Yesterday we hit one of the most famous statements in the New Testament: “Faith without works is dead.” But reading the whole passage, short as it is, shows us just how often we misuse this passage.
Way too often we use the bible as a proof text for whatever theology we want to espouse. It is the reason one of my guiding theological principles is context, context, context. “Without context, any text is simply a pretext for saying whatever you want.”
In speaking of faith, James is not speaking about a belief that doesn’t result in obedience. And that is the context where I’ve regularly heard this passage used. Frustrated and disgruntled life-long Christians who have worked to obey every law they can accuse others of not working hard enough to obey. “Your faith without works is dead,” they say.
But James is speaking specifically about caring for the poor. “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.” He is speaking to those who value their own spiritual well-being over another’s physical well-being. “I don’t need to help the poor as long as I’m obedient in my own lifestyle.”
James is making much the opposite point from the way his writing is often used. I can only imagine his frustration.