Paul and James are often set in opposition. Paul stresses Justification by faith apart from works: James stresses justification by works. The truth is both are dealing with different pastoral problems. Paul is concerned among other things about a problem of legalism; he combats the view that men can be in the right with God through their own merits by stressing that justification is all a work of God’s grace received by faith. James on the other hand faces a problem of licence; he combats the view that as long as we have ‘faith’ it doesn’t really matter how we live. James argues that true faith always results in works that please God and prove faith’s reality.
The really interesting thing to note is that both OT examples of faith-works James cites are activities we do not naturally think of as ‘good works’. The ‘work’ that proves Abraham’s faith involves the offering of his son Issac as a sacrifice. The other ‘work of faith’ is Rahab’s protection of the Israelite spies by receiving them into her house and sending them off another way. In the words of James,
Jas 2:20-26 (ESV)
Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”-and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
The ‘justifying works’ James cites are intended infanticide and treason. James is at pains to underline that faith-works are not simply the natural impulses of a generous nature. They are not to be equated merely with human kindness, the good that many do who have not been ‘born by the word of truth‘ (Jas 1:18) or ‘received with meekness the engrafted word‘ (1:21). Even less are they simply Law-works, in fact if anything James examples were contrary to the Law (certainly infanticide).
James focuses on faith-works that specifically reveal faith. He focuses on sacrifices that people were willing to make for God, simply because they recognised God as God. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son because God asked. Rachel was willing to turn her back on her people out of allegiance to the God of Israel. Faith-works may well be actions that mystify even anger others. They may at times seem to go against reason, natural feeling and even law yet be evidence of faith. Faith-works put God’s will before family and country. They befriend the poor, the widow and fatherless who can give nothing in return (Jas 1,2). They express a gentle wisdom (Jas 3). They mourn and weep over sin (Jas 4). They patiently suffer injustice and look out for those wandering from the faith (Jas 5).
Faith-works are loving your enemies and being kind to those who abuse you. They put the interests of others before one’s own. Faith-works mean staying single rather than marrying a non-Christian. They may mean losing a job rather than compromising beliefs. Faith-works have no ambitions for personal position and place only ambitions that Jesus is honoured. They mean chatting in church to those others avoid; showing hospitality to those who need rather than simply those we like; avoiding cliques and partisan tendencies. Faith-works are costly. They may cost you family, friends, reputation, home comforts even life itself; they certainly cost Jesus these. Will they cost his friends, God’s friends, less?