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James 2:14-26

Faith and Deeds

     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 what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

     20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what they do and not by faith alone.

     25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

Church tradition says that James was the biological brother of Jesus, and that he was the leader of the church in Judea during the early days after Pentecost. It’s sometimes said that he was the first “bishop of Jerusalem,” although that’s a term that come into use later.

As you might remember, the Letter of James is a somewhat controversial book. The main reason that it’s controversial is this passage that’s the basis of our Reflection for today. It’s the best-known part of the whole letter, because it contains the best-known verse (verse 26): “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” And a couple of verses earlier, James writes, “A person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” That’s a problem for lots of Protestant followers of Jesus, because we believe we are saved by faith alone, not by works.

That’s actually one of the pillars of Protestant theology – the understanding that we’re not saved by performing religious rituals or by doing good deeds. (The Protestant Reformation actually started when Martin Luther came across this idea of salvation by faith in Paul’s Letter to the Romans.) Protestant believers sometimes criticize “works righteousness,” by which they mean the idea that you can make yourself righteous in God’s eyes by doing certain things.

That’s a substantial difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic theology. The Roman tradition believes that some religious actions have very real benefits in terms of the believer’s relationship with God – there are things you have to do to fulfill your obligations as a follower of Jesus.

So you might see why some Protestants have a problem with what James has written in this passage: James seems to be saying that being saved requires us to do some things – some works.

But my sense is that this problem is based on a misunderstanding of what James is saying. It seems to me that James isn’t saying that we’re saved by doing good deeds. I think what James is saying is that if we really have the kind of faith that saves us, then that faith will move us to do the things Jesus commanded us to do. If you claim to have faith in Jesus, but you’re not doing things like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, and welcoming the stranger, doesn’t that mean your faith is dead? Jesus commanded us to do those things, so how could you claim to be his disciple – to have faith – if you’re not doing what Jesus commanded us to do? I think that’s what James is getting at here.

You can know all there is to know about Christian doctrine. You can memorize lots of passages from the Bible. You can tell everybody who will listen that Jesus is your Lord and Savior. You can insist that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and that nobody comes to the Father except by him.

But, James says, if you’re not also feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, and welcoming the stranger, then your faith is dead. It’s these acts of service to the needy and the marginalized that reveal the love for God and love of neighbor that Jesus said were the greatest commandments.

It seems to me there’s a very important principle here: Genuine, living faith is a faith that does something. When people came to Jesus to find out if he was really the Messiah, he told them to go back and report what they saw: People were finding healing and hope through him. If we are the body of Jesus in our world today – as we’re supposed to be – then our faith ought to be bringing healing and hope into the world.

Are we saved by good deeds? Probably not. But if we are saved, will we be doing good deeds – service to others in Jesus’ name? I think so. It seems to me that’s the real point James wants to make in this passage.

Let’s pray. Lord, by your Holy Spirit, inspire us to living faith, the kind of faith that does not sit in isolation and congratulate itself on believing the right things, but instead goes into the world to find “the lost and least of these,” and to help and serve them, and to share your love and good news with them, as Jesus did. Amen.



(The other readings for today are Psalms 47 and 85; Habakkuk 2:1-20; and Luke 16:19-31. Our readings come from the NIV Bible, as posted on, the website of the International Bible Society.)