We are studying James 2:14-26 for Sunday, August 16 – the source of the often-quoted Biblical saying “faith without works is dead.” [Some notes on the text are here, and here.] We studied this text not too long ago in our class, and the questions on the text at that time remain relevant, but here are a couple of additional questions based on the text we might want to consider either in addition to or instead of those:
What does the author mean by “faith”? How can we tell? How does it compare to what we mean by “faith”?
What does the author mean by “works”? How can we tell? [Hint: What examples of “works” does the author give in verses 15-16, 21, and 25?] How does this compare to what we usually mean by “works”?
What makes Abraham (verses 21-23) and Rahab (verse 25) examples of faith? Does this illustrate the author’s point, or not? Why?
This passage begins, in verse 14, with the words “What good is it, my brothers [and sisters], if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” In context, this is a rhetorical question; we can tell the answers are supposed to be “No good at all; no.” What if it weren’t a rhetorical question, but rather an actual question? Would we give different answers? Why?
[More theological, but also more personal] What do we think is at stake in our answer to this question? [For instance: Do we think this has something to do with “what people have to do to be ‘saved’?” Or, something to do with how people should try to live? Or, something else?]
Overall: One thing this passage does, or can do, for Christians is make us confront our own thinking about Christianity and the Christian life. The perennial question of “what do people have to do to be saved?” is not – I think this is clear – really the question that preoccupies James. The vocabulary of “justification” may obscure that for post-Reformation era Christians, because of the technical theological meanings we have attached to that word. The question of salvation, whether we have it, what we have to do or do not have to do to secure it, etc. does, however, preoccupy a lot of Christians.
In the church I grew up in, “salvation” was almost the entire focus of Christian preaching and teaching and “witnessing.” It was easy to get the idea that the only thing Christians cared about was whether or not we were saved, and after that question was answered, nothing else really mattered. Of course people ought to be good; people ought to live like Christians. But that wasn’t the main point, ultimately, or it wasn’t supposed to be.
I’m sure the people of that church meant well. But I think that version of Christianity deserves to die.