“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself” (James 2:14-17, HCSB).
If you are like me, reading these verses as well as going through the entire book of James is probably a very convicting experience but also a very confirming one. I say this because nearly with every single verse in this book I have found myself in the position of the people James is criticizing. I have found myself in the shoes of the rich man, the arrogant man, the man who cannot control his tongue, and the man without wisdom. I have been able to feel the weight of James lambasting these people, and I’m sure some of you have felt the same. These verses today are no exception to this bombardment of conviction.
Throughout his letter thus far, we have seen James scrutinize his fellow believers both rich and poor in reference to their lifestyles, and this trend continues in our text today. It seems the group of people James is criticizing is people who have a false faith. And it is not false because they overtly deny the resurrection of Christ or the God revealed in Jesus. James identity these people as confessing Christians. It is false because it lacks works. There is no substance to it. And these verses are not isolated from the rest of the letter but they are the natural progression of James letter to this point because before this passage James defines what true faith looks like in chapter 1. He writes, “Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).
True and pure religion has two standards on which it either rises or falls: 1) doing good to others, and 2) keeping the self removed from the sins of the world. This verse probably defines James’s letter better than does any other, and he says purity is more than just abstaining from sin. It involves the constant pursuit of doing good toward others. John Piper puts it this way: “I cannot treat purity as a bit of parsley offered as an optional embellishment beside the meat of Christian faith” (1). Purity is essential to the Christian life, so for our purposes today, we will see James demonstrate how pure religion manifests itself in the first standard: doing good works.
He starts by asking a rhetorical question to his audience, “Can faith without works save a person? What good does this kind of faith do?” The implication of the question is clearly “no,” because he will go on to call faith without works dead in verse 17. He’ll go on to use even stronger language than this in verses 18-26. He calls Abraham and Rahab justified by their works, and he will state one cannot demonstrate faith without works. Immediately this raises red flags in the minds of many Christian, especially Protestants. Is this a clear refutation of Sola Fide? Faith alone? Even more so, does this strong language contradict Paul, who emphatically states in Romans chapters 4 and 8 that God alone justifies by grace through faith apart from works. Paul even says, “But to the one who does not work, but believes on Him who declares the ungodly to be righteous, his faith is credited for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). So, do we have a clear contradiction?
I would submit to you the answer is no, and I think a clear indication of this is the very fact that James and Romans are in the canon of Scripture in the first place. Not only would God ensure His Church is not led by contradictions in terms of theology and practice because James himself confirms there is no variation or shifting of shadow with God (1:17) but also the early Church would have been all too familiar with this conflict over the long period of time they spent deliberating on what writings were consistent with orthodox, Christian faith. The idea they could have missed something as blatant and confrontational as this I find rather unlikely. So, how did the early Church understand the relationship between these verses? And what does God intend for us to know about the Christian life today? The key to understanding this alleged conflict is found in asking at what point do these works arise? Where is the emphasis for the Christian life? Are they to be summoned by the individual person prior to being saved? Must the believer pick themselves up by their own bootstraps to achieve salvation, or do they only appear with salvation?
Throughout Scripture we find what a person could read and call (and bear with me here for a minute) conditions for salvation. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus emphasizes the need for forgiveness of others like in the parable of the unmerciful servant. Those who do not forgive will not be forgiven by God. In the verses prior to our passage today, James says, “For judgment is without mercy to the one who hasn’t shown mercy.” Even with Paul himself, there are several places within his writings which mandate good works to his readers. Galatians 6:7-8 says, “Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows he will also reap, because the one who sows to his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit.” So, there are clear and unmistakable commands for committing good actions and abstaining from sin, and some of these texts explicitly say failure to do so means eternal death. So how do we understand these passages since it is God who justifies?
I find John’s first letter to be an incredibly helpful guide to bringing this question into the proper light. John writes, “If we say, ‘We have fellowship with Him,’ yet we walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth. But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:6-7). So what is John arguing? It seems he is saying there is a necessary connection between the profession of faith by Christians and how they live. He, as well as James, is identifying a false faith which claims to be of God and yet behave like the world. And the way he structures verse 7 can be properly understood as him submitting the evidence of genuine faith is good works. Notice how he does not say, “But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, then we have fellowship.” Rather, he says, “But if we walk in the light, we have fellowship.” In other words, there is not a causal connection between walking in light and then having fellowship; they are simultaneous. If you walk in the light, you have fellowship with other believers, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses you from all sin.
Therefore, one can be totally consistent in affirming the words of Paul while affirming James mandates for works and faith, because before God’s intervention in our lives we were dead. We were dead in sin not wanting God, His love, His ways, His goodness, or anything else He offers us. Nothing. We wanted ourselves and our glory, but through revealing the Holy Spirit to us we have seen the glory of God made manifest through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have believed and now stand by faith and the evidence of this fact is the Holy Spirit within us who guides us and reminds us of the promises of God.
The presence of the Holy Spirit is especially relevant because in ancient philosophy arose the question of the Euthyphro Dilemma which asks whether God wills something because it is good or something is good because God wills it. The dilemma is meant to divide goodness from God and either places it above God or make goodness arbitrary to whatever God wants. The typical Christian response is that this has been a false dichotomy. There is another option. Namely, God wills something because He is the Good. Goodness and God are synonyms, and we understand Goodness in its generic sense because of God’s grace toward all humanity to understand to some extent what is Good so we may know Him. If you are a believer in the Gospel this is especially crucial because this means the Holy Spirit, God or the Good, rests inside of you. Therefore, we don’t have to strive towards the Good because the Good has striven for us and has placed Himself inside of us so that we may be saved. There is no hypocrisy or contradiction within the Kingdom of God, so if we profess faith in Christ yet live like the world we prove ourselves liars and the truth is not in us.
Therefore, we see that these “conditions” for salvation mentioned earlier are not actually conditions at all; rather, they are the necessary result of the supernatural change of heart we receive as Christians. Is this not what Jesus says? “You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit” (Matthew 7:16-18). Our faith in Jesus Christ is the root of the tree, while the fruit is the work. A tree with good roots will produce fruit, but a tree without roots cannot produce any fruit which is pleasing unto God. So, the works of a Christian life are not a precondition of salvation but rather the result of a natural progression. We don’t work to salvation; we work from it. This is the Gospel of God’s grace, and we know who has received it by their lifestyles, the fruit they produce.
But, do not fall into the danger of developing a works quota where you must do a certain amount of works to prove your salvation; rather, wait on the Lord’s timing. Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Wait on God to provide these opportunities and pray and even fast so that you may walk faithfully into these situations as Christ would.
But, this still doesn’t answer the question why is faith without works dead? The text seems to give four reasons, and I want to examine these one at a time.
The first reason is because faith without works offers lip-service without following through with action. Look at the example James gives us. In this illustration the interaction is one between two professing Christians. In line with his dichotomies between the poor and the rich throughout his epistle, the interaction is between a Christian without good clothes and daily food and a professing Christian with both. As Zondervan points out, the saying, “Go in peace,” takes the form of a prayer or benediction (2). Many churches do the same in their benediction. This person is actually praying that God meets his neighbor’s need without realizing his role in that process. This attitude is a primary characteristic of false faith which Scripture chastises for its superficiality. In Amos, God says He hates and despises the offerings given by the Israelites because of their injustices. In fact, the LORD declares, “Take away from Me the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream” (5:23-24). He is saying He rejects the praises of His own people because their lifestyles don’t mirror their worship. They are putting up a front in the religious circles while living unrighteously in their own lives. This fulfills what Christ says to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 that by paying their tithe yet neglecting justice, mercy, and faith they strain their water to avoid swallowing a gnat, yet the gulp down a camel. (Which is a hilarious image, by the way. One can imagine a guy picking the gnats out of his drink and yet sees a camel in there, but he just treats it as a fact of life like the coffee grains at the bottom of a cup.)
The second reason it is dead is because faith without works produces no fruit. We cannot show the world the glory and supremacy of Christ if our lives are plagued with unrepentant sin or we refuse to love our neighbor, and instead live like everyone else. How will people know we belong to Christ? How can one make disciples while unrepentantly being bogged down by the sin which so easily entangles? Repentance is more than just guilt or feeling sorry, it is the active striving away from sin by the power of the Holy Spirit. If sin entangles us, we become much more concerned with preserving and hiding the sin rather than being free to accomplish the will of God. Paul in Galatians 5:13 says, “For you were called to be free, brothers; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love.” Christ has set us free to do good, not to have security in sin. In fact, Hebrews states there is no security for people who act this way (10:26).
The third reason it is dead is because faith without works damages the body of Christ. To be a Christian is to be within a community of believers all striving toward the same goal: the glorification of Christ and the salvation of others. There is a great variety of persons within the Church from different backgrounds, whether rich or poor, black or white, domestic or foreign, etc. and to refuse to do good towards these people damages our relationship to them. What we all have in common is Christ, so how can we neglect their well being and their needs when they’ve been called by the same Lord we have? Can you imagine how the poor Christian felt in James’s illustration when a fellow brother basically told him, “Good luck,” and just walked away. This hostility does not belong to believers. It merely causes divisions and places mistrust and doubt within people’s hearts. The role of the Christian is to bring unity, trust, and assurance. To do otherwise is to tear apart the body, so flee from the churches which do these things.
The fourth reason it is dead is because faith without works abuses the grace of God. Without the pursuit of purity in the Christian life, faith without works does not abstain from the sin which leads to death; rather, it resides in sin and expects deliverance anyway. There is no greater blasphemy than to take the sin which Christ died to set us free from and condone or even encourage it in our own lives or in the lives of others. If we take the grace of God through the atoning death of Christ seriously, there exists no room in our lives for the toleration of sin or the negligence of good works both of which are necessary results of the work God has already accomplished in our lives through His Holy Spirit. As 1 John 3:3 says, “[E]veryone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure.” Let us pray.
Eternal God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thank You for the grace which You pour out on us abundantly. You’ve given us forgiveness and a changed heart so that we may not sin, but if we do sin, we know we have an advocate with the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ. Father, thank You for Your good and perfect will. Christ our Lord, thank You for Your humble obedience and accomplished work for our salvation. Blessed Holy Spirit, thank You for the work Your continuing in our lives and will see to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. Humble our hearts and harden our resolve against sin and apathy. Spur us to do good for those both within and outside of the Church as we wait in anticipation for the day when we see the Good face to face. In Jesus’ name and for Jesus’ name we pray; amen.
“Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good reserve for the age to come, so that they may take hold of life that is real” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
2: Blomberg, Craig, and Mariam J Kamell. James. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.