As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
What’s the Use?
Here is James’s third tolling of this concept in what became one of the more famous—and infamously controversial—of all epistolary passages. In verse 17, he writes, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Three verses on, he says it again: “Faith without deeds is dead.” As though he’s not yet convinced that he’s made a convincing case, he cites two Old Testament examples: Abraham, who prepared himself to prove his faith in deed by offering his only son, Isaac, as a sacrifice, and Rahab, a prostitute who risked her life to hide Hebrew spies who stole into Jericho on a reconnaissance mission. These legends are action figures, James says; their deeds testify to their faith.
He opens his argument with a rhetorical question—a technique that James, the most delightfully plainspoken New Testament writer, isn’t particularly comfortable with (which explains his subsequent expansion twice over). In verse 14, he asks, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” Unlike Paul and the Hebrews author, James is less fascinated by what faith is or its theological centrality to following Jesus than its pragmatic value. “What’s the use of having faith if it doesn’t yield practical results?” he wonders.
Reason and Results
“It is by grace you have been saved, through faith,” Paul writes in Ephesians 2.8. And Hebrews 11.6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” After James looks at this, he asks, “And?” There’s more to the story than faith as far as he’s concerned. Believing in Christ is the crucial first step, yet where does faith lead? Faith for him enables us to think and act differently, more effectively, and more righteously than anyone driven by human logic or moral conscience. He agrees faith is the definitive attribute dividing Christians from Jews and pagans. It’s the key to receiving God’s grace and forgiveness as gifts rather than benefits based on ritualized sacrifices and religious conformity. Yet faith alone doesn't cut it.
Hebrews 10.20 called faith “a new and living way.” James, ever the realist, states what others merely imply. Once we activate belief in Jesus as God’s Son and our Redeemer, it’s essential to keep faith alive. While creeds and confessions of faith have their place, they’re not enough for him. Professed belief focuses on us—we believe. Practiced belief, though, emphasizes faith; it gives faith a reason and verifies its power with results. And James’s experience as one of Jesus’s disciples (as well as His blood relative) irrevocably authorizes him to insist that faith is both meaningless and unsustainable without action.
Paul and (presumably) the Hebrews writer came after the fact; they were both second-generation Christians. James was there all along to hear first-hand as Jesus constantly linked faith and works. In the Sermon on the Mount, He stressed people will “see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5.16) He told His followers in John 13.35: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” His final instructions before the Ascension included, “These signs will accompany those who believe,” after which He itemized behaviors that evidence faith: overcoming evil, new conversation, protection from physical dangers, and healing. James recognized that proof of faith relies entirely on what faith produces. If faith isn’t yielding positive results—God’s glory, love, and remedies to sin—it’s not a living thing. It’s dead, useless.
Signs—good works, love, etc.—can exist without faith. Faith—unshakable belief in Christ’s atonement—can originate without considering its practical purposes. But neither accomplishes its intentions without the other. “Suppose you see someone in need,” James suggests in verses 15 and 16. “If you say, ‘I wish you well,’ without doing something to help, what good is it?” When we encounter people who have need of our compassion and assistance, we offer them in faith. We do this not prove we have faith, but to prove what faith can do. That’s why it’s tantamount that we keep faith alive. Without it, the best we can do is do what we can and hope for the best. With faith, however, we do our best and believe God will finish what we start for His glory.
James’s teaching on faith and deeds comes directly behind another, equally provocative lesson on favoritism. When we look into that tomorrow, hopefully, we’ll come away with new understanding of how prejudice and intolerance defeat good deed and ultimately kill faith.
This simple diagram captures James's teaching entirely. Grace triggers faith. Faith triggers deeds. Deeds keep faith alive, and therefore sustain our salvation.
(Tomorrow: The Royal Law)