In James chapter 2:14-24, James combats a teaching that has emerged in the Church. The teaching was known as “sola fide“. It taught that people were justified, or made righteous, by “faith alone“. It’s a belief that teaches faith (mental assent) doesn’t need works (acts of obedience). This was predominantly Paul’s gospel, and made popular by the Reformers about 1500 years later.
In the Hebrew mind, faith = heart or act of obedience. But, most likely through Greek philosophy, there was a split between mental belief and performance. Mental belief/assent became equated with “faith”, while performance became “works”. Paul, at least an understanding of him, was the great proponent of this dichotomy. We see this teaching in his writings, especially in Romans and Ephesians.
This is what James says about this teaching: “Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone”. Great way to end the rising doctrine, right? He’s a church leader whose words carried much weight. And he gives a little example in his letter that believing in faith for someone’s well-being without offering any help isn’t really faith at all. Why? Because, “faith without works is dead”.
Those who read with Pauline (or Lutheran) eyes have come to see James, in their attempts to reconcile the differences, as merely saying that you need faith plus works, in that faith should produce fruit, of which Paul would agree. However, James isn’t saying that. And Martin Luther knew that. That’s why he stripped the epistle of James from his bible.
The current argument is that “from faith comes works”. But James says no, no, no. It’s the other way around. “I will show you faith from my works”. You see, works demonstrates faith. Works is primary. Works is the engine of the train, and faith is the cart behind that hinges.
It seems that James is talking to Paul indirectly (if this is what Paul meant), and to those who hold to this dichotomy when he says: “Yes, we all believe in essentially the same thing but, even the demons do!” He then rebukes them and pretty much calls them stupid for creating this dichotomy and elevating faith as mental assent over works as acts of obedience. And he opposes them by essentially saying that faith by itself doesn’t justify. In other words, faith alone doesn’t save. It is useless.
James then begins to tell them that the heroes of the faith, such as Abraham and Rahab, were justified not by faith but by works! Oh how that is a direct polar opposite of what Paul taught (Romans 4:1-5)! And get this…it is faith that is perfected by works, not the other way around! Faith can only be a reality when works is the first act. It’s like a cause and effect thing. It takes works to display faith.
Here’s the statement that James objects and concludes with, “a person is justified by works, not by sola fide.”
Maybe it’s time we start criticizing what Paul had taught (Or, again, our understanding of what he taught). Faith in God as mental assent isn’t enough to justify a person to God. What’s required instead is a heart which acts upon the call of Jesus. It is in that where, according to Jesus’ brother, that one is made righteous to God.