Updated: Oct 26, 2020
1. Recognize the Context: Previous Context-James 2:8-13
Verse 8 begins with a conditional phrase about keeping “the royal law found in Scripture.” This term, royal law, probably refers to Jesus’ teaching on life in the kingdom of God, since James quotes Leviticus 19:18. The command to “love your neighbor as yourself” was a central theme in Jesus’ kingdom ethics (Matt. 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-28, see also Rom. 13:9 and Gal 5:14). Additionally, the adjective royal means “related to a king,” and James just mentioned the “rich in faith” who inherit God’s kingdom in verse 5.
The next verse presents the opposite situation. The one who demonstrates favoritism breaks the royal law and therefore sins. Verses 10-11 continues to explain that to break the law at even one point makes someone a lawbreaker. James uses the commandments about committing murder and adultery as examples to make his point. To show favoritism—is not to show love. To not show love—is to disregard Jesus' teaching from the Scriptures about living in God's kingdom.
Verse 12 contains two strong exhortations to speak and act. These imperatives are emphatic and in the present tense, indicating the need to speak and act continually. How should an individual speak and act? The answer, as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom. This law that gives freedom was referred to as the perfect law that gives liberty above (1:25). Again, this includes the Old Testament's message in light of the risen Christ and the teaching of Jesus found in the Gospels.
James’ point here—live in such a way as not to judge others. Rather, live like you will be judged by Scripture. This should not cause fear but freedom. Why? Because God’s people are called to live according to his word, which frees them to live as he designed. This life includes demonstrating mercy to others because God has shown his people mercy over judgment.
2. Read the Scripture: James 2:8-13
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
3. Reflect on the Scripture:
James again presents two rhetorical questions that expect negative answers. The first question considers the value of faith not accompanied by actions. The second question ponders the salvific efficacy of an actionless faith. At stake is the genuineness of such faith. For James, a faith not demonstrated by deeds is fraudulent and worthless.
Verses 15-16 present an example proving his point. This situation, though hypothetical (suppose), is very relatable. A fellow believer requires basic necessities, including clothes and food. In verse 16, the person’s response is nothing more than a pious platitude. It’s a prayer-wish that rings hollow. James’ question “what good is it?” accentuates the emptiness of the words.
Now, James returns to his discussion of faith and actions. Verse 17 provides his main thesis, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Verse 18 continues with a hypothetical response to his argument. James stresses actions can’t be separated from faith; they are two sides to the same coin. In verse 19, James commends his readers for their monotheism (Deut. 6:4, Mark 12:29-31). However, an orthodox understanding of God is insufficient. Even the demons have this (Mark 1:23-24, 5:1-8), but are terrified of God. True saving faith includes knowing who God is and living in a relationship with him. The evidence of genuine faith is a changed life putting faith into action.
4. Relate to life:
Now it's time to get specific and respond today. Remember, it is important to be a doer of God’s Word, not merely a hearer or reader (James 1:22-25). Here are some practical ways to actively respond to God’s Word. Consider these or create other ways you can apply the message.
Today, prayerfully reflect on your faith journey. Is your faith made evident by your actions? Today, pray your church family demonstrates a faith accompanied by actions to one another and the local community. Pray for specific people you know.
To do: (work produced by faith with the Holy Spirit’s help) Given the prayer suggestions above, how do you need to respond today? Think about your attitudes, actions, and words. Think about your family, friends, church community, and co-workers. What specific actions can you take to demonstrate your faith to one individual this week?
To study: (Always make sure to read the immediate context of the given passages).
Read and study the passages listed above. Some people have questioned whether Paul and James are at odds on the issue of faith and actions (works). James never argues that actions (works) save a person, and Paul never minimizes the importance of actions with faith. Read and study (Gal. 5:6, Eph. 2:8-10).