“Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Many of the Reformers, like Martin Luther, thought James should be thrown out of the canon. They thought this because of the complex way it deals with faith as it relates to works. On the surface it seems to stand against a central claim in the rest of Paul’s writings. On the surface, James seems to go against salvation by faith, not works. But it’s not true.
James provides a richness and completeness to Paul’s argument. There are a number of differences, or expansions of thought here. First, we are not talking about salvation, but about the transformative nature of a life of faith. Second, James concentrates on works of charity, not works of obedience to the Jewish law. Third, James also includes what I consider to be a central statement of Jewish belief, “God is one” and that that statement expands the meaning here.
If we are living as members of Christ’s faithful community, would not acts of charity be a natural outcome? In other words, works are a great marker of whether or not someone truly has faith! If we proclaimed to be Christian, and then spent all our time trampling all over the poor, others would very clearly see that we weren’t really Christian. It reminds of the cute little tune, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love…by our love.”
Works aren’t going to save you. James never claims that. But what he does state is that if you aren’t backing up your faith with works, you have lost your mind! Christianity is not a religion of lip service. This is not something we do on Sunday morning and ditch the rest of the week.
James helps us with focus. He helps remind us that all that we do, all that we say, all that we believe, feeds into the overarching belief that God is one. When we take this seriously, we come to know that the brokenness of this world, the heartache of our neighbors, all feeds into honoring God. There is no divide of God’s character, and as James spins out his theology on demons and their work as the enemy of God, we see a God that firmly stands against the tyranny of poverty, brokenness, and hopelessness.
In other words, God demands our allegiance – our belief and our power to transform.