Faith in the Epistle of James
The role of faith in the epistle of James is not peripheral as the legalists would like us to believe by their focus upon works as the complementary means of man’s justification. Rather, the role of faith is central to the epistle of James. From the onset of the letter, we see that faith is tested (1:2-4), that true faith brings forth good fruit (ibid), that true faith has its petitions met by God (1:5), that false faith does not have its petitions met by God (1:5-8), that false faith evidences itself in doublemindedness (which is hypocrisy, ibid), and that true faith endures the trials of this world and grows in good fruit evidenced in the life of the one who possesses it. James’ distinction is enough to prove that those who do not have faith are the same ones who do not have works, and are, therefore, not Christians.
So when we come across James’ statement in 2:20 that “…faith without works is dead…” We are merely being told the inverse of James 1:6-8, namely: Works without faith are dead. We are brought forth by God’s own will, granted the gift of faith, and this faith, because it is God’s free gift to His elect, will produce good fruit, for bad fruit (i.e. doublemindedness and hypocrisy, which is what James is speaking of in 2:14-20, spec. v.20) is the evidence of the absence of faith (again, cf. 1:6-8). Those who would see justification by faith and works are not reading James systematically but cherrypicking what they believe will give them Scriptural grounds for their heresy.
John the Baptist tells the Phariseesthe same thing when he tells them to not place their trust in their external rituals, but to produce fruits worthy of repentance. (cf. Matt 3:8), for this is the true proof of their regeneration. Unsaved men, like the Pharisees and those in James’ epistle, look to (i.)their rituals (i.e. baptism in Matt 3), (ii.)their profession of faith in the one God of the Bible, and (iii.)their heritage (i.e. be it Christian or Jewish) for their justification. But these things do not justify a man before God. Faith in Christ alone is the means whereby a man is justified in the sight of God, and this is also what James touches upon in his epistle.
We see that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ: i.e. the Gospel (cf. 1:18). For the Gospel shows us who we are before God: sinners who can only bring forth death (cf. 1:13-15). And then presents us with God’s promise to show mercy to His elect, to save those who, by His grace, see their sin and call out to Him for such mercy (cf. 2:5). That is why faith without works – i.e. hypocrticial, doubleminded, judgmental, and mercy-less faith – cannot be true saving faith, for the person, according to James, has not truly seen himself in light of God’s law, and has never been therefore convicted and shown his need for the Savior (cf. 1:23-26).
So the question is: Does such a person even have faith? What exactly is James saying when he states “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe —- and tremble” (cf. 2:19)? Is he stating a person can truly believe the Gospel and not be saved? If he is saying that, then he is contradicting the bulk of the New Testament’s teaching that (i.)the unregenerate man cannot understand the Gospel (cf. John 3:3-8; 1 Cor 2:5-16; 2 Cor 3-4) for (ii.) his mind is completely corrupt (cf. Rom 1:18-23, where the natural man’s rejection of natural revelation is (a.)inevitable given consideration of his fallen state in Adam, and (b.)the marred means of understanding anything spiritual. What he does understand about God (i.e. natural revelation), he corrupts in an act of epistemological rebellion.) and (iii.) he cannot hear and understand (cf. Matthew 13:11-23, where the first soil does not understand, the second and third soils do not truly grasp the Gospel for they, like the masses in John 6:26-66 and the Rich Young Ruler in Matt 19:16-26, do not understand the Gospel in that both see the earthly, the worldly, as being more substantal than the Gospel. The Gospel, in both instances, takes a backseat to one’s desire to be comfortable in this life.), and he cannot, therefore, (iv.)truly believe the Gospel. So is it possible that James is teaching that a man can truly believe the Gospel and not be a Christian? Not at all.
James is mocking those who claimed association with God’s people by means of their outward profession of faith, but who were doubleminded doubters whose hypocrisy evidenced itself in (i.)their instability (1:6-7), (ii.)their blindness and forgetfulness of their own sinful condition and the command of Christ to love one another as He has loved us (1:22-25; 2:1-13), (iii.)their standing in judgment of God’s law (as opposed to their submission to it, ibid.), and (iv.)their overall worldiness (3:13-18). No, a man cannot believe the Gospel and not be saved, for the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation.
Then what is he saying here?
Simply what he says in the beginning of his epistle: True faith produces good fruit (cf. 1:2-5); and faithlessness produces bad fruit (cf. 1:6-8). Those who have believed the Gospel will bear good fruit; those who have not believed the Gospel will only produce bad fruit.