“What good is it my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it has not works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you by my works.” (James 2:14-18)
To some extent, we are all looking for loopholes, ways around, means of avoidance. It’s part of our fallenness.
From the beginning of the Christian faith one of the most popular means of distorting the faith has been the separation of believing from doing, of faith from works. Certainly we are saved not by what we have done but wholly by what God has done for us and is doing in us. That is, we are saved by grace, not by our works. And just as certainly we receive that grace by faith, by belief and trust in Him. But this does not mean that if we have faith, we do not need works. Nothing could be further from the truth.
At its simplest, and there is much more to it than this, to believe that faith is sufficient without works is to misunderstand what is meant by faith itself. The faith that is required is not mere mental assent, but trust so complete that it surrenders its whole life in following and obedience. Faith, by its nature acts. This is the message that James is conveying in our passage and the verses that follow. His simplest statement of it comes in verse 26:
“For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.”
Sadly, many try to put St. Paul and James at odds when it comes to this matter, but there is no real conflict. James is only correcting distortions by others of St Paul’s teaching. For Paul himself, faith always acted or it was not faith. One need only think of a few of many verses in his letters that demonstrate this clearly: twice in Romans (1:5, 16:26) he says his task is to bring about in others “the obedience of faith”, in Galatians he speaks of “faith working through love”, and in Ephesians (2:10) he says “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared for us to do.” In fact, every page of his letters is a call to live, walk, and do the faith in which we stand.
Amazingly, while I was preparing for this post, the most eloquent statement I found of the inseparability of faith and works came from a truly unexpected source. Martin Luther, who called the book of James “a straw gospel” because it too closely united faith and work! Nevertheless, in his Commentary on Romans he makes the case that all true Christians at all times have held to be true: ”
“(Faith is) a living, busy, active thing, this faith. And so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises ,it has already done them and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faithless man.…”
“Faith is living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times ….Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything in love and praise of God, who has shown him his grace….And thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire.”
As you and I recommit ourselves to this living faith in which it is as impossible to separate works from faith as burning and shining from fire, let us make a special note of the illustration James gives of the kind of deeds that are expected: “if a brother or sister is poorly clothed and in lack of food…” It is acts of mercy that James is placing at the top of the list. In this, is he not merely following his Lord who, in his only revelation of the final judgement, says His criteria will be this:
I was hungry, did you feed me? I was thirsty, did you give me a drink? I was naked, did you clothe me? I was a stranger, did you take me in? I was sick and in prison, did you visit me? In as much as you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me. (Matthew 25)
Do you believe? Then act.
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.