What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds [mitzvah...holy action]? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 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? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by holy action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds [mitzvah].” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds [mitzvah] is useless. Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 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. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
……As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds [mitzvah] is dead.
These are famously problematic verses for Protestants. It was verses like these that led Luther to dismiss James as “an epistle of straw”. Thankfully, almost all commentators rightly say that Luther misunderstood James because he rather arbitrarily creating a canon within a canon around his particular reading of justification by faith alone. James’ overt meanings clashed with his theological hermeneutic and was therefore effectively marginalized from Luther’s working canon of Scripture. Apparently he had some problems with Jesus’s teachings as well (e.g. Matt.25).
But this thinking still persists in so many circles. Most protestants find it hard to talk meaningfully about the true meaning of goodness expressed variously through holy actions on our behalf. We seldom call people to a life of good works. And this in turn, affects how we view discipleship--the task of becoming actively and genuinely good people out of union with Christ and following in His Way.
Luther and so many after him, have misunderstood the nature of Jewish faith and caricatured it is a crass works-righteousness. While perhaps in the time of the NT, the Jewish religion was somewhat degraded and in need of renewal, nothing could be further from the truth in relationship to Jewish theology itself. In the passage above, James is simply reflecting what is already implicit in monotheism--the call to live according to a what I call Shema spirituality (loving God with heart, soul, mind, strength). There is one God (not many) and we must learn to worship Him in and through every arena and aspect of life. For monotheism, ethics is implied in belief, that’s why it is called ethical monotheism. Or as Bonhoeffer said it, to encounter God is to change.
I read the following in Abraham Heschel recently. I think it helps us understand James’ consistent, and profoundly, biblical meaning.
What is the Jewish way to God? It is not a way of ascending the ladder of speculation. Our understanding of God is not the triumphant outcome of an assault upon the riddles of the universe or a donation we receive in return for intellectual surrender. Our understanding comes by the way of mitzvah. By living as Jews we attain our faith as Jews. We do not have faith in deeds; we attain faith through deeds.
When Moses recounted to the people the laws of the covenant with God, the people responded: “We will do and we will hear.” This statement was interpreted to mean: In doing we perceive.
A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought: to surpass his needs, to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does. In carrying out the word of the Torah he is ushered into the presence of spiritual meaning. Through the ecstasy of deeds he learns to be certain of the presence of God.
(A.Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity)
It is pretty clear here as to what the center of Jewish faith is. The mitzvah! -- a holy deed of goodness done from within a loving and obedient covenantal relationship to the God that commands. A mitzvah is an act of obedience and is this also a means of unique spiritual insight. Obedience (and therefore obedient action) is a loving response to our Lord. It is not, and was never meant to be the basis of salvation. Salvation has always been an act of God’s sovereign grace..we simply respond. But the mode of our response is primarily through obedience and active trust and not simply through a primarily intellectual affirmation of certain truths.
So what I am saying that from a biblical perspective, faith is not primarily intellectual speculation, nor adopting a kind of philosophy, or even engaging in theological thinking. Even believing itself--as a distinctly confessional act--is not central. This treat says as much--even the Devil “believes” in this way, and shudders, but yet he still refuses to submit to God’s rule and obey. Obedience is demonstrated faith or it is non biblical faith. It is through loving obedience, by presenting our bodies as living sacrifices, and living a life of intentional conformity to God and his commands, that we live an authentic life of faith-ful-ness.
“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my instructions, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” - John 8:31-32 [italics mine].