“Love” is a lot of things, but let there be no mistake, love is active. Love is a verb. Love is something you do.
So too is “faith.” We may “believe” certain things to be true. We might give “mental ascent” to a concept. We can even intellectualize fine sounding arguments for why something is true (like a lot of things on this very blog, right?). But until action is added into the mix, what we have isn’t “faith.” Faith is something you do.
You keep the royal law, as it is written, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”; if you do this, you will do well. (2:8)
Supposing a brother or sister is without clothing, and is short even of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; be warm, be full!” — but doesn’t give them what their bodies need — what use is that? In the same way, faith, all by itself and without works, is dead. (2:15-17)
Since the beginning of humanity’s relationship with God there have been people who have focused only on what one does. This compartmentalization can be convenient. We get to lay out the right way to live and once we have accomplished that we can pat ourselves on our self-assured backs. There have also been people who have focused on what one believes. One, therefore, does not have to worry about how those beliefs should shape one’s actions. We get to go about life our way not getting too involved in other people’s problems nor letting our religious views interfere with the rest of our life.
Both of those extremes are problematic. Focus on “doing” and it becomes easy to think you have done it all. This becomes a religion of self-reliance and that which only God can do is forgotten. Focus on “believing” and it becomes easy to think God has done it all. That can easily become a religion of complacent “cheap grace” and our role is forgotten.
People have noted that the views of Paul and James seem to be at odds, especially when you talk about the role of faith and works in salvation. But could the solution to this perception be this simple? Paul was talking to people who overemphasized actions to the point where grace and the need for Jesus had been eliminated (like what we saw in Galatians). James was addressing people on the other end of the spectrum who were quick to tell you about their great faith (2:18-19) but didn’t do much to show it (2:15-16). When dealing with people holding extreme views, you play up the part they are neglecting in order that they may come back to the middle where all parts are present and appreciated. Had we an opportunity to talk to Paul and James together and ask them about their own personal views on faith and works maybe we would find they actually held very similar views. And both would likely remind us that over and above this whole conversation about faith and works we have to remember that the Spirit works through us, so without the Spirit our works don’t amount to much.
In today’s passage James describes “faith” as something that has to have belief (2:19) and works (2:18) in order to be alive (2:17, 20, 26), full (2:22), and justifying (2:24). Belief by itself is not enough; works by themselves are not enough. Maybe for too long our definition of faith has been too small. Faith and works aren’t two separate things. “Faith” only exists when works are present. In other words faith is this larger idea that contains the smaller component we call works. Belief would be another component as well. Bottomline, James reminds us that faith is something we do.
Likewise, love is more than just a feeling that creates actions, as if love and actions are separate things. “Love” has within it feelings, but also actions. It is not enough to feel some sort of fellowship with people who calls themselves Christians. One has to allow those feelings to shape our actions, for instance, in such a way that favoritism is banished from the way we deal with others (2:1-10). We are loving when we do love to others. Until we treat our neighbors like we would want to be treat we have no business claiming to be loving (2:8). Love is something we do.