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“Faith without works is dead;” a Bible study on James 2:14-26

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  What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?
  If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?
  Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.  (James 2:14-17 NKJV)

James asks the question, “If someone says he has faith but does not have works  . . . can such faith save him?” He then makes the uncompromising declaration, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Is James talking about a “faith-plus-works” salvation—a righteousness that is merited by charitable works or acquired through good performance? Absolutely not.

It is impossible for any man to work his way into a right standing before God. For, “all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). “There is none righteous, no, not one . . . there is none who does good, no, not one” (Romans 3:10-12).

There is nothing anyone can do to merit salvation. That is why Jesus came into the world. Jesus took our rightful penalty (the wages of sin is death) upon Himself; so that, through His righteousness, we may be counted as righteous.  He who knew no sin, became “sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Eternal life is solely merited by the finished work of Christ Jesus at Calvary, and our individual acceptance of Him as Lord and Savior. If there were any way for a man to be saved by his own meritious doings, Christ’s death on Calvary was unnecessary. But there is no other way. That’s why “He laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16). His death paid the full debt for our redemption. 

In Christ, salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone! “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). “For if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (Galatians 2:21).

Still, James does associate good works with salvation. Not only James, but other biblical authors as well. For example, the Apostle John writes something quite similar: “He who practices rightousness is righteous, just as He is righteous . . . Whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:7-17).

However, James and John are not advocating that salvation is a product gained by “good works” done by a man. Rather, they stress that there will be good works as a visible by-product of one’s salvation.

Part of what it means to be a follower of Christ is to emulate Christ to the world. Those who follow Christ are to die to self and live for Christ. As the Apostle Paul writes, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10, emphasis added).

In Christ, there will fruit in our life that shows root evidence of salvation. The good things we do are not “to be saved;” rather, we do good things because we are saved—in Christ.

The Lord Jesus, “died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again . . . If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:15-17).

We are yoked to Christ. The things we do in Christ and for Christ are, in essence, the fruit of salvation-in-action. That’s why James could write:

But someone will 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. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish, man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?

Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?

And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justifed by works, and not by faith only.

Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justifed by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? (James 2:18-26)

We know that salvation is a gift of God—by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. Yet, James makes some dogmatic statements in the above verses that, if misunderstood, almost seem contradictory to that. He writes: “faith without works is dead” . . . “was not Abraham our father justified by works” . . . “a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” . . . “was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works?”

Taken alone, those phrases seem to clash against, “saved by grace through faith.” Yet, that’s not so. What James says here is not contradictory to salvation by grace, it is complimentary to salvation by grace. James is saying there will be demonstrated fruit “of grace” that becomes evident after someone is changed “by grace,” through faith in Christ.

There is, after one’s salvation, a correlation between works and faith. It is not that salvation is contingent on good works, but that works done in humility and love are a display of Christ in us.

If one is in Christ, there will be visible outward evidence of the change that has taken place inside the person. There will be noticeable works done in conjunction with putting on the “new man.” If there is no displayed outer evidence in one’s life of being internally changed by Christ, it may be a strong indication that person is not in Christ.

Instead of thinking about this as “good works,” it might be easier to grasp its meaning by thinking of this as “good fruit.” “Good fruit” is one identifier of salvation. Conversely, bad fruit or lack of fruit is an identifier of someone outside of Christ. For, “a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit . . . Therefore by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:18-20).

As James clearly affirms:

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:26) 

“How could James make such a conclusive statement? Because, there is no sign of life when no activity is evident in a body.

Following Christ must begin by faith, but it should progress with works that complement that faith. A believer’s life is to be dedicated to Christ, and a dedicated life yields fruit.

Faith in Christ first, then works through Christ afterward. They must flow sequentially. Works for Christ can only be done in Christ.” – excerpt, Grow in the Grace

As followers of Christ, we are not to be a silent people or a stagnant people. Rather, we are a “sent” people—called to go into the world as His ambassadors, for His good purpose. Certainly, this takes commitment. Yet it’s such a joyful endeavor. For, there is great satisfaction, contentment, and excitement in serving our great Savior.

Yes, we are saved by grace, through faith. Then, in His salvation, through the enabling of the Holy Spirit, we are called to “good works.” And these done in magnifying Christ, showing His love and sharing His gospel to a world searching for love, hope, and truth.

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Grow in the Grace: Spiritual Growth Lessons from Peter’s Walk with Jesus

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