The Epistle of James
Inadvertently, a mistake was made with this section of Earl Miller’s exposition. To be in proper sequence, it should have appeared in the September-October number. We regret this error, and shall republish in the January-February number the misplaced section.
Faith Works vs Law Works
It is extremely important that one should notice that in this portion James does not refer to law works, but to faith works, works produced by faith. And works produced by faith are altogether different from law works. When Paul denounces works for justification, it is law works to which he refers. Unscrupulous law teachers were advocating certain law works as circumcision and keeping the law as essential to salvation. This is what Paul so strenuously denounced, but Paul is as insistent as James that those who profess to have faith in Christ will manifest the fact by good works which saving faith produces. Listen to what Paul says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works” (Eph. 2:10). And again, “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and glorious appearing of the great God, and our Saviour
Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people zealous of good works” (Titus 2:11-14). From this it can easily be seen that Paul and James are not standing face to face fighting each other, but back to back fighting opposing foes.
A Worthless Faith
The verse ends by saying, “Can faith save him?” It is understood that faith here refers to the kind of faith; in other words, a faith that does nothing. Such a faith is worthless; it cannot save. The question is asked in such a way that a negative answer is inevitable. “Can that kind of faith save him?” Certainly not; it is worthless.
The worthlessness of such a faith is shown in the next two verses where reference is made to a brother or sister in desperate need of food and clothing. If one should say to such an one, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but he does not give the things needful to the body, what profit would there be in that? It would be worthless. In the same way a faith that produces no works is worthless. A right relationship with God issues in a right relationship with our fellowmen. A living faith brings us to right relationships both with God and our fellowmen.
“You Say” — “I Have”
The point in the 18th verse is a bit difficult to grasp. James is laboring to show how something invisible can be seen in its effects. Faith is that invisible thing; but, being a living reality, it cannot be kept hidden: it must manifest itself. Electricity running along the wires in your house is invisible, but the moment you flip a switch the reality of its presence is manifest. To grasp the point of this verse, think of someone in the assembly approaching the man who says he has faith and saying to him, “You say you have faith; I have works. Now you show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith out of my works.” The difference is “You say” and “I have.”
Belief in One God, not Enough
The one who says he has faith may even have an intelligent belief in God. “Thou believest there is one God, thou doest well; the devils also believe and tremble” (verse 19). James exhausts every facet this one who professes to have faith may resort to. Being a Jew, he would have this foundation belief that God is One. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is One Lord” (Deut. 6:4). But, James warns, believing that God is one does not issue in saving faith. The reason given is that demons also believe that, and they tremble at its implication. The word “devils” in the English Bible is always “demons” in the Greek text. There is but one devil, but there are many demons. A mere intellectual belief in God or even in Christ does not issue in a living faith.
The Empty Man
The argument is clinched in the 20th verse where James says, “But wilt thou know O vain man, that faith without works is dead.” The Greek word translated “vain” is “kene,” which really means “empty.” There is quite another word in Greek for “vain.” Now since a man cannot really be entirely empty, the word must be understood in its metaphorical aspect. R. C. Trench says, “Since the moral nature of man endures no vacuum, the presence of evil is predicated … The empty man is one in whom the higher wisdom has found no entrance, but is puffed up with the vain conceit of his own spiritual insight.” The Greek word for “dead” here is “argee” which means worthless, barren, useless, or good for nothing. But in the last verse of this chapter, the word James uses is the word for “dead.” “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead, and it is worthless.
Justification in the Sight of Men?
James uses two Old Testament characters, Abraham and Rahab, to illustrate his argument of justification out of works. These two illustrations are rather hard blows to those who hold that James is writing about justification in the sight of men. No man would justify either Abraham or Rahab for the deeds they have done, to which James refers. Abraham was told to offer his only son Isaac whom he loved as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that God would show him. What man would justify Abraham for doing such a thing? The answer is that man would condemn, not justify, Abraham for offering up his son. Then Rahab harbored two spies from an enemy camp and helped them escape capture by the city officials. What man would justify her for doing this? Of course, no man would. But God can see in these two deeds what man cannot see, and out of the deeds done by Abraham and Rahab, they stand justified before Him.
Of Abraham, James says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works faih was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which said, “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.” These words bear close scrutiny. It was not said of Abraham that he believed God when he offered Isaac on the altar and it was imputed unto him for righteousness. That was said of him fully forty years before this event. The offering of Isaac simply fulfilled the Scripture spoken to him forty years earlier, and the act of offering up Isaac vindicated the genuineness of the faith Abraham exercised at that time.
Abraham is known outstandingly as a man of faith. Indeed, he was such, but faith had to be developed in him as it must in any other person. Abraham might be idealized to the point where his life of faith might be considered flawless. But such is not the case. Abraham was a man of like passions with us, and he had many shortcomings in his life of faith.
Abraham’s Incomplete Obedience
When Abraham lived in Ur of the Chaldees, he served other gods (Joshua 24:2). It was here that the True God first appeared to Abraham and called him to leave his country, his father’s house, his kindred, and go into a land which he would afterward inherit as a possession. God promised to make his name great, that he would become the father of a great nation, and that in him and in his Seed all the families of the earth would be blessed. It is assumed that Abraham immediately obeyed, but he did not. This was the first encounter he had with God, and we might well conceive how he might have been perplexed by such a call.