While at first glance it may appear otherwise, this passage is actually a perfect complement to Paul’s teaching in Romans.
Paul argued against those who thought the “works of the law” could save (Rom. 9:32) while James contended that a living faith should express itself through “works of faith.” Speaking of James and Paul, William Arnot said, “They do not stand face to face fighting against each other, but back to back fighting opposite foes.”
True faith in Christ is observable in both sound doctrine and in the actions stimulated by it (v. 18), such as how one responds to a needy Christian (vv. 15-16). Merely assenting to facts cannot save (v. 14) and is unproductive (v. 20). If one professes faith, but has never shown evidence of life, then one might wonder if spiritual life exists in much the same way we might declare a barren tree dead (vv. 17, Mt. 21:18-19).
A person may say they believe in God but how is that any different than the demons (v. 19). For example, some pay lip service to God, yet live as practical atheists, treating God as irrelevant to both their everyday lives and their eternal destiny.
Others may accept that Christ died for the world, but still refuse to acknowledge their own personal sin. They have no love for God, His Word, and gathering together with believers.
Still others are emotionally drawn to the gospel, even enjoying the company of believers on a regular basis. Yet they continue to resist Christ, unwilling to commit themselves to Him.
On the other hand, when someone trusts Christ alone for their salvation, God imparts new life to them. As a new creation in Christ, they now have a desire and power to please Him, and Christ will manifest Himself through them (v.18; Gal. 2:20).
Illustrating authentic faith, James uses the examples of Abraham and Rahab. Initially Abraham’s faith was immature (Gen. 15:8; 16:2), but in the following years his faith grew and was brought to full maturity when he obeyed God’s command to sacrifice his son (vv.21-23, Gen. 22:16; Heb. 11:17-19). Doing so, he proved before others what God already knew when He justified him more than thirty years earlier – that his faith was real (v. 23; Gen. 15:6). By faith, he was justified before God (Rom. 4:3); by works he was justified before men (v. 21).
Rahab also, by entrusting her life to the spies, entrusted herself to their God, her assistance to them revealing a genuine faith in the God of Israel (v. 25; Josh. 2).
Paul showed this connection between the “root of faith” and the “fruit of faith”, writing that salvation is a free gift, and that we have been created in Christ Jesus for good works (Eph. 2:8-10).
Though a genuine believer may backslide, resulting in discipline by our heavenly Father, one who has never shown evidence of life is merely a professor, possessing a counterfeit faith that has no value (vv. 20, 24).
Only the Lord Jesus knew that he had forgiven the paralytic’s sins but so that others could believe it, He told him to get up and walk (Mk. 2:9-12). Only God can see one’s heart. But it is the works of faith that reveals it to others.
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