What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! (James 2:14-19).
The other day, a friend and I were talking about v. 14. Notice the question it asks: “If someone says he has faith but does not have works, can that faith same him?”
This is something where I think we can get too wishy-washy. We know that we are not the judges of who gets into heaven and who isn’t. And we know that we cannot know the eternal condition of someone’s soul: ultimately, we do not know who is saved and who is not.
And also, being good Protestants, you probably espouse Sola Fide, “Faith Alone”: that salvation comes through faith alone in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It cannot be earned by your deeds. You cannot build your own stairway to heaven. You are utterly dependent on God to save you. And to all these things, I say “Yes! And Amen!”
Let there be no mistake: I believe these things, and I teach these things.
The problem arises when we don’t like the answer to the question of v. 14. “If someone says he has faith but does not have works, can that faith save him?” The answer, according to James, is a solid “No.”
He proclaims that faith—the faith without works—to be dead. Dead faith is nothing. Salvation is life; how can dead faith bring one to living salvation?
After all, as James points out, even God’s spiritual enemies believe in God. Satan believes unswervingly in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He hates Him, but that hate rests in belief. Satan’s belief does not change him and it does not save him: it damns him.
Does this mean that the doctrine of Faith Alone is wrong? Not at all!
Faith that does not produce works is dead. It is not truly faith at all! True faith in Christ will bring change. It is visible. It has tangible results.
Jesus says this explicitly twice in John 14:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments (v. 15). If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him (v. 23).
So why does James put it in such stark terms? Why does he essentially tell people, “If you don’t do righteous acts, then you aren’t saved”? Is it some cudgel with which to beat people for not doing good, a definitive statement to condemn people?
It is important to note that he phrases this as a question. The reader is meant to read these words and reflect on their own life. To ask herself, “What are my works? Is my faith dead or alive?”
It is not a stone to throw at people, nor a whip with which to beat them. It is a question for the audience, that they might be encouraged to a better, more alive faith in Christ!
Ask yourself this question! It is not a simple yes or no, either. Rather, there are many areas in which you can ask it.
What are my works with the homeless? Does how I interact with the homeless show a living faith in Christ?
What are my works with foreigners? Do I show a living faith in Christ in how I treat people who have left their own homes to come here?
Does my school work show a living faith in Christ, or do I refrain from excellence, only doing the bare minimum?
Do I devote myself to the apostles’ teaching (aka the Bible)? How does my treatment of Holy Scripture indicate about my faith in Jesus?
We all have places in our lives where these questions will come up with a “No, that needs to be better.” My own life not the least so!
Examine your works and see what is your faith!