James 2: Faith and Works

Reposted from Pastor McKinley

(26 verses, 2:57 to read)

What I am about to READ

  • St. James teaches us about the proper relationship between faith and works.


  • vv. 1-7 address the specific problem evaluating a person’s value based on his economic worth.
  • vv. 8-13 apply the Law to those who were guilty of the above, but in a general enough way as to show that all of us are guilty under God’s Law.
  • vv. 14-26 unpack the relationship between faith and works.


  • In reading the Lutheran Confessions, one can quickly see that being able to make distinctions is key in doing theology. There is a distinction to be made between justification and sanctification. There is a distinction to be made between Law and Gospel. There is a distinction to be made between men and women. However, we also see from the Scriptures that no distinction exist among those under the Law. In our epistle reading from Reformation, we heard St. Paul say, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22b-23). Apart from God’s grace, we stand as equals under the Law–sinners who deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. To regard one person as greater than another based on temporal and passing things, such as wealth, strikes at the very heart of the Gospel, that Christ died to save all sinners. St. James reminds us that God has little regard for the proud, but seeks to exalt the lowly (cf. Luke 1:46-55). Wonderfully, Christ made Himself to be poor, like us, to make us rich (II Corinthians 8:9). This leads us to the other place where there is no distinction: in justification. When God declares us righteous for Christ’s sake, there is no distinction to be made among us. There are no degrees of salvation, but we are all given the crown of life (Galatians 3:28).
  • Committing the sin of partiality, as St. James details above, is to live by the Law. However, because of our own sinfulness, we cannot fulfill the Law. St. Paul reminds us in Galatians that to use the Law in this way is to fall under its curse. Quoting from Deuteronomy, St. Paul warns, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Galatians 3:10).
  • St. James shows his capability as a preacher of God’s Law by setting a trap for us here. While we might not think we’ve committed this specific sin, we know that we’ve sinned in other ways. This means that we’ve broken all the Law, because to break the Law at one point is to break it all. Living by the Law is an all or nothing endeavor. All sin is a manifestation of unbelief, which is a sin against the first commandment. When we fail to keep the first commandment, we fail to keep the rest of the Law, too.
  • The only way the Law can be fulfilled is through love. Love is the true fulfillment of the Law, as Jesus reminds us (Matthew 22:34-40, cf. Romans 13:10). In this way, Jesus loves us. He fulfills what we cannot by loving God and neighbor perfectly. By forgiving us our sins, Christ enables us, in great weakness, to begin to fulfill the Law. Freed from our desire to love ourselves, we are now able to direct our love to our neighbors. We ought to remember that these are those for whom Christ has died–just like us!
  • vv. 14-26 are probably part of what inspired Luther to call James the epistle of straw. However, St. James is trying to teach us about the nature of good works and how they relate to justification. Faith, by necessity, results in good works. It is impossible for a Christian to not do good works. However, we do not rely on them for salvation. To borrow a phrase, good works are merely an outward sign of an inward reality. The Augsburg Confession puts it this way: “Also they teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will, but that we should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. For remission of sins and justification is apprehended by faith, as also the voice of Christ attests: When ye shall have done all these things, say: We are unprofitable servants. Luke 17:10. The same is also taught by the Fathers. For Ambrose says: It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving remission of sins, without works, by faith alone” (AC VI).
  • Our Roman Catholic opponents may use this to undermine what we confess, especially pointing to the example of Abraham St. James uses here. However, take note of the order of things! He says Abraham was justified by works when he offered Isaac on the altar, which he says is a fulfillment of what Moses wrote earlier, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” When you actually read the narrative of Genesis, Abraham is first justified by faith alone in the promises of God (Genesis 15:6). This results in the good work, commanded by God, of Abraham offering Isaac on the altar (Genesis 22). This good work proved Abraham’s faith in God was genuine, just as our good works done in faith do for us.
  • If you’re up for a bit of a challenge, I’d recommend reading the Formula of Concord’s discussion on the relationship between faith and good works. You can find that here.
  • One other thing that we must consider here is that the Scriptures often use the terms justification and sanctification slightly differently than we do. This is due in large part to the fact that the Bible is not a dogmatic treatise like you might find in the Confessions.


  • Prayer: Almighty and merciful God, of Your bountiful goodness keep from us all things that may hurt us that we, being ready in both body and soul, may cheerfully accomplish whatever You would have us do; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Collect for Trinity XIX)

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post below, or join the conversation in our Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/dailybiblemeditation/

-Rev. Jordan McKinley, pastor
Trinity Lutheran Church, Vallonia, IN

Learn more about Trinity:
On the Web: http://www.trinityvallonia.com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/TrinityVallonia
Twitter: @TrinityVallonia


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