“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. 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!”
Christian faith is a wondrous gift from God. Through faith we lay hold of treasures that our Savior won for us. Through faith we are adopted into God’s family, we enjoy His forgiving love, and we possess the certain hope of everlasting life in heaven.
This saving faith is not a mere “head knowledge.” The demons are well versed in Bible teachings, but their knowledge doesn’t benefit them.
The kind of faith that enables us to receive spiritual and eternal blessings involves “heart knowledge.” Through the Gospel, the Holy Spirit enlightens our understanding concerning God’s saving truths, works a heartfelt trust in them, and enlivens our hearts to love God and delight in His holy will.
While we are saved through faith alone, faith is never alone. It is quite naturally accompanied by good works. Just as an apple tree produces apples, so also Christians produce fruits of faith in the form of laudable deeds. Martin Luther, expounding on the nature of Christian faith, wrote that “Faith is a living, busy, active, efficacious thing, so that it is impossible for it not incessantly to do good works. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked it has already done them.” This doesn’t mean we will always be doing good works, but that Christian faith will always bring forth works of love.
In the section of James before us, the inspired writer was exposing what amounted to a phony, dead “faith” which does not save. While there were some of his readers who had a correct knowledge of Christian teachings, their hearts hadn’t embraced them. And their lives showed it. Even though they spoke words of well wishes for their brothers and sisters who needed help with clothing and food, they—being faithless—didn’t lift a finger to assist them.
In the parable Jesus told concerning how He would separate His believing sheep from the unbelieving goats on Judgment Day, He says to His sheep, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.” (Matthew 25:34-36) In making reference to the good works of His sheep, Jesus wasn’t indicating they were saved because of those works, but rather that their good deeds gave evidence of their having saving faith.
The key to having saving faith is always being connected to our Savior Jesus Christ, Who is our source of spiritual life (John 15:4-5). May He ever work in us a true and living faith.
Mark Gullerud is retired from the pastoral ministry. He lives in Sunnyvale, California.