“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works. You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that—and tremble with fear.

“But would you like evidence, you empty fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? You see that his faith was working together with his works and his faith was perfected by works. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Now Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And similarly, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”
~James 2:14-26

Judging by the attention this passage gets on the internet, it seems this is a very perplexing subject among Christians. To be honest, I’ve struggled myself now and then to find the balance that James is trying to convey here. But I believe I’ve come to peace with my understanding of its true meaning, and I think the image below captures it best:

First, let’s look at this logically. Faith alone is a matter of profession, right? And I think we would all agree that works are a matter of action. My question then, would be:

  • Would Noah’s faith alone have saved him and his family (and by extension, all of humanity) through the flood, had he not built the Ark?
  • Would Abraham’s faith alone have been enough to birth the nation of Israel, had he not first acted on that faith and left his home to go to the land God was giving Him?
  • Would Israel have survived the night of Passover on faith alone, had they not applied the blood of the lamb to their doorposts?
  • Would Israel have ever gotten out of Egypt on faith alone, had Moses (or someone else of God’s choosing) not obeyed God and returned to Egypt?
  • Would we have the scriptures today recording all these events, had men moved by the Holy Spirit not written?
  • How about all those mentioned in Hebrews 11? Not one of them accomplished anything on faith alone. Rather, their faith was made complete through their actions, making it possible for them to accomplish the things for which they are commended.

Over and over throughout the Bible we are commanded to act. Even Jesus said in John 14:15, “If you love me you will keep my commandments”. In fact, this is the one of the most compelling illustrations of the relationship between faith and works.

  1. We keep His commandments because we love Him.
  2. We love Him because He first loved us and gave Himself on our behalf to save us from our sins. Then called us and granted us the faith to believe.
  3. We acted on that faith and were reconciled to Him and He now resides within us.
  4. Because He resides within us, we are able to love Him.
  5. Because we love Him, we keep His commandments.
  6. Thus, our obedience, in tandem with our faith, proves the genuineness of our salvation and His residing presence.
But what are we to make of Ephesians 2:8-9, which says…

“For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast.”

Or how about, Romans 4:1-5:

“What then shall we say that Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh, has discovered regarding this matter? For if Abraham was declared righteous by works, he has something to boast about—but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed Godand it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his pay is not credited due to grace but due to obligation. But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness.”

Salvation by Grace through Faith Alone

These verses seem to throw a wrench in this faith/works concept, don’t they? At first glance, at least. Read in context, however, the first thing we notice about these verses is the presence of the concepts regarding grace and justification, which is conspicuously absent from James 2:14-26. James is not concerning himself with this teaching, because he is addressing those who already seem to have an understanding of these things. Not so with Paul.

In both Ephesians and Romans Paul makes it clear that he is addressing Gentile believers, some of whom may have feared exclusion from the faith because they were not Jewish. Others were misled into believing they must be circumcised and/or adhere to the Jewish Law, in addition to their faith. All of which Paul refutes in His letters. On the contrary, he reassures them that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone for all, apart from identity or works of the Law.

James, on the other hand, is writing to Jewish believers who are moving in the opposite direction of those Paul is addressing. These are those who profess faith and acceptance in Christ, but live as though they are not obligated to do anything else in keeping with their salvation. A concept James says isn’t genuine Christianity. And to which he replies, Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works (James 2:18). 

Works of the Law vs. Good Works in Christ

It’s important also to note that James in contrast to Paul, is not referring to works of the Law, but to good works in Christ. The Bible tells us, “We are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them.” ~Ephesians 2:10. And, “It is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” ~Philippians 2:13 NASB (emphases mine).

In other words, since we were created for good works, and the will and desire for those good works are instilled in us through the work of the Holy Spirit upon salvation, it stands to reason that our new nature would direct us toward these good works, just as it directs us away from sin. Therefore, at the very least, we should experience some degree of discontentment in our walk with Him if we choose to do nothing more than believe. If not, we should be concerned about the validity of the faith we profess. This is what James meant when he said, “You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that—and tremble with fear”. James 2:19

In Conclusion

We cannot earn salvation, it is entirely a work of grace through faith. But faith by itself, that does not result in good works, proves itself to be a dead faith, unable to save anyone. Because good works authenticate saving faith.

“You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill cannot be hidden. People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven.” ~Matthew 5:14-16 (Emphasis mine)

Additional Reading:

Faith and Works: Paul vs. James“Faith alone saves, but faith that is alone is not the genuine article. It’s not saving faith.” ©1995 Gregory Koukl

  1. Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2016 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.
  2. Cover Image by Nici Keil from Pixabay