What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? 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 action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
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 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.
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? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
Activism is alive and well, and pushing agendas at many fronts. And though there’s a place for it for Christians in advocating for the poor and broken, for those who have no voice of their own, the works spoken of here and in scripture are largely those that come from God’s now messianic community. Those which are present in Christ. Our faith is empty, if it doesn’t show itself in good works for others, particularly for those who need help.
What James cites here are works of a very practical down to earth manner, which are near to the heart of God (see James 1:26-27). And obedience even when one can’t understand, but just knows that this is something God wants. But the latter are simply cited as examples from scripture (which is our Old Testament now) to back what James was saying to the readers. James’ application is taken up with the former: simply doing good works for those in need.
James was the pastor of the church in Jerusalem, which was well known for taking care of its own. Before the persecution which scattered the believers from there, people used to sell property and lay the money at the apostles’ feet to distribute where need be, so that everyone was taken care of among them (Acts 4:32-37). That doesn’t mean that people could simply live off others, or that handouts were (or are) the answer. The believers in Judea and Jerusalem for whatever reasons were known to be poor in comparison to many believers elsewhere, though not being wealthy was no stranger to many of the believers at that time. But Christians were well known for taking care of each other, as well as helping elsewhere. It was not a faith that made a big issue of the belief differences, even though such differences both on a basic paradigmatic, as well as ethical level were radical. They showed the difference which the Lordship of Jesus, and the community in Jesus made in stark contrast to the world of Caesar and Rome.
Today, what are we Christians known for? True, the world won’t give us any benefit of the doubt, unless somehow we’re compromising in giving into the world’s agenda and even that’s a bit complicated and can be misunderstood. It’s not like there’s no overlap. But the difference Christ makes should be readily apparent both on a collective, as well as individual level. Not only did the church in Jerusalem and elsewhere do well at times, but individuals such as Dorcas and Cornelius as we see in Acts, did a world of good themselves. What are we known for and why? That is an important question for our witness to the gospel. Does our heart beat where God’s heart beats (James 1:27a)? Or are we off in what could just as much be the world’s agenda as our own? There is more than one line we could fill in there. But there’s also many things we can do which express a genuine faith in Jesus, truly Christian through and through. In and through him.