The word of the day is “doer.” In our reading of James 1:19-27, we confront the teaching that we must be “doers of the Word and not hearers only” (vs. 22). This instruction immediately calls to mind the controversy between “faith and works” that has raged in the Western church since the Reformation. The issue has so prejudiced our reading that James is often treated as a foil to the teaching of Paul on grace.
But let us clear our minds to hear the message of this passage. Let’s begin with the question, “What, after all, are ‘works’ (vs. 2:14)?” The Greek word for “works” means simply “acts” or a “deeds” (Strong’s #2041, 102). They are what “doers of the Word” do.
Works Make Faith Complete
But what do works accomplish? Do they build up some kind of “merit” that earns salvation? Hardly. The apostle does ask, Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac, his son on the altar (vs.2:21)? That is to ask, “Did not God consider Abraham righteous (Strong’s #1344, 68 ) because of what he did?”’ But listen to the apostle: “Do you see that faith was working together with his works and by works faith was made perfect (vs. 2:22)?” The Greek word that is here translated as “perfect,” means to “complete” (Strong’s #5048). Abraham’s faith was carried out to its conclusion when he bound Isaac on the altar of sacrifice.
The apostle states that those who are “hearers only” deceive themselves (vs. 1:22). They are like those who see themselves in a mirror but who walk away and forget what manner of person was reflected in the mirror (vs. 23). Their glimpse of themselves was in vain. They looked, but they did not see. So their sight was not complete.
So also faith is completed by one’s deeds. Deeds are a natural and outward expression of inner faith (Matthew 7:18). Faith looks into the “law of liberty,” that is the Word of Life, and sees what we truly are. Then, it acts on what it sees in repentance, amendment of life, in acts of mercy, etc.
The Teachings of Jesus on Hearing and Doing
The problem of dwelling on the contrast between faith and works is that we set aside the teachings of the Lord Jesus. For example, in the Parable of the Sower and the Seed, the hearing of the Word remains incomplete and unproductive unless it is sown in good soil. Then it yields a harvest, bearing fruit a hundred, sixty or thirty times over (Matthew 13:23). St. Paul prays in Colossians “that you may walk worthy of the Lord, being fruitful in every good work…” (vs. 1:10). Thus we can say that the good soil in which the Word is planted by faith brings forth “good work’s, for, as we see in Paul’s prayer, “bearing fruit” is a metaphor for “good works.”
Then too, the Lord concludes His Sermon on the Mount with a parable that speaks of “hearing and doing” His teaching. He says, “Therefore whoever hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on a rock” (Matthew 7:24-27) (Luke 6-46-49.) To “build one’s house” is to build the life, hope, concern, and purpose in which one dwells. If one hears and does what the Lord teaches, he builds his life on a firm foundation that no flood can sweep away. But if one does not hear and do the Word of the Lord, he builds on sand that is unstable and soon is carried away by the storms of life.
Once again, hearing, even believing, the teaching of Christ Himself is not enough. Not enough for what? For discipleship, for faithfulness, for growth in grace, for walking in the Spirit, for bearing abundant fruit, for loving God and neighbor. The Lord Jesus Christ expects that his Word would be put into practice. One may grasp the point of His teachings, but that is mere head knowledge compared to the heart’s wisdom that faithfully follows His instructions.
Often, the thinking that dwells on the contrast between faith and works has a negative tone. When we insist on one or the other, “good works” are treated as demands, requirements, and duties that take exceptional spiritual exertion so that they accomplish their goal. However, recall the words of the apostle in 1 John: “By this, we know that we love the children of God when we love God and keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” 1 John 5:2-3). The Orthodox Study Bible comments: “We live these commandments by faith and in God’s love, which makes them light on our fallen nature. They are hard and rough only to those who are living a sinful life.” That the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who suffer makes even suffering sweet” (OSB fn. on 5:3).
The Lord who said, “Come to me all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest… for my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matthew 11:28-30 passium) does not heap on us obligations too demanding for us to bear. But He gently leads us in the green pastures of peace, rest, and nurture for our souls. He who fulfilled the Law for us sends His Spirit to work in us so that our faith might be completed by doing His will.