I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.
Introduction: Faith and Works
Stanley C. Brown gave an illustration of faith and works that I thought was quite profound. He writes:
A young boy, on an errand for his mother, had just bought a dozen eggs. Walking out of the store, he tripped and dropped the sack. All the eggs broke, and the sidewalk was a mess. The boy tried not to cry. A few people gathered to see if he was OK and to tell him how sorry they were. In the midst of the works of pity, one man handed the boy a quarter. Then he turned to the group and said, "I care 25 cents worth. How much do the rest of you care?" James 2:16 points out that words don't mean much if we have the ability to do more.
Those of us who have faith in our Lord Jesus Christ have to develop a biblical understanding of the relationship between faith and good works in order to live a life that is honoring to our Lord. True Christians know that works don't bring salvation. However, that doesn't mean that they are meaningless.
If you ask the average person on the street why God should let them into heaven, they would probably say that they have tried to be good and live a decent life. But the Bible makes it clear that no one is good enough on their own to inherit eternal life. For instance it states: "As it is written, there is none righteous, no, not one. There is none that understands, there is none that seeks after God...For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:10,11,23).
In the book of Ephesians it clearly states that salvation is by grace through faith. (Ephesians 2:8,9). Grace can be defined as unmerited favor. It is something that God gives us that we didn't earn. These verses further state that salvation is a gift. A gift is something that you don't pay for. It is given out of love. Titus 3:5 also says: "Not by works of righteousness that we have done, but according to his mercy he has saved us..." These and many other verses show us clearly that the Bible insists that a person can never earn their way to heaven.
However, in James 2:14-26 we have an interesting passage that many have mistakenly believed contradicts this teaching. Although, if you understand what he is saying, it clearly does not do this. We need to study what James is telling us in order to make sure that we can properly apply these truths to our Christian walk and live out what we say that we believe.
I. Background of the Epistle
In order to fully comprehend this passage, we need to give some background to the book. It is believed to have been written around 44-49 A.D. which makes it the earliest epistle in the New Testament. The writer is probably James, the oldest half-brother of Jesus and also the brother of Jude, who was the same person who wrote the epistle of Jude. We have to point out that some have suggested the Apostle James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John. However, he was martyred too soon to have written this book (Acts 12:2).
James wrote with the authority of one who had actually seen the resurrected Christ. I Corinthians 15:7 mentions that he had done this. Also, he was recognized as an associate of the apostles (Galatians 1:19) and was the leader of the Jerusalem church.
The receivers of this letter were Jewish believers who had been scattered, possibly as a result of the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7. However, it is more likely that it was due to the persecution of Herod Agrippa, spoken of in Acts 12.
This passage is the continuation of a series of tests in the book whereby James' readers can evaluate whether their faith is living or dead. It is quite possible that James is writing to Jews who had thrown out the works-righteousness that was taught in Judaism. However, they may have gone too far and thought that, since righteous works and obedience to God didn't give salvation then they weren't important at all. In other words, they reduced Christianity to merely a mental assent to the facts about Christ. They didn't see it as changing their actions in any way.
With all this in mind, let us look further at what James is telling us about the concepts of faith and works.
II. Works are the Fruit of Salvation (2:14-19)
James begins this section by talking about some theoretical person who claims that his faith saves him, even though his life doesn't show it in any way. He states:
"What use is it my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them: 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself." (2:14-17).
The fact is that, if you say that you love your brother in need but do nothing to help him, do you really love him? The obvious answer is "No".
In the same way, if you say that you have faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that He has saved you and made you a new creature in Christ, and nothing changes in your life from before you are saved, then there is a problem. One who loves the Lord Jesus Christ and is grateful for what He has done for him on the cross, will naturally want to do what pleases his Savior.
Further, a truly transformed life will show evidence of that transformation. In some cases you see a radical change from the beginning. For example, the Apostle Paul going from killing Christians to becoming one of the world's greatest advocates for Christianity the world has ever known. With others it is more gradual over time. But there should be a change if there is faith.
The fact is that works do play an important role in the Christian life. Works don't save you. But they are the fruit of those who are truly born again. To be born again is a phrase that Jesus used in John 3 to describe the new life that a believer receives from God.
Before salvation, man is seen as dead in trespasses and sins. In other words we are spiritually dead and separated from a holy God. But once we receive Jesus Christ as Savior, He gives us new life, and we become the sons and daughters of the living God. Those are some big claims. But is there any empirical evidence that this is true? Yes there is! Just like you know a tree by its fruit, so you know a Christian by his works. If the apple tree is alive, ultimately it will blossom and apples will appear. If it is dead, then it will not produce any fruit. It is the same with Christians.
The evidence of our new life is the fact that we are changed and produce good works. That is what is meant in James 2:17,18 where it says:
"Even so, faith without works is dead, being alone. Yes, a man may say, 'You have faith , and I have works.' Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works."
James points out that simply "believing in God" won't save you. Even demons believe in God. Satan himself believes and is still headed for Hell because he knows the truth about God and Christ and hates it, and hates them.
James then speaks to this person who claims only a mere belief in God and tells him:
"But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?" (20)
You know, it is interesting that, even though the amount of people who claim to be Christians in the United States is considerably lower today than it was in 1990, which then was 81.6%, there are still 65% of Americans who make that claim.
However, if you could follow the lives of these people and look for evidence of their saving faith, how many would you say have the genuine article? It would probably be a far smaller group. Unfortunately, most have the same kind of faith as Satan and the demons.
In the same way we should consider our own faith. If we were on trial for being Christians, would there be enough evidence to convict us? We all need to continually evaluate ourselves and allow God's Word to point out to us any hypocrisy in our lives.
I have heard another illustration that is very effective for explaining works. If you have a fire in a fireplace, all who pass by the house will see the smoke coming out of the chimney. They will not be able to see the fire in the fireplace, but they will know, nonetheless, that it is there. Why? Because fire produces smoke. Smoke doesn't produce fire. It is the result of the fire that is already burning.
If you have the new life from Christ that only He can give by his grace, then all who see you will see something different. They will see your good works and know that what you are saying is true.
There is an old song that says: "Love and marriage, Love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage." Well faith and works go together as well. You can't have one without the other. Faith, naturally produces works.
III. Biblical Examples of Faith Producing Works (2:20-26)
In the last part of this section, James gives some illustrations from Scripture with which his Jewish readers would be familiar. He begins with the earthly father of the Jewish faith himself, Abraham. He states:
"Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone." (21-24).
Notice that this passage says that his faith was made complete, or perfected by what he did (22). The King James Version says: "made perfect." This refers to bringing something to its end or its fullness. Just as an apple tree hasn't arrived at its goal until it produces apples, so faith hasn't reached its end until it is demonstrated by a righteous life.
James finishes this section, going from the earthly father of the Jewish faith, to talking about a harlot. But no matter what a person's standing in life, faith is demonstrated in the same way. By works.
In the Old Testament account, spies were sent into the promised land by God, through Moses, to explore the area that the Lord was going to give Israel.
Rahab showed the reality of her faith when, at great personal risk to herself, she protected them from getting captured while fulfilling their duties.
Again, some would say that James is contradicting Paul here. For Paul says in Ephesians 2:8.9 that:
"For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not of Works lest any many should boast."
But you have to add verse 10 here which says:
"For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them."
James and Paul are in complete agreement. Scripture never contradicts itself. Paul is focusing mostly on the grounds or the root of salvation. James on the fruit which comes from a saved individual's life.
To sum all of this up there is an illustration that was once given by the late pastor, D. James Kennedy. He writes:
An old boatman painted the word "faith" on one oar of his boat and "works" on the other. He was asked his reason for this. In answer, he slipped the oar with "faith" into the water and rowed. The boat, of course, made a very tight circle. Returning to the dock, the boatman then said, "Now, let's try works without faith and see what happens. The oar marked "works" was put in place and the boatman began rowing with just the "works" oar. Again the boat went into a tight circle but in the opposite direction.
When the boatman again returned to the wharf, he interpreted his experiment in these strong and convincing words, "You see, to make a passage across the lake, one needs both oars working simultaneously in order to keep the boat in a straight and narrow way. If one does not have the use of both oars, he makes no progress either across the lake nor as a Christian.
That is a good illustration but I think that James takes it a little farther. If you don't have works that demonstrate your faith, then it's like having no boat at all. You are merely a dead body in the water grasping to an oar that you claim is your faith.
I also like what Jerry Bridges said in his book 'The Pursuit of Holiness.' He tells us:
"Faith and holiness are inextricably linked. Obeying the commands of God usually involves believing the promises of God."
This is just another way of saying that faith changes the way you act and react. A living faith produces a vibrant walk that can be seen by those who observe your life.
And it was the Apostle Paul who told us to:
"Examine yourselves, whether you be in the faith" (II Corinthians 13:5).
As we said earlier, we all need to ask ourselves if the faith that we have in our Lord Jesus Christ is genuine. If we can say that we are born again and we can still live like the rest of the world, then it is time to ask if we are merely fooling ourselves. If our faith doesn't radically change our life, then maybe we don't really have faith in the first place. We won't ever be perfect in this sin-cursed world. However, we should be making some progress.
Let us all examine ourselves today. And if our lives are reflecting the new life in Christ, may we not become proud or boastful about it. Instead, let us continue to give glory to God and thank Him that He is making us into vessels of honor, to give Him praise for all eternity.
© 2011 Jeff Shirley
Jeff Shirley (author) from Kentwood, Michigan on June 22, 2012:
Seun Adedokun on June 21, 2012:
Glory be to God.
Jeff Shirley (author) from Kentwood, Michigan on August 19, 2011:
Lifegate: Thanks for faithfully reading my hubs. You are right. There seem to be many on this forum who have mixed up views regarding Christianity. It is good, however, to have a few, like you, who know the gospel message and are willing to share it. God bless.
William Kovacic from Pleasant Gap, PA on August 19, 2011:
It's so refreshing to read your hubs! There are so many people, even on HubPages that just don't get it. Thank you for truth and for simplicity.