By David Janssen
Do you have china dishes in a china cabinet at your house? We do. My wife was given a set when she was young, and ever since we got married, we have been moving boxes of them around with us. Now in Sandy, Utah, we even have a nice oak cabinet to hold our china!
This last move, though, was the last straw. We needed to either start using the china or get rid of it because we almost never used it. Unfortunately, like china in a cabinet, our faith in Jesus Christ can sometimes be “just for display.”
In our commitment to accurately interpret Jas 2:14-26, we may miss the main application of the text. James is a book about sanctification, written to believers focusing on their works in vv 2:14-26. It is not about our works being part of our justification before God. A sanctification interpretation is critical to understanding the passage, but applying the main point of the passage to our lives is the final step.
James’ main point: A believer’s faith must be put into action to be useful. James makes it clear in the example he gives at the beginning of his discussion (2:14-16) that the subject of 2:14-26 is “usefulness”. James starts (2:14) and ends (2:16) with similar phrases, both of which contain the word “use” (NASB) applied to helping a fellow believer with immediate physical needs.
“What use is it, my brethren, if . . .” (Jas 2:14 NASB, emphasis added).
“. . . what use is that?” (Jas 2:16 NASB, emphasis added).
The topic of this section of James is the usefulness of a believer’s faith. The word “use” is the idea of “good” (ESV, NIV), “benefit,” or “profit” (NKJV). The point James is making is that a believer’s faith is not helpful to another believer who is hungry unless that believer provides some food. He is not questioning the readers’ faith in Jesus Christ (acknowledged in 2:1), but he is questioning the present, temporal value of their faith if they are not acting on it!
Our good works are not a factor in receiving, confirming, proving or maintaining eternal life. Our faith in Jesus Christ is designed to do good works as part of our sanctification. By doing good works, our faith is useful and beneficial to others and ourselves. This is the point of Jas 2:14-26.
Three Examples of Useful Faith
James includes three examples of faith being useful: 1) Giving a fellow believer basic physical supplies they need, 2) Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, and 3) Rahab hiding and protecting the Israeli spies.
By way of application from example 1, our faith is useful when we provide physical needs to other believers. This is probably the main application James wants to express to his readers because the next two examples are unique, specific, historical situations and hence are not as directly applicable.
Providing for the physical needs of a fellow believer will take a variety of forms depending on the situation. Here are some suggestions of what “meeting physical needs” might look like at a suburban church in America.
Giving a family a $200 gift card to a grocery store because the father is between jobs, or paying for a $180 prescription for someone who doesn’t have the money. Taking three small children for the weekend so the parents can get some much-needed rest. A very real physical need!
Going to court with a friend whose son is facing charges for stealing, might meet a very real (emotional) need in the family’s life.
Providing a free room and board at your house for a few months for a divorced woman who is trying to become financially self-sufficient.
The Usefulness of Abraham’s Faith
Applying the principle of Abraham’s action would mean obeying what God tells us to do in His Word. As we obey, we mature spiritually (Abraham’s actions helped him mature [“perfected” Jas 2:22]). Obedience is how our faith is made useful. Acknowledging the fact the Lord does not require believers to be willing to sacrifice their children, there are many other things the Lord does ask us to do which can be very difficult in certain circumstances. For example, deciding to be faithful to your very difficult and unresponsive spouse instead of committing adultery has lifelong positive consequences including spiritual growth.
The Usefulness of Rahab’s Faith
We are following Rahab’s example when we protect other believers from harm, like Rahab protected the Jewish spies from harm. Once again, this would be useful for those being protected and for us. Rahab’s faith was useful enough to deliver her and her relatives from physical death and destruction (Josh 6:23). Today we might help and protect a believer from being taken advantage of when dealing with legal issues such as taxes and divorce.
The examples of Abraham and Rahab are specific decisions made at critical times in their lives. The focus is not on their lives being characterized by numerous good works. Sometimes a specific decision we make to obey the Lord is a key turning point in our life. Whether or not we marry a follower of Jesus Christ is certainly an example of a specific, moment-in-time decision with lifelong significance.
This list of three examples in James is not an exhaustive list of works or a complete list of categories because of the frequent use of the general word “works” (12 times in Jas 2:14-26). Rather, it is a short list of specific examples to support the main point: Our faith needs to be acted on to be useful.
Stated negatively, James says, “faith without works is useless” (Jas 2:20 NASB, emphasis added) and rephrased “faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:26 NASB, emphasis added). James’ use of the word “dead” means “useless” in this context. He concludes this section with a focus on the uselessness of faith without works (Jas 2:20,26) in contrast to the potential usefulness of a faith that takes action (Jas 2:14,16) at the beginning of this section. The bookends (or “inclusio”) of the contrasting concepts of “use” (Jas 2:14,16), and “useless” or “dead” (Jas 2:20,26), support the main point of “usefulness” of a believers faith in this temporal, physical life.
Putting China to Good Use!
My wife had no trouble deciding what to do with the china. If you come to our house for lunch or dinner, we will bring out the china dishes—even if we are serving hot dogs! We put them to good use. How useful is your faith? Do you take it out of the “china cabinet,” get it dirty, and put it to use? That’s what it’s designed for.
David Janssen is the Equipping Pastor of Grace Community Bible Church in Sandy, UT.