There’s a statement in James that we’re all familiar with: “faith without works is dead.” While we can all agree James makes this statement, we don’t always agree on what it means. Citing other scriptures that say we’re justified by faith without works, some argue that a faithful Christian isn’t obligated to do things like obey God’s law or perform good deeds.
But “faith without works is dead” isn’t a statement James makes casually. It’s part of a larger teaching he’s sharing and it’s also part of an analogy that goes like this: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead“ (James 2:26, LEB).
In this analogy, faith is like our bodies and works are like our spirits. James is telling us that works give life to our faith in the same way the spirit in man gives life to our bodies. This is in response to a rhetorical question he asked earlier in the epistle: “Can we be saved by faith without works?” The answer he gives is “no.”
Believing Isn’t Enough
Faith is essential. It’s impossible to please God without faith, “for he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6, KJV). But it’s not the only thing God is looking for in His people.
Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself. Yes, a man will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith. (James 2:17-18, WEB)
We show our faith by doing works. The state of our heart comes out in the real-world actions we take and words we speak. Many other scriptures point out that works mean nothing without faith, but James makes clear that faith is also dead without works. They have to go together. If your faith isn’t driving your actions, then it’s empty.
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe, and shudder! But do you want to know, O foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? (James 2:19-20, LEB)
It’s easy to read over the seriousness of this statement. But what James is saying is that if you believe in God and your conviction in His existence doesn’t make you do what He says, then your level of faith isn’t any higher than that of the demons.
Faith is meant to move us. Not everyone who professes to know Christ (even if they’re doing some works that look good) will end up in His kingdom. Only those who do His Father’s will — combining belief with action — enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 7:21-23).
But there’s still the question of scriptures that seem to contradict James’ statement. Since the scriptures cannot lie, how do we have James asking, “Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works, in that he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?” and Paul stating ” if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not toward God” (Rom. 4:2; James 2:21, WEB). What’s going on? was Abraham justified by works, or wasn’t he?
The key is context. Paul is discussing the Law’s role in the New Covenant. His point is that everyone has fallen under the death penalty by breaking God’s law and no matter how carefully we obey we can’t save ourselves. Salvation only comes through Jesus Christ. Abraham’s faith “was counted unto him for righteousness” because he “believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly,” not because he earned salvation by working. God doesn’t owe anyone anything for their good works (Rom. 4:3-4, KJV).
Now James’ writings step in to clarify Paul’s point by once again using Abraham as an example. He wants us to “see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect.” Because Abraham’s faith was genuine it produced actions, which in tern demonstrated the quality of his faith. And so we can say “that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. ” (James 2:22-24,LEB).
Works by themselves have no effect. Faith by itself is dead. But melded together in a person they create someone like Abraham — a friend of God. Real faith is living, active, and makes us take actions in accordance with God’s word.
Choose Living Faith
This brings us right back to where we started: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” This analogy sums-up a discussion that started with an instruction to “be doers of the word, and not only hearers” (James 1:22, WEB). That led to talking about fulfilling the “royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,'” and then to what happens when we don’t follow those commands.
But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. (James 2:9-11, KV)
That’s why we all need the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, ” for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23, WEB). We’re transgressors of the law and the only way to forgiveness is through Jesus. Yet even those in relationship with Him will face judgement at the end of our lives. Some will hear a good verdict, some will not (Matt. 25:1-46).
So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:12-13)
Our Judge wants to be merciful and exercise generosity. He’s eager to wipe away our transgressions and give us a fresh start. In a very real sense, though, we’re the ones who determine what judgement we receive by how we live our lives now. Our actions matter to God. He’ll be there to keep forgiving us, to give us strength, and guide our steps. But we’re expected to be actively involved in our faith, not passive recipients of His grace.
Once we accept Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and begin our conversion journey, the works we do attest to the condition of our faith. Will we keep coming back to God and following Him with a living faith shown in our actions? or will we acknowledge His existence but stagnate in a spiritually dead state? Either our faith is dead or it’s alive. And that’s up to us.