4. Energizing Your Faith by Works (James 2:14-26)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (24:58)
Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997)
Good deeds are energized by our faith. Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) lived out her faith with hands that cared for the dying. Her good works didn't save her, but they were evidence of her faith.

For years I published business newsletter that reached 100,000 readers each week. I didn't use it to preach the gospel, but rather as a place of witness. In one issue, I remember God guiding me to include a brief verse that I thought was apt to my readership of business entrepreneurs. This is all I said, at the very end of the newsletter:

"Finally, a word for Web marketers who want to make lots of money (others please disregard): 'Remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth....'" (Deuteronomy 8:18)

That's it. Nothing more. But I got an angry response from a reader:

"In your issue 12 of Web Marketing Today you drop a bible quote. This offends me. I have my own religious beliefs which I consider a personal matter. I respect the views of others, but I resent having them impose their views upon me. If you intend to use your business newsletter as a religious soapbox then you will be losing at least this reader, and probably many more. Don't jeopardize an otherwise good project by mixing business and religion." -- John D.

This is the way I answered him in the next issue. I quoted his letter, and then said:

"John, I hardly intend WMT as a soapbox for religion. But I strongly believe that if we business people don't mix our religion and ethics into our businesses we harm ourselves, our businesses, and our nation. If a single Bible verse offends you, so be it. My faith is part of who I am, and will naturally be part of how I communicate." -- Ralph F. Wilson, Editor

I got dozens and dozens of e-mail notes from Christians over the next few days saying, "Thank you for what you said!" That experience taught me a great deal. There will always be people who try to push us Christians into fearful silence. But we must never let them do this. We must let our religion mix with our business and real life. Because unless we do, our faith is dead.

Bare Faith (James 2:14-18)

James tackles an issue that must have been prominent in his day, that of silent believers, of inactive believers, people who might have difficulty in court assembling enough evidence to prove they were Christians.

Essentially James is asking, "Can faith exist by itself, unconnected from the rest of one's life?" And his answer is a resounding. No way! Faith without deeds is a dead faith!

"Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." (James 2:17)

It may have the appearance of the real thing. The person may even view himself or herself as a Christian, since they've gone to church and heard the Word, and know all the right things to do and say. But that can be extremely deceptive:

"Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." (James 1:22)

For several years when I was in my late twenties, I worked on a research project at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The goal was to extract DNA and RNA from various stages of fresh peas and pea plants, and then compare the differences in the controlled environment of the lab. I would grind up fresh peas, for example, and gradually purify the DNA until it became long strands that I could wrap around a glass rod. Once it had been the "brains" of pea cells, driving all their activities. Now it was pure, separated from all the messy pea stuff it had once intimately known. But it was also dead. Yes, we could perform experiments on it and watch it coil and uncoil and bond with RNA. But it was no longer living.

Faith is like that. Separated from life and spun into the long strands of theological theory, it may represent true orthodoxy in its belief system, but it is sterile. Faith, as James speaks about it, is not a system of belief, but a way of life that consciously draws its sustenance from God and lives for God and is energized by God himself. The word "dead" here and in 2:26 is the Greek adjective nekros, "dead, without life."

Q13. (James 2:14-18) In what sense is faith dead if it is unaccompanied by action? In what sense might (if that were possible) it be alive?

Feeding the Poor (James 2:15-16)

James forces us to look at a practical example.

"Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?" (James 2:15-16)

What we see here is not faith in action, but selfishness. Faith is active. Faith motivates us. Faith makes a difference. If we trust in the Living God, we can't stand by and mouth positive platitudes in the face of the poor. We must help warm and feed them.

"In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." (James 2:17)

Q14. (James 2:15-16) To what degree are we responsible for the poor and needy in the church community? How about our responsibility for those outside the church, in the community at large?

The Faith of Demons (James 2:18-19)

Now James goes one step further by highlighting the difference between bare intellectual assent and living faith.

"But someone will say, 'You have faith; I have deeds.'
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that -- and shudder" (James 2:19)

Does a demon believe in the existence of the One God? Of course. He has a pretty acute awareness of spiritual realities. That belief also is frightening to him. He trembles in fear. But does he "believe" in the sense of "have faith"? No.

The Amplified Bible, which can be tediously wordy at times, has a very helpful way of translating the Greek word pisteuō -- "to believe." At John 3:16, for example, the Amplified translate, "... whoever believes in (trusts, clings to, relies on) Him...."

In Greek, as in English, the verb "believe" can refer to intellectual assent or conviction, as well as a trust in (in a religious sense). Usually (though not always) the grammatical construction is different.31 In James 2:19 the construction makes clear the idea of intellectual assent to the concept rather than reliance and trust in God.

It is possible, you see, to have faith without love. I have met many people who had impeccable orthodox Christian beliefs, but no discernable love for God. Their thoughts were in order, but their love was cold. Just like the demons, they believed in the truth, but did not then submit their lives, hearts, and souls to follow the True One.

See how deadly this is? Many Christians that will sit next to you in church this Sunday will believe right things, but have in them no love for God. They may even live a moral life, but their heart has not been changed. It is still self-centered, not God-centered, motivated by self-interest rather than love for others. Thus they can say pretty words to their poverty-stricken Christian brothers and sisters -- "I wish you well! Keep warm and well fed!" -- but not lift a finger to help them. This kind of faith that has no actions to express it is truly stillborn. It has the shape without the life. I'm not their judge; God is. I'm only trying to ponder what James is really saying.

Q15. (James 2:18-19) What is the difference between the "belief" of a demon and the "belief" of a practicing Christian? The "belief" of a non-practicing Christian?

Potential Faith

Folsom Dam. Photo: US Bureau of Reclamation
Folsom Dam. Photo: US Bureau of Reclamation

A few miles from my home, the mighty Folsom dam stands 340 feet high and holds back the waters of the South and North forks of the American River. When full, the reservoir holds 1,010,000 acre-feet of water. Its powerhouse contains three generators capable of providing 198,720 kilowatts of electrical power, enough electricity to light 2 million 100 watt incandescent lightbulbs per hour -- but only when the water is flowing through its turbines.

If all the dam does is hold back water, the stream below the dam dwindles to a trickle and the fish downstream die. The lights dim and flicker off in the City of Roseville because its mighty generators produce no power.

Faith without works is dead in the same way that a dam that only holds back water is useless. The power is generated when the potential is actuated by actions and deeds in real life.

Illustrations from the Scripture (James 2:20-26)

Now James moves to prove his contention from Scripture that "faith without deeds is useless" (KJV 'dead') (James 2:20).32

James begins with Abraham offering his son Isaac on the altar (Genesis 22), and argues that Abraham was considered righteous for what he did, for his deed.

"You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did." (James 2:22)

It is crucial that we understand what James is saying. He is not asserting that Abraham is saved by what he did, but that what he did was an outworking of his faith, and that the two were inseparable, they were "working together" (Greek synergeō).

The action, says James, fulfills the Scripture that reads, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness" (quoting Genesis 15:6). One could argue that this was said about Abraham prior to the incident of offering Isaac on the altar. I don't think James would disagree. Abraham's act of offering Isaac on Mt. Moriah was an outworking of his faith; it complemented and completed it.

The other example James gives of faith and deeds together was Rahab the prostitute hiding the spies in her house in Jericho and then helping them escape their enemies (Joshua 2). I think it's marvelous that James would refer to Rahab as "the prostitute," in light of his concern about "keeping oneself from being polluted by the world" (James 1:27). Her past is represented by the word "prostitute," but her place in history was secured by having enough faith in the Hebrew's God that she risked her own life to protect and aid God's servants. It is a beautiful example of faith's outworking manifested in action.

James concludes this section:

"As the body without the spirit (Greek pneuma, "breath") is dead, so faith without deeds is dead." (James 2:26)

Works vs. Grace Controversy

Protestants sometimes struggle with the issues that James raises. One of the Apostle Paul's primary themes is to champion salvation by faith, not by works. This is the theme of his Letter to the Galatians, for example:

"[We Jews] know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified." (Galatians 2:16)

Perhaps the principal of salvation by grace through faith is best summed up in Ephesians.

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Without a careful reading one might conclude that James and Paul are in conflict, but they are not. Jewish Christians in Jerusalem faithfully observed the Jewish law and celebrated their faith in Christ. Surely, some of James' associates in Jerusalem held very strict views concerning keeping the Jewish Law. James himself was called "James the Just" by Hegesippus for doing so.

"The Works of the Law" vs. "Good Works"

We read about an incident that took place in the Gentile city of Antioch, where Paul had to rebuke Peter for hypocrisy along this line:

"Before certain men came from James, [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group." (Galatians 2:12)

Peter acted one way towards the Gentile Christians when he came to Antioch, but when strict law-keeping Jewish Christians arrived from Jerusalem, Peter felt intimidated and began to act as they did, somewhat superior to the Gentile Christians. Paul felt he needed to take a stand.

"The other Jews joined [Peter] in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, 'You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? We who are Jews by birth and not "Gentile sinners" know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law,33 because by observing the law no one will be justified.'" (Galatians 2:13-16)

You see, Paul is combating an early Jewish Christian heresy that contended it was necessary to observe the Jewish law in order to be saved, including such things as submitting to circumcision, keeping the dietary laws, separation from Gentiles, and all the minutiae for which Jesus had criticized the Pharisees.

Paul is strongly against the heresy that one must perform certain Jewish rituals in order to be saved, what he refers to as observing the "works of the law." But Paul is not against the thought that "good works" that are a natural outflow of our faith and of God's work of redemption and regeneration within us. Paul concludes his famous "saved by grace through faith ... not of works" passage with these words: "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Ephesians 2:10). In other words, we are not saved by works, but saved in order to do good works.

I don't think Paul would have an quarrel with James about this matter. While there seems to be a verbal inconsistency, it comes from the way each is using the word "works." Paul is combating "works of the law" necessary for salvation, but both he and James would agree that "good works" are a natural and inescapable result of a living faith in Christ.

Q16. (James 2:20-26) How does James' point about the necessity of works jive with Paul's emphasis on salvation by grace without works (Ephesians 2:8-10)?

Luther and the Reformers

Martin Luther was upset at the way in which the Catholic Church in his time seemed to teach that people were saved by acts of piety. This was a distortion of what the Church believed at its core, but no doubt the practice of Catholicism in the towns and villages and parishes needed to be reformed at this point.

So Luther preached Paul's letters with force and fire. He proclaimed that we are saved sola fide, only by faith. He declared that observing religious rituals had nothing to do with earning one's salvation, that it was a gift. He saw clearly the message of grace, and his words were a much needed corrective to religious practice in his time.

Because of his zeal for grace, Luther was disappointed in the Letter of James also. He wrote about the Letter:

"In fine, Saint John's Gospel and his first Epistle, Saint Paul's Epistles, especially those to the Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Saint Peter's first Epistle, -- these are the books which show you Christ, and teach you everything that is needful and blessed for you to know, even though you never see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore, is Saint James's Epistle a right strawy Epistle in comparison with them, for it has no gospel character to it."34

I think Luther underrated the Letter of James. True, James' message doesn't focus on the saving gospel. His calling was more to help existing Christians ("the twelve tribes scattered among the nations") learn how to live consistent, Christian lives and not get hung up with the self-deception that leads to hypocrisy.

James: Practical Discipleship, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.

Paul's theme was salvation as a gift through faith. Luther's theme was only faith. James' theme is that genuine faith always shows itself in deeds. We need to learn from all of these voices, and not underemphasize any.

James calls to us through the centuries: "Faith without works is dead." And he speaks a powerful word to the dead religiosity and self-deception that we need to renounce if we are to live on the cutting edge of faith today. Thanks, James. We needed you.


Father, it's easy for us Christians to slip into an intellectual faith that is cold towards the people you love. I've seen this in myself. Forgive me and put me in gear, so that my engine is connected to my wheels once again. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." (James 2:15-17)

"But someone will say, 'You have faith; I have deeds.' Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder." (James 2:18-19)


References and Abbreviations

[31] Pisteuō, BDAG 816-818. The concept of "believe" in an intellectual sense often has the object of that belief in the accusative, or the object of a preposition such as hoti ("that"). On the other hand, the concept of "believe in, trust in" is usually expressed by the dative, or the preposition eis ("unto, in"), or epi ("upon").

[32] The last word in the English text of 2:20 is somewhat in dispute regarding what was in the "original" Greek text. The KJV follows the Textus Receptus ("received text") in reading "dead" (nekra), supported by many manuscripts א A C2 K P Ψ Byz Lect and some Syriac and Coptic texts. However, the editorial committee of the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament (3rd edition), felt strongly that the alternate reading "useless, unproductive" (argē) was more likely, since it is strongly supported by many manuscripts B, C*, it, Vulgate, some Coptic and Aramaic texts) and may involve a play on words. It is also easy to explain the reading "dead," since it is used several other times in this passage. "Useless" is the "harder" reading, but makes good sense in the context and is followed by the NIV, NASB, ESV ("useless") and NRSV ("barren") (Metzger, Textual Commentary, p. 681, assigning a {B} degree of certainty). Deciding between alternate readings in the early Greek manuscripts is called the science of Textual Criticism. This one is fairly easy to decide, but the evidence in some texts is pretty evenly divided.

[33] "By observing the law" (NIV) is literally, "by the works of the law" (ESV, KJV), or "by doing the works of the Law (NRSV). There is not verb in the Greek text.

[34] From Luther's introduction to the 1522 edition of his German New Testament, Ropes' translation.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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