The title of this post, “Faith without works is dead,” is a quotation from the New Testament and can be found in James 2:20. It is a verse that if often misunderstood and misapplied. This is because, I think, we tend to hear things and without realizing it we make snap judgments on meanings based on layers of assumptions that aren’t always right. And we all do it all the time. The trick is to understand that we do it and to try and slow down and be careful – especially when dealing with something as important as the Scriptures. Here’s the passage in its context:
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, “Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled;” notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
Yea, a man may say, “Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.”
Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness:” and he was called “the Friend of God.” Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
Typically, upon reading such a passage quickly we make assumptions about what James means by the term “works.” And immediately, we may find conflict because it seems to contradict passages like Ephesians 2:8-10 (among others) which say, “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. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”
Assuming there are no contradictions in the Scriptures (which I believe to be a very reasonable assumption since God, Himself, is the author), let’s examine the passage in James a little more closely. Have another look at what I have set off as the first paragraph and notice that it is pointing out the difference between word and action. Just saying, “be ye warmed and filled” does nothing to fill an empty stomach or provide shelter. In the same way, just saying you have faith doesn’t justify you. Well OK, but what about actually, genuinely believing? If a person sincerely believes in God, by definition, he has faith and must then be justified or saved, right? Well, Paragraph 3 suggests not. It says, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble…” The devils clearly are not justified or saved, but indeed, they do have faith, don’t they? They may “believe” in God but neither the devils mentioned nor those who just say they have faith are actually justified. To be justified, then, according to James, you must also have “works.”
But what is James talking about when he says, “works?” Works can mean so many different things to different people. To some it means helping a little old lady across the street. To others it means praying three times a day or going to church regularly. Still others believe it means being generous with their money and time. While all these things may be good, we best make sure we understand what James means when he speaks of “works” before we sit back and feel all satisfied with ourselves because we have “faith and works.”
James actually tells us what he means by works in the next two paragraphs. Shall we look at them? … Yes, lets. “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” (James 2:21). This is the first example James refers to in order to explain to us his definition of “works.” The story can be found in the Old Testament book of Genesis, chapter 22. And the lead up to that story goes like this. Abraham and his wife were very old, well past the age of child-bearing and God made him a promise. The promise to Abraham was that he would have more biological descendants than there are stars in the sky (Gen 15:5). And Abraham “believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness” (Gen 15:6). In other words, based on Abraham believing that God would keep His promise, God counted Abraham to be “righteous.” Then after many more years, now very long past the time his wife’s womb was considered dead, God fulfilled His promise to Abraham and miraculously gave him a son.
Then after the boy had grown somewhat, God told Abraham to sacrifice him. [dramatic pause] … Yes, that’s right. God told Abraham to kill his son as an offering. Now, just for a minute, try to think past the obvious horror of what Abraham was told to do and consider what was really at stake here. God had promised something to Abraham: that he would have an untold number of descendants through this son specifically. Now, how could God fulfill that promise if the son were dead? That’s the dilemma Abraham had to face. Did he actually believe that God would fulfil his promise and he’d have a zillion descendants? Whether he actually believed God or not would be demonstrated by Abraham’s actions. What will his “work” be? Will he obey God and “risk” having no descendants? Or will he refuse? Will we watch Abraham act out a “work” of faith? Or will he find some reason to explain away God’s instructions and justify disobedience? (The passage is pasted below and it is full of illustrations of what the Lord Jesus did on the cross: see this post.)
Abraham does, in fact, obey the Lord and “accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead” (Heb 11:19), he was about to plunge the knife into his son when, at the very last second, an angel stopped him. Referring to this, James told us in the quoted passage that “the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: …” (James 2:23 quoting Gen 15:6). And just how exactly was the scripture of Genesis 15:6 “fulfilled?” There was no prophesy back then about Abraham offering up his son. So what exactly was “fulfilled?” Well, God had imputed “righteousness” to Abraham when Abraham believed that God would keep His promise. And the result was that when it came time, many years later in this case, Abraham acted righteously. God’s imputation of righteousness isn’t just some ceremonial utterance. It’s real and over the course of time one who is pronounced righteous by God will act accordingly as Abraham did. [Go ahead and read Romans 3:20-5:1 after this. You won’t be disappointed.]
So, do “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only”? The “works” James is talking about are “works of faith,” not acts of kindness or religious ritual or going to church or feeding the poor. Normally, you don’t need faith for any of these kinds of works and so normally none of them are a “work” of faith. Normally. Abraham’s “work” was the result of – in fact, because of – his faith in God’s ability to keep His promise.
In the last paragraph quoted from James, above, Rahab the harlot is mentioned as another example. I will leave it to the reader to go and study her story from the Old Testament. It’s found in Joshua chapter 2. With a little thought and consideration, you will see that her “works” are also “works of faith.” That is, she does things that she wouldn’t do apart from trusting that God (through the Israelites in her case) would keep His promise to her.
So, the next logical question is, what promises does God make to us in His written Word? And I’m emphasizing His written Word here. Despite what some claim, He doesn’t whisper in our ears and promise us children or wealth or long life or fame or cars or airplanes. And He’ll never again test someone in the way He tested Abraham. But He has left us wonderful promises in His written Word which are indisputable. And when you know what these promises are, it will impact the decisions you make in your life. And sometimes those decisions may seem crazy to others. But maybe, just maybe, they’ll be “works of faith.”
I’ll only mention one of those promises (my own favorite). John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” He promises everlasting life to “whosoever” believeth in Him. Believing in the Lord Jesus Christ is not simply believing He exists (as the devils do) or even simply believing that He died on the cross and rose again from the dead (again, even the devils believe that). Believing means trusting Him. He died for you so your many sins could be forgiven and so that you would have nothing more to fear of death because He promises you everlasting life. Do you believe He’ll keep His promise? Such a faith as this will most definitely influence your actions.
And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt [tempt means test] Abraham, and said unto him, “Abraham:” and he said, “Behold, here I am.” And he said, “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.”
And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. And Abraham said unto his young men, “Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.”
And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together. And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, “My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering:” so they went both of them together.
And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham:” and he said, “Here am I.” And he said, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.”