What does it mean that faith without works is dead? Having faith in Jesus means that we believe what he says, trust in him to save us, and follow him as king. If we don’t trust him enough to follow him, it means our faith isn’t a living faith. It’s dead.
“Faith without works is dead.” This statement, written by the New Testament author James, has puzzled Christians for hundreds of years. Dead? But isn’t it true that we are saved from our sins by faith in Jesus and not by our works (i.e., the good actions we do)? In the words of the apostle Paul, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith…not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9, NIV). Paul also wrote, “A person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom. 3:28, NIV).
If we have faith in Jesus, is it really all that vital that we follow it up with works?
If we’re tempted, however, to read these verses from Paul and think that he’s disconnecting faith from works, then we’ve tweeted the quote without actually reading the passage. In Ephesians 2:10, Paul follows up the “by grace, through faith” formula (vs. 8-9) with its natural result: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (NIV). Like James, Paul sees faith minus works as something far less than biblical faith.
So, let’s explore just how faith without works is dead.
Killing Our Credibility
Before we get to how faith itself is dead without works, let’s look at a more obvious form of death that happens when we disconnect faith from works: Our credibility dies.
The novel 1984, written in 1949 by George Orwell, is about “Big Brother” government. The government controls everything about everyone’s life, even down to controlling what people think and believe. No freedom whatsoever. The novel centers on Winston and Julia, two citizens of this totalitarian regime, who have had enough of Big Brother. They’re ready for freedom, they talk and dream of freedom, but they’re not sure how they can get it.
Winston and Julia aren’t sure whom they can trust, but they think they can trust an official named O’Brien. So they secretly go to O’Brien, and sure enough O’Brien informs them that he is part of the “resistance,” the secret group who will try to overthrow Big Brother. So he asks them a series of questions to test their loyalty to the resistance. O’Brien asks Winston and Julia, “You are prepared to give your lives?”
“So he asks them a series of questions to test their loyalty to the resistance.”
Yes. “You are prepared to commit murder?” Yes. “To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people?” Yes. “You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs . . . to do anything which is likely to cause demoralization and weaken the power of the Party?” Yes. “If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face—are you prepared to do that?” Yes.
By the end of the questions, Winston and Julia are officially a part of the resistance. O’Brien then dismisses them and lets them know they will hear from him soon. And they do. Shortly after their conversation with O’Brien, Winston and Julia are arrested. They have been discovered. It got found out that they were trying to overthrow Big Brother. How did the authorities find out? The answer is O’Brien. O’Brien was never part of the resistance. O’Brien was always just a very clever official for Big Brother.
After Winston is arrested, it is O’Brien who is put in charge of his reeducation and torture. During one conversation, Winston is weakening, but he’s still trying to convince O’Brien that Winston is right, and that the Big Brother machine is wrong and evil. So O’Brien says, “And you consider yourself morally superior to us, with our lies and our cruelty?”
“Yes, I consider myself superior,” answers Winston.
“Without saying a word, O’Brien starts playing a recording, a recording that Winston instantly remembers.”
Without saying a word, O’Brien starts playing a recording, a recording that Winston instantly remembers: “You are prepared to commit murder?” Yes. “To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people?” Yes. Cheat, forge, blackmail, corrupt, acid. Yes, yes, yes. And Winston realizes that with all those yeses, he had lost all credibility.
When we Christians say we believe in Jesus—but this doesn’t come through in how we live—our credibility dies. What should people think of our credibility when we “believe” in Jesus as Savior but continue to act unforgiven and unforgiving? When we “believe” in Jesus as Lord but have no intention of taking orders from him? When we “believe” in Jesus as King but place our deeper allegiance in regimes that make us feel at ease? Ask anyone watching from the outside, and they’ll say that your faith certainly looks dead.
A Disconnected Life
It has become a trend for Americans to spend lots of money on yard activities (patio furniture, pools, etc.). After all, it’s important to relax and spend family time outdoors. Yet, at the same time, there is a trend for these same families to keep spending just as much time indoors as ever. There’s a disconnect between what they say they want and how they live.
Americans are really into fitness. We lead the world in spending money on our health and fitness. Yet, Americans also rank toward the bottom when it comes to measuring how healthy we actually are (e.g., chronic disease, poor diet, lack of physical activity). There is a disconnect between what we say is important and how we actually live. Faith without works is a fatal disconnect.
Faith without works is dead? “Faith without works is a fatal disconnect.”
Here’s how James describes it:
“As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:26, NIV)
Here’s what James is saying:
Body minus spirit = death of a person
Your faith minus your deeds = death of faith
This is sounding very different from some of the popular sales pitches that make it sound like we can place our faith in Jesus, enjoy the feeling of reassurance, and then resume life as normal. Although we’re conditioned by a post-truth culture to see personal faith on a spectrum of more or less inspiring, James teaches us to see faith is either living or deceased.
Faith without works is dead? “Although we’re conditioned by a post-truth culture to see personal faith on a spectrum of more or less inspiring, James teaches us to see faith is either living or deceased.”
On the campaign trail, politicians are fond of using broad slogans which could sound good to just about anybody. However, when it comes to a politician’s specific, practical action steps, that’s when the politician might lose support. In James 2, James shows that he’s no politician on the campaign trail. Instead of giving us nice-sounding slogans, James gets really specific and practical—and it gets uncomfortable.
James asks a couple uncomfortable questions:
- “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” (James 2:14, NIV)
- “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16, NIV)
Both answers are in the negative. Such faith can’t save them. Such faith isn’t any good. So, if I have faith—but my faith doesn’t come out in how I live—how’s that faith doing?
“In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17)
Faith without works is dead? “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
Biblical Faith and Demonic Faith
James is no flatterer. He goes on to shock his listeners by comparing their belief-minus-action faith to the faith of demons.
“But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:18-19, NIV)
When it comes to faithful Old Testament believers in God whom we admire, it was not just a set of beliefs they held or a fond feeling they had for God. Notice how James describes the faith of Abraham and Rahab:
“You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:20-26, NIV)
Faith without works is dead? “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”
Their faith was working through their works, and that’s how we know they had faith.
There’s quite a contrast we find in John 3 and 4 when it comes to two kinds of faith. On the one hand, you’ve got righteous Nicodemus (John 3) whose “faith” is a matter of believing that Jesus is from God, but not truly following Jesus. Then, you’ve got the unnamed Samaritan woman (John 4), who had not lived a righteous life by anyone’s standards, yet her faith in Jesus led her to lead her entire village to believe in him. If these were newspaper headlines, we might read, “Nice Guy Has Faith Like a Demon,” and “Bad Girl Has Faith Like a Saint.” That’s the difference between faith minus works and a faith that works.
A Faith That Gets Dirt in Its Fingernails
Have you heard Christian comedian Tim Hawkins’s parody of Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel”? He ruined the song in the most hilarious way possible. In “Cletus, Take the Reel,” Hawkins turned a beautiful song about asking Jesus to take control of our life and made it about a couple of fishing buddies. One of them is reeling in a bass when he gets a cramp in his upper thigh and has to toss the reel to his buddy, who then reels it in.
There’s something awkward about taking something spiritual and sublime and bringing it down to the level of specific, physical objects (such as—in Hawkins’s song—chips, Gatorade, a fishing reel, and a pulled muscle in the upper thigh). Yet the Bible does this all the time. Biblical faith doesn’t stay spiritual and sublime. It means things like
- Choosing to sit beside and hang out with an unpopular kid
- Praying for and trying to show respect to a terrible boss
- Forgiving someone who has wounded you
Faith Means Translation Work
Here’s a command you really should follow: “Kai agapeseis Kurion ton Theon sou ex oles tes kardias sou kai ex oles tes psuces sou kai ex oles tes dianoias sou kai ex oles tes iscuous sou.”
What in the world?! This is Mark 12:30 in Greek. But unless someone happens to know Greek, it won’t do anybody any good. It’s got to be translated into the language that we understand. Mark 12:30 says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” That’s an incredibly important and beautiful verse, but even it won’t do you much good unless you actually translate it into your everyday life.
For example, until “Love the Lord your God” gets translated into “Get rid of that subscription because it’s making you obsess about stuff that God doesn’t want you thinking about,” then you haven’t really obeyed that command yet in that area of your life. For faith to be biblical, faithful faith, it’s got to be translated into action.
Faith without works is dead? “For faith to be biblical, faithful faith, it’s got to be translated into action.”
Real, Tangible Evidence
In 1 John, the apostle John gives examples of how the love we say we have (for God, for people) has got to show up in actual action (otherwise it’s not real love). Notice what having love for God and people actually means:
- 1 John 2:3, NIV – “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands.”
- 1 John 2:5-6, NIV – “But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”
- 1 John 3:18-19, NIV – “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence.”
- 1 John 4:6, NIV – “We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.”
- 1 John 5:2, NIV – “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.”
Faith without works is dead? “Biblical faith is meant to show up in real life.”
Biblical faith is meant to show up in real life. It’s meant to be embodied in real-life works. As we saw earlier, this was always meant to be the immediate result of our salvation:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph. 2:8-10, NIV)
Maybe there are times for big, lofty, spiritual promises to God. But what seems to honor God best is for our faith to work itself out physically in real action taken in the real world. It means a physical object you will give over to God for him to have control over. A specific action you will do this week. A specific conversation you will have. A specific act of love you will do for somebody. Don’t promise him the stars. Promise him your phone. Your laptop. Those 20 minutes you have before you go to work. That jealousy you have toward that specific person.
These are the kinds of actions that help keep faith alive.