Workless Faith Is Worthless Faith James 2:14–26
Talk is cheap. In the minds of some people, the mention of the term politician seems to bear this out. Not only do some elected officials make promises they cannot keep, but some Christians do not practice what they preach. As a modern proverb states, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” What about the person who claims to believe the gospel but whose practice never matches his or her claims? How should we regard the spiritual state of some people who claim to be Christians but who never live like it? Are such people safe in their assurance of heaven, or are they simply the owners of hellfire insurance sold by the Devil himself?
In the early days of the church, most converts to Christianity came from Judaism. James addressed his words to those dispersed Jewish believers who lived throughout the Roman Empire. Their newfound liberty in Jesus brought freedom from the ceremonial laws—laws that found their fulfillment in their Messiah. False teachers were leading these believers astray by separating their faith from any actions of godliness. They taught that freedom from the Mosaic Law meant freedom from living righteously, that salvation without works of the law meant salvation without any works at all. It was this serious error that James examined in these verses.
The Principle Stated (2:14–17)
“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?” (2:14). Here James described someone who claims to have faith when, in reality, that claim is empty. It is worthless because faith without good deeds to follow up has no value. In this life, such a dormant faith is hypocritical and self-deluding. In the next life, it will not bring salvation from God’s wrath. Fruitless faith is worthless. However, James should not be accused of denying salvation by faith alone. The type of faith he described is a faith devoid of works, since he asked, Can that kind of faith save him?
James illustrated his point with a simple story. A church member was starving from lack of food and cold because he had no clothing. Another member, well aware of the need, responded to the person with a heartfelt wish for his prosperity, but not with anything tangible. He wished God’s peace and wholeness upon his fellow Israelite with the expression for shalom in the first-century Jewish church. What sounded spiritual was, in reality, pitiful. The well wisher had it within himself to answer his own prayer. His empty response revealed that he was not truly a Christian. James said, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (1:27). Without active deeds of love and personal holiness, there is no mark of genuine faith in Jesus. Although faith cannot be seen, its results are always obvious!
Far from criticizing the necessity of faith, James distinguished between two kinds of faith. The one produces good deeds; the other produces nothing since it is “alone” or by itself (2:17). This solitary faith is unresponsive, useless, lifeless—in a word, “dead” (2:17). True saving faith will leave a trail of good deeds after it. Salvation is by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.
The Principle Questioned (2:18–19)
James then related the argument of an objector: “a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works” (2:18). This aberrant view separated faith from works, saying that both can exist independently of the other. James replied, “show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works” (2:18). It is utterly impossible to see someone’s faith without seeing his or her good works. Godly deeds are the external evidence of true faith within.
James continued his discussion with the objector by commending his orthodox creed about the oneness of God. The Jewish Shema, still recited twice daily by observant Jewish people, states, “Hear, O Israel: The Lᴏʀᴅ our God is one Lᴏʀᴅ” (Dt. 6:4). In verse 19, James turned from praise to pointed rebuke. “Thou believes” that there is one God; thou doest well. The demons also believe, and tremble” (2:19). Demons have faith in this teaching about God, as do both Jews and Christians. In fact, this belief leads them to the point of terror. Their shuddering response to this teaching is more than those who claim that faith in a person’s head may never produce deeds in that person’s life. Although fallen demons respond by shuddering, they still do not perform good deeds and obey God. Their correct creed does them no good.
The Principle Illustrated (2:20–25)
James continued to amplify his stand against cheap faith. He called the one who holds this viewpoint a “vain man” (2:20). This empty-headed thinker defended demon faith as the Christian faith. His wrong theology was refuted by two clear examples from the Old testament Scriptures. James proved that faith without works just doesn’t work.
Abraham, the great father of the Israelite nation, proved his faith in God when the Almighty asked for his son’s life as a sacrifice (Gen. 22:1–18). Abraham was “justified by works, when he had offered Isaac, his son, upon the altar” (2:21). Paul used the term justification in some of his epistles to refer to God’s declaration of a sinner as righteous. For instance, in Romans 3:28 he stated, “Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” James used the term justification to describe mankind’s demonstration that their faith is genuine. Abraham’s works demonstrated his salvation to others: “Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?” (2:22). His faith was perfected and matured, just as an apple tree is fully mature when it produces apples. The trials in our lives become the tests that God uses to display the fruit of true faith.
The writer to the Hebrews stated, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac” (Heb. 11:17). His act of obedience sprang from his root of faith. That faith was made complete: “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness” (2:23; see Gen. 15:6). This man who displayed a deep faith in God and a loyal obedience to Him was appropriately “called the friend of God” (2:23; see 2 Chr. 20:7; Isa. 41:8). He was first justified by his faith and later justified by his works. James taught both truths. True faith works. Works must always be distinguished from faith, but they must never be separated from faith.
Rahab, the well-known heroine of Joshua’s day, is another clear demonstration of a fruitful faith. One might wonder why James would choose such a woman of shame, when there were many other examples of living faith in the Old Testament. She was a Canaanite. This sinful race was cursed by God (Gen. 9:25) and destined for annihilation (Dt. 20:17). Yet God promised Rahab deliverance by His grace and through her faith. Even a Canaanite—one from a nation condemned and under judgment could believe in the Lord and be saved. And she did. She was characterized by her sinful lifestyle four times in the Scriptures: “Rahab the harlot.” But she turned from that profession and became a godly woman in the line of Jesus the Messiah (Mt. 1:5). Her faith and resulting works placed her in God’s hall of faithful believers (Heb. 11:31). She expressed her newfound faith in the God of Israel to the Hebrew spies: “the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath” (Josh. 2:11). She risked her own life by hiding the spies from the king of Jericho. While not condoning her deception, the Scriptures still acknowledge her actions, which attested to her active faith.
The revered father of Israel and the sinful woman of Canaan—what a contrast! From both ends of the spectrum, James portrayed the lives of those who are examples of a faith that works.
The Principle Restated (2:26)
James concluded with a simple analogy: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (2:26). Dead faith can exist in a person or in a church. Any so-called believer in Jesus who refuses to obey and live out the commands of the Messiah is dead. A person may have deeds and not have true faith, but a person will never have true faith without deeds.
Other examples of those with a workless faith include many who followed Jesus and “believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men” (Jn. 2:23–24). These people, just like some in our day, followed Jesus for all the wrong reasons. They had some kind of faith, but not the proper kind. Jesus did not entrust Himself to those with false faith then, nor will He do so today.
Simon the sorcerer is another sad example of a faith that does not save. Simon “believed” and “was baptized” (Acts 8:13). However, his faith was proven to be false when he offered money to the apostles in exchange for the ability to give the Holy Spirit to others. Peter sternly rebuked his lust for power and said that he was “not right in the sight of God”; rather, he was “in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity” (Acts 8:21, 23). He needed to repent because he had no part in this matter of salvation and the Holy Spirit. Simply because someone believes is no guarantee of his or her salvation. Only one faith saves—the kind that James described.
Some may think that the Apostle Paul contradicted James. Yet in one passage Paul expressed what James taught: Faith will produce works. Paul clearly taught that faith alone brings salvation: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God—Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). But Paul also taught that this true faith will produce good deeds: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). We must evaluate works based on their relationship to faith. If they precede salvation, they are condemned; if they follow salvation, they are commended.
How will the Lord Jesus distinguish between the sheep and the goats in the future judgment of the nations? By their works, which will reveal their faith to be genuine or insincere. “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world … In as much as ye have done it [good deeds such as providing food, drink, hospitality, and care] unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Mt. 25:34, 40).
James’ emphasis echoes that of his Master. The Lord Jesus Christ warned all people that He would not be impressed with their words at judgment day. “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father, who is in heaven” (Mt. 7:21, italics added).
Belief and behavior, creed and conduct, doctrine and duty—what God has joined together, let no one put asunder!