This passage of James about good works is often viewed as controversial. But it is only contentious if you complicate it, or want to see controversy.
We are saved by faith not works. Ephesians 2:5-9 says it like this,
“even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
People love to quote that passage and say that the Bible contradicts itself when discussing this passage in James. The Bible doesn’t contradict itself. Look at the next verse. Ephesians 2:10.
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Verse 14 says,
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”
James does not say here that faith doesn’t save. He asks rhetorically if the kind of faith that is unaccompanied by works can save a person. Real faith is manifested in acts. I can say I have faith that my food is not poisoned. But if I refuse to eat the food or even taste the food, then the faith I claimed is empty. James described his meaning another way in verses 15-17
“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
Words are meaningless unless they are proved by something concrete. Saying, “I hope you get warm” may be a genuine wish but it does nothing to make the person warm. Jesus told people that words didn’t mean much without the deeds to back them up. Matthew 7:21-24,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”
Works accompany real faith, but not just any works. Acts which are born out of faith, which are a response of glory to God, and works which are manifested as a result of becoming a new creature in Christ. Those works do not save a person, not even a little. And seemingly good and awesome works like prophesy and healing do nothing to save a person. The things we do, no matter how good or great cannot save us. The only thing that saves is Jesus’ blood. It is a gift of grace that He saves us. All we have to do is use our words to declare our heart’s belief that Jesus is Lord, the resurrected savior. It is not just a declaration it is an act of submission and faith.
Romans 10:8-10 says,
“But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
We do not merely say, “Jesus is my Lord” or “Jesus be my Lord.” Our faith is voiced with words but it is manifested in the act of submission, in the act of making Jesus Lord, not calling Him Lord.
We still have people who believe they are saved because they repeated a prayer some well-meaning evangelist told them to say. They may or may not be right. Some people will still vehemently swear that they do not have to act like a Christian to be a Christian. Some will say they do not have to serve people, give money, or be charitable to be saved. They’re right. They don’t have to do a thing, but faith makes us want to. Jesus changes us and as we become more like Him, as we come to grasp the depth and breadth of His love we want to do something. We want to respond. We want to let other people know how awesome, good, and wonderful He is. Verse 18 reads,
“But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
Can people tell you are a Christian because you sit in the third pew on the left side of the sanctuary every week? No, that only tell them you attend a church. Does it tell people you are a Christian if you carry a Bible? Nope, that tells them you own a Bible. Your Christianity is proved by your behavior, your actions, your responses, the way you treat people, and the way you emulate Jesus. Your Christianity is proved by your love. After Jesus did the job of the lowest slave and washed the disciples’ feet, He told them,
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35).
There is nothing so special or good about saying Jesus is Lord, or that you believe He is God. James says it this way in verse 19,
“You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”
Demons believe that the LORD God is Awesome Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They know and they do not declare it brazenly or emptily like some people do, they shudder in understanding of who He is. James seemed fed up with people who said that Christianity was something you could just declare. He doesn’t mince his words in verses 20-25.
“Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?”
There were people who said, they had complete liberty to do anything they wanted because they were covered in grace. People still claim it today. It is true that we have grace but it is also true that our behavior reveals our heart. (Proverbs 4:23, Matthew 15:19). Love keeps us from doing some things and compels us to do others. Abraham’s faith was proven, his heart for God was proven when he offered Isaac. Rahab revealed her courage and faith when she let the Israelite spies hide and kept them safe.
Real faith changes us. We are new creations. (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is revealed by what we do, and how we live. It is deliberate but natural that the Holy Spirit in us changes us and makes us like Jesus, and that our faith is evidenced in our actions and attitudes. (Galatians 5:22-25).
Faith and works are inseparable. Piously sitting in the third pew on the left side of the church and quietly stating you have faith doesn’t make you a Christian. Giving a blind man his sight doesn’t make you a Christian. Jesus makes you a Christian and your faith in Him is confirmed in your life. Verse 26 says,
“For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”