.
**In John’s case, I just picked the citations I could think of off the top of my head with about 10 seconds of thinking. I could’ve probably come up with at least a dozen more.