When Faith Is Not Faith


In the last section, James looked at the implications of the “law of liberty” for personal discipline and morality and for public manifestation of compassion. In that context he probed the motives of those who give special attention to the rich and ignore, or even dishonor, the poor. In this text, James revisits the Law of God from the standpoint of its corporate implications in individual action and attitude. This section provides a rich exposition of the places of the Law in defining true faith. It is the perfect companion to Paul’s discussion of Law/Gospel/Faith in Galatians.


I. James gives a comprehensive look at the second table of the Law. (verses 8-13)

A. James considered the possibility that this apparent partiality was a true attempt to show love to persecutors. After all, Jesus had taught, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you; . . . Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Luke 6:28; Matthew 5:44). Perhaps those courting the favor of the rich are seeking obedience to the “royal law,”—”You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

B. If, however, their conduct has as its foundation true partiality, this demonstrates they have not understood the spiritual implications of the Law.

  1. Partiality is a transgression of the Law.
  • In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus uttered the comprehensive test of the proper perception of the second table of commandments, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
  • Jesus follows that summary of the Law with admonitions to be among the few who enter in at the narrow gate (13, 14), to recognize false teaching by bad fruit (15-20), to esteem doing the will of the Father above impressive exhibitions of external religion (21-23).
  • All of these scenarios are tests arising from applications of “Do also to them.” Those who do not meet this test hear the words, “I never knew you; depart from me you workers of iniquity” (7:23). Thus, Jesus linked the character of true, earnest, enduring Christian faith to an internal commitment to loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
  • We find this also as a specific application of the law in Leviticus 19:15. “You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, or honor the person of the mighty. In righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.” Neither partiality to the poor or the rich and exalted is permitted in the enactment of justice. Righteousness involves the same standard for all.
  • This text, along with many others, shows that justice is the social expression of righteousness. Righteousness is at the root of man’s relation to God, the relationships within the entire human community, the entire scheme of the redemptive purpose of God, and the atmosphere of heaven. Both justification by faith and the pursuit of sanctification (See Matthew 5:17-20) have the righteousness of the Law as foundational. In its requirement for perfect obedience, Jesus alone accomplishes it (Hebrews 5:8, 9; Philippians 2:8; 1Peter 2:21-24); in its threat of death for its violation, Jesus alone fully bears that penalty for his people (2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13). His utterance, therefore, of his purpose “to fulfill them,” (the Law and the Prophets) and of their endurance through the fiery renovation of the heavens and the earth “until all is accomplished” means that by justification the Law is honored in its full intent by the way that God declares sinners justified by faith (Romans 3:21-28). For the justified person, the Law continues in its relevance as a revelation of true righteousness to which the saved sinner desires conformity. He is blessed if he is “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” He will not inherit the kingdom of God unless his “righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” Matthew 5: 10, 20). In fact, the new heavens and the new earth are described as a place “in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 2:13). His manner of life, therefore, is that of a person who has hope that he will be like Jesus when He appears and so seeks personal purity (1 John 3:2, 23). He finds joy in considering that God’s own purpose and power will bring this process of perfection in holiness to completion (Philippians 1:6; 2 Corinthians 7:1). He senses the great privilege of the promise of God’s intention “to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 24). When God disciplines his sons and daughters, he does it that we “may share his holiness” which then “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” In fact, without such holiness expressing itself in righteousness “no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:10, 11, 14).  A qualitative difference exists, therefore, between the works of the Law before conversion and those done afterwards. Only in the new birth is a principle of love and holiness implanted in the heart (James 1:21; 1 Peter 1:22, 23). Before regeneration, one’s actions are an unbroken path of transgression. None of even the most splendid actions are done out of a love for God for the love of God has not been shed abroad in the heart by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). If no principle of holiness or love for God exists in human actions, then nothing in the action is finally good or righteous before God. When the principle of holiness, both in the person of the Holy Spirit and in the transformed affections of the person, is present in an act of obedience, worship, kindness, or any other pursuit of the law of righteousness, the Lord receives it as a thing pleasing to him (Hebrews 13:21; Titus 2:14; Colossians 1:9, 10). Freed from the Law’s condemnation, already having its perfect righteousness imputed to our person, the remaining influence of the flesh in all our actions is forgiven by the ever-efficacious blood of Christ (1 John 1:7). The person of true faith now lives in loving pursuit of God’s righteousness in love to God demonstrated in love to neighbor. This relationship undergirds the entire argument of James for true faith being manifest in good works.
  1. A transgression of the Law in one instance means a transgression of the entire purpose of the Law (verses 8-11).
  • This demonstrates the unity of the second table of the commandments. Love to neighbor is a summary of all and is distributed into distinct areas of relationship: parental authority, life, marriage, property, truthful representation of one’s neighbor, and control of one’s personal desires by achieving perfect contentment with divine providence. Paul gave testimony to this unity, and in fact collapsed even the first table into the second: “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:14).
  • The Law is the expression of the character and prerogatives of the Lawgiver. Disobedience, therefore to one of his laws constitutes rebellion against his authority, no matter which commandment we have violated. For this reason, the commandment “Thou shalt not covet” opened the floodgate of the realization of condemning sin upon the conscience of Saul of Tarsus (Romans 7:7-12).
  • Even as people of faith, a realization of lack of perfect purity in the way we pursue righteousness shows that the principle of the flesh still operates pervasively. By the Spirit we do constantly mortify the flesh (Romans 8:112, 13) and at the same time realize that indwelling sin hinder perfect righteousness in any of our works.
  1. As an expression of the genuineness of our faith, we must learn to discipline our lives according to the Law, as a Law of liberty (verse 12).
  • James has invoked the concept of the “Law of liberty” in 1:25. There he positions it as a source of blessedness if one looks into it with the purpose of following it. Now he points to it as the source of our final judgment. Given the distinctions between the regenerate and the unregenerate mentioned above, the same law will condemn the one and be the evidence of salvation for the other.
  • When this Law speaks to the unregenerate, still under the law as a covenant of works and as a consequent curse, “every mouth will be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19). This law will stand in condemnation of them, they will be judged and found guilty.
  • When this Law speaks to the regenerate, those whose sins are forgiven and who bear the clothing of Christ’s righteousness, they are shown to have emulated Christ’s own honoring of the Law by their sincere pursuit of even its most trying commands. Jesus was obedient even unto death and died for his enemies. This Law of liberty has shown them the mercies of the Lord in the forgiveness of their sins and in his gracious acceptance of their worship. When we pursue the Law in gratitude for our freedom from its curse, and in compassion even for our enemies, we prove ourselves to be sons of our heavenly Father (Matthew 5:43-48).
  1. The Law should consistently remind us that we are debtors to mercy (verse 13).
  • One of the most fundamental elements of the changed heart is the sense of indebtedness to mercy and gratitude for sovereign grace.
  • Under the control of the righteousness of the Law, mercy must extend in its dimensions to cover every point of our transgressions and consequent indebtedness. We are infinitely in debt to him who has forgiven our transgressions.
  • Even so, we will have a propensity to “forgive those who trespass against us” and be imitators of the mercy of our Savior. God is kind to his enemies, to the ungrateful and evil, with no expectation of return from them. If, therefore, we are “sons of the Most High,” the expectation is, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
  • The one who shows no mercy demonstrates that mercy is not dear to him. The one who truly is forgiven finds mercy to be a delight, for, while we were “sons of disobedience [and] children of wrath, . . . God, being rich in mercy . . . made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2: 2-5). While we spent “our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another . . . God saved us according to his own mercy” (Titus 3:3-5). Can we feel the reality of our indebtedness to mercy and live without mercy to others?


II. True faith arises out of a spiritual grasp of the righteousness of the Law (Verses 14-26). We are indebted to mercy in proportion to the righteousness of the Law. God’s righteousness extends into the heavens and is the foundation of his throne in heaven: “All the words of my mouth are righteousness” (Proverbs 8:8); “But the Lord sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for justice, and he judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with uprightness” (Psalm 9:7, 8). James gives a series of tests for true faith under the assumption, like Paul, that faith arises from love, which, as stated many times in Scripture, is the fulfillment of the Law. Where there is no love of righteousness, there is no faith.

A. (Verse 14) James, by means of two rhetorical questions, points to the self-evident truth that a workless faith is not saving faith.

  1. “What use is it . . . what is the profit . . . is there anything substantial . . . can anyone really bank on the claim that one has faith and yet has no works that show his reverence for and love for God’s Law?” Given the way in which true faith arises, the kind of affection that is the root of faith, and the focus on righteousness that is at the core of faith, the answer is “No.”
  2. This then leads to a question concerning the soteriology of the relation of Law to gospel. Is supposed faith that has no regard for God’s righteous Law to be identified with saving faith? Again, the answer is “No.”

B. (Verses 15-17) Likewise, the kind of faith that is void of brotherly compassion is not a living faith. James creates an analogy to demonstrate the pure vanity of so-called faith that has no propensity for doing good works.

  • The first part of the analogy posits an immediate and concretely observable need of food and clothing for a brother or sister. The person seeing them gives them only words of well-wishing about getting clothes and having food. It is quite clear that the situation calls for more than words, but for tangible, relevant provisions. Mere words neither clothe nor fill. Such words are useless and completely estranged from the action called for in the observation. Hunger calls for food, not for platitudes.
  • Even so, faith apart from works of righteousness is just like platitudes instead of food. Since faith assumes the desirability of righteousness, the claim to have it in the absence of a demonstrated desire for righteousness is equally as empty as “Be warmed and filled,” without clothes or food.
  • In this analogy, the first analogue also happens to be one way in which true faith may be demonstrated, since it is a manifestation of the second table of the commandments. In addition, the Apostle John used the same illustration in demonstrating the character of love: “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17, 18).

C. A constituent element of saving faith is works done according to revealed standards of goodness (Verse 18). The manner in which James proposes this hypothetical challenger to workless faith, shows that James is not interested at all in making works a replacement for faith.

  1. James introduces the statement with a strong adversative (“But”), showing that he is fielding a challenge to the pretensions of an empty faith. The challenger initiates the discussion by considering faith and works as separate entities. He looks to the one who claims to be justified by “Faith alone” but disdains works, and says, “You have faith and I have works.”
  2. Now we must see if there is a way to give credit to the claim that one really does have faith. Are we to take his word for it as sufficient in itself, or do we look for connections that can give verification. Faith operates in the heart, is in itself an internal principle and cannot be seen unless it manifests itself in actions fitting for the nature of its power in the heart. So the challenge comes, “Show me your faith apart from the works.” It is like requesting, “Show me the power of this engine apart from pressing the accelerator.” Or perhaps more to the point, “Show me that this heart is working apart from the flow of blood.”
  3. But James maintains the necessity of looking at the unity between the two. Just as faith is not true if devoid of true works of righteousness consistent with the revealed law of God, so works that are not the product of faith are not really good works at all. By works one will surely demonstrate the presence of faith. Faithless works, however, as an attempt at self-righteousness have no more value than workless faith. Pharisees and legalists of all sorts invent ways of being religious, but only faith, working by love, produces those works that are cleansed of their shortcoming and accepted for their faithfulness.

D. (Verse 19) Some might think that if a person’s works were not fitting to his statement of faith, then certainly a detailed belief of all the articles of the Christian faith would be sufficient evidence of saving faith. The succinct way in which James poses and then answers the proposition shows the comprehensive scope of this issue.

  1. He makes a bare doctrinal affirmation as supposed evidence of saving faith: “God is one.” By this first order doctrine of the Christian faith, the reader may infer several key doctrines of the system of truth built on divine revelation. There is one God in three persons manifesting himself through the implementation of an eternal covenant of redemption. This oneness of the deity means that he alone should be the object of our worship.
  2. He evaluates it with an affirmation of the quality of the intellectual perception: “You do well.” To hold this knowledge and believe that it is true is a thing good in itself. The first step in all true worship is the knowledge of truth. If one does well in the attainment of this knowledge, he should press on to all the doctrines of special revelation and not rest until his mental grasp of them is full, reaching the very perimeter of everything that is revealed in Scripture.
  3. He shows the fatal deficiency of doctrinal truth standing alone.
  • This intellectual knowledge and unwavering grasp of doctrinal truth is shared by the devils, and probably is more profound, encyclopedic, and empirically observed than anything of that sort in a human being. The devils have been in the presence of God and have seen his glory and felt the holy fury of his anger.
  • Their knowledge has also permanently affected their senses in that they live with a looming reality of the terror of God’s righteous anger. They know that eventually they will justly be consigned to eternal torments, and they tremble at the prospect.
  • All of this both in cognition and response is in the experience of beings that are wholly given to unholiness and thoroughly vehement opposition to God and his holy purposes.
  1. The conclusions we should draw from this is staggering.
  • Saving faith is more than mere assent to knowledge gained from special revelation or even in strong manifestation of certain affections arising from such knowledge. This verse has large implications for understanding the nature of saving faith. Some may point to their biblical orthodoxy as the evidence of true saving faith. For the most profound expository treatment of this verse, one should read the sermon by Jonathan Edwards True Grace Distinguished from the Faith of Devils.His doctrine is, “Nothing that is in the mind of man, that is of the same nature with what the devils experience, or are the subjects of, is any sure sign of saving grace.”
  • The foundation of gracious knowledge of God is in this: “An apprehension or sense of the supreme holy beauty and comeliness of divine things, as they are in themselves, or in their own nature” [Edwards]. This sense of the intrinsic worthiness of God’s character and his actions does not arise in the first instance from mere self-interest but from a view of the independent beauty of the divine nature and the decrees that flow from it. It is a Spirit-given intuition, even a virtually empirical sense of the supreme loveliness of God and the perfect harmony of his will with his character.
  • The tendency of this is to make a person desire to “walk in the light as He is in the light” for it is there that “we have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1:7).

E. James cites two Old Testament examples that demonstrate his point. Here we gain further insight into what kinds of works James is talking about and how they express this “sense of the supreme holy beauty and comeliness of divine things.”

  1. Abraham was justified by works.
  • This does not mean that his person was received as having the perfect righteousness of the Law on account of his own perfect obedience. Rather, this work referred to, the offering of Isaac (Genesis 22), justified Abraham as a man of faith. His justification before God had occurred many years before (Genesis 15:6).
  • The text says that Abraham’s faith was working along with his works. The faith Abraham had, already present when the command to offer Isaac came, penetrated his act of obedience and was the fountain of his willingness to obey. This work could not have been done apart from faith, for faith has in it the tendency to obedience (1 John 2:4).
  • “As a result of the works, faith was perfected.” Faith is approved (1:3, 4) in the cauldron of testing and is brought to maturity. The intrinsic tendency of faith found an advanced expression in this test and was perfected. The word James uses here for “perfected” is from the same root as that use in 1:4, “But let endurance have its perfect work.” Faith gains the quality of approvedness through the tests that it endures with faithfulness to God.
  • This act also fulfilled the Scripture which affirmed, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). The declaration of justification by faith, given earlier before Isaac was born, is fulfilled in the offering of Isaac: that is, Abraham’s faith was of the sort through which God justifies sinners.
  • This test showed that Abraham’s love for God and trust in the goodness, faithfulness, and purpose of God transcended his love for his son Isaac. This was a supreme test of his affection for the God who called him (Genesis 12:1), made promises to him (Genesis 12:2; 15:4), initiated and sealed a covenant with him (Genesis 15:9-21; 17:2-5), demonstrated his awesome holiness to him (Genesis 19:27-29), and gave him a child through Sarah, his barren wife (Genesis 18:10; 21:1-3). This faith, an expression of a true change in the soul of Abraham in which God’s character and will became his prevailing affection, found mature expression in this demonstration that he did not love houses, or lands, or parents, or children more than God (Luke 14:26; 18:29, 30). Indeed, he was “the friend of God.”
  1. Rahab, the harlot, was justified by works.
  • Rahab, not a figure of works righteousness but an idolater, given over to sexual promiscuity, was justified by works. It is obvious that she had none of the works of the law credited to her account when she was justified.
  • Along with all the inhabitants of Jericho, she had heard of the mighty deeds done by the God of Israel. She confessed that “He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.” Her knowledge was matched by her determination to be found on the side of Israel’s God and not on the side of the idolatrous city in which she had lived her life.
  • She, with her father, mother, and brothers were spared while the rest of the city was put to the torch. She became a true follower of Yahweh and was the mother of Boaz, the husband of Ruth.
  • Her profession of belief in the God of Israel was demonstrated as arising from true affection and a deep sense of his glory by her willingness to forsake her own land (Jericho) for the sake of the God of Israel even as her daughter-in-law Ruth had forsaken Moab to embrace the God of Israel.
  • Had she professed her faith in the God of Israel, but not protected the spies at the risk of her own life, her belief would be of no profit. She risked her life in the immediate pressure of the event for the sake of eternal gain and enjoyment of the God of Israel. The same word for “profit” or “use” or “gain” in 2:14 is used by Jesus in Mark 8:36, “What would it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”

F. Faith void of such works is dead. A faith that is alone is not biblical faith (verse 24). Hebrews defines faith as the substantiating, the internally-felt assurance, of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. Faith embraces all that God has said with full assurance of its truthfulness and with certainty that it has happened as he said (creation) or will come to pass as he has promised (Hebrews 11:24-26). Faith finds more delight in the person of God, the glory of Christ’s redemption, and the promise of the new heavens and the new earth than in all the advantages and prestige and pleasure that the world might offer. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). If the love of the Father is not in him, nor does he have faith in the redemptive work of the Son.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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