What is genuine, living faith?
To tackle this question, James described three kinds of faith: dead faith, demonic faith, and dynamic faith.
But, for us to understand what James was explaining, we need to first understand the polyvalent nature of the word “faith” itself.
the Greek word πίστις |belief/faith is polyvalent, which means, having many different functions, forms, or facets. It does not simply mean intellectual assent, or even emotional investment. It includes those things, it includes the action of the will, but it also includes trust, endurance, loyalty, and obedience as its meanings.
As Luke Timothy Johnson described, πίστις involves the “response of the whole person.”
It is kind of shocking, to claim that demons have belief, but the Bible documents that they do.
You believe that God is one? You do well.
Even the demons believe and shudder!James 2:19 (DLNT)
- Demons are not atheists, or even agnostics, they definitely believe in the existence of God. They also believe in the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ.
- Whenever demons saw Jesus, they declared Him to be God’s Son.
- Demons believe in the existence of a place of punishment. It has become more mainstream to question the existence of hell. But in the scriptures, the demons do not. They shriek in fear.
- Demons recognize Jesus as the Judge.
- And demons always submit to the power of Jesus’ word.
Satan and his demons have more than just a faith of empty words. They believe and tremble. But that is not enough for saving faith. To realize with the mind that something is true, and even to be emotionally engaged, is not the same thing as having one’s life be changed by it. Satan and the demons still rebel against God and are God’s enemies. The only kind of faith that saves is a dynamic faith – faith filled with the changing power, the dynamos, of the Holy Spirit.
To illustrate the difference, James pointed to the lives of two very different people.
But do you want to know, O empty person, that faith without works is useless?
Abraham our father—was he not declared-righteous by works, having offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working-with his works, and the faith was perfected by the works?
And the Scripture was fulfilled, the one saying [in Genesis 15:6] “And Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness”. And he was called a friend of God.
Do you all see that a person is declared-righteous by works, and not by faith alone?James 2:20-24 (DLNT)
A dynamic faith, according to James, leads to obedience of God’s word. It is not just one act of faith that secures one’s eternity, then a return to regular life. This kind of obedient faith continues throughout one’s whole life.
Abraham was James’ example of this. Abraham’s faith in God, and God’s promises, and the resurrection to come, was so strong and firm he was willing to offer up his son Isaac to God.
The justification that James referred to, being declared-righteous is not so much about finding salvation by faith, but rather the validation of Abraham’s profession of faith. Remember James’ discussion on the implanted seed?
This is about that.
Some have argued that James taught this passage from Genesis differently than Paul did.
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according-to the flesh, has found?
For if Abraham was declared-righteous by works, he has a boast—but not before God.
For what does the Scripture say?—“And Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness” [Genesis 15:6].
Now to the one working: the wages are not credited to him based-on grace, but based on debt.
But to the one not working but putting-faith: upon the One declaring the ungodly righteous—his faith is credited for righteousness.Romans 4:1-5 (DLNT)
Just about that whole chapter concerns Abraham and the implications of his faith. But it is this passage right here that some claim teaches the opposite of what James asserted.
But really, all Paul is saying is that works—words or deeds—that spring from human motivation in order to attain heavenly gain are not credited as righteousness.
We might say that just as faith without works is dead, so works without faith is dead.
To push an inert body up and down in the semblance of breathing, to even push breath into the body, then press that breath out again, may simulate life. But it is not life.
Paul simply came at the equation from a different angle.
Because, Paul very much did teach that once saved God intends for us a life filled with good works.
For by grace you are saved through faith.
And this is not from you. It is the gift of God—not of works, in order that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared-beforehand in order that we might walk in them.Ephesians 2:8-10 (DLNT)
Said another way, faith in Christ will automatically generate good works, for we are God’s workmanship created for good works.
James offered a second illustration.
And likewise also Rahab the prostitute—was she not declared-righteous by works, having received the messengers and sent-them-out by a different way?James 2:25 (DLNT)
Rahab could not have been more different from Abraham!
She was a Canaanite, a woman who owned her own inn in a very strategic part of Jericho, near the Palace. James used the word ππόρνη | porne to describe her, which could mean she was an idolater, or possibly a prostitute. (For more of her story, see Rahab). The Promised Land the people of Israel were coming to possess was Canaan, and the people of Jericho knew it. They had all heard the reports of this seemingly unconquerable horde coming in from the wilderness. To them, who already occupied the land, the Israelites were the enemy, and anyone who aided or protected them would be considered a traitor.
But Rahab felt differently. Rahab believed.
“I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you.
For we have heard
—how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt,
—and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed.
As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.
Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family . . . “Joshua 2:9-12 (NRSV)
Rahab protected the two Israelite spies who came to her, and in exchange made them promise to save her and her family. Her faith was justified—validated—when she followed through with her promise.
For just as the body without spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.James 2:26 (DLNT)
Genuine, living faith produces good works.
Martin Luther said, in his summation of James’ letter, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.”
Genuine living faith is costly, in selflessness, sacrifice, humility, obedience to God and godly love. Yet, James taught, it is this genuine faith that receives the crown of life from God.
[Escape from Rahab’s House, as in Joshua 2, Woodcut for “Die Bibel in Bildern”, 1860. | Di Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld – Die Bibel in Bildern, Pubblico dominio, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5484465%5D