What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?
So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.
Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”
You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?
Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete. And so it happened just as the Scriptures say: “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” He was even called the friend of God. So you see, we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone.
Rahab the prostitute is another example. She was shown to be right with God by her actions when she hid those messengers and sent them safely away by a different road. Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works. James 2:14-26
There is a popular saying: actions speak louder than words. In some ways, I think that is what James is saying here. What we do, not just what we say, proves who we are.
I live in the southern part of the United States often referred to as the Bible Belt. Although the religious landscape here is changing, it remains true that many people in my area identify as Christian. If you ask them what they mean by that, though, the response is typically something to the effect of, “Well, I believe in God.”
James would say, “That’s great. You are basically in the same category as demons.”
Simply believing that God exists isn’t the same as having a living faith in God.
If I’m drowning in the ocean, faith that the lifeguard exists isn’t going to save me. I will need to have a life-saving personal encounter with the lifeguard. It is the same with faith in God. Just believing He exists won’t save you.
The difference between a drowning victim who has come to know the lifeguard through a personal rescue and one who hasn’t is breath. There is breath in the lungs of the rescued victim. There is life to his body. And that is what James is saying here. There must be breath in the lungs of our faith, there must be life to it, or it’s a dead faith.
Let’s look at a similar scenario as the example given by James. Imagine a ministry for the homeless opening up in the heart of your city. Their motto is, “Loving the hungry and homeless,” yet, when those without food and shelter enter their facility for help all they are given is a verbal blessing that they would be warmed and filled but aren’t offered any food, physical provisions, or shelter. Those in need would quickly come to the conclusion this ministry is useless and their love for the homeless is empty.
In my city, we have a fantastic ministry caring for the homeless. They pray for those in our community who are in need of food and shelter, they sacrifice, volunteer, donate, and advocate for the human beings finding themselves in hard situations and in need. Their actions prove the sincerity of their claim to care about the homeless.
What we do proves the truthfulness of what we claim.
(On a side note, I believe this is one reason, of many, the idea of prayer in response to tragedy and suffering has grown out of favor with the wider culture. Too often it is used in the way James is speaking of in this passage. The phrase thoughts and prayers is easy to post and share on social media, but after posting, we keep scrolling without doing the hard work of crying out to God on behalf of others.
The phrase can feel empty to a hurting world hoping for tangible change or help. A sentimental use of the idea of prayer should never be used to cover over an indifference towards the immediate needs before us. We may fool ourselves with empty phrases, but we do not fool those in need, and we do not fool God.
Of course, prayer is one of the most powerful acts we can participate in not because of the power of those of us praying but because of the power of the One to whom we pray. But, prayer is work and we must do the work of prayer for it to mean anything. It’s not enough to simply post the word prayers on social media or in a text message. We need to get on our faces before God and pray. Prayer is an action, not just a sentiment, and where possible and appropriate, prayer should be coupled with physical help.)
It’s very easy to claim to have faith in God, but the sincerity of one’s faith is proven by how one lives. We see this as we look more closely at what James means by good deeds. James goes on to show us that when he speaks of good deeds, he is referring to a life of obedience to God, and he uses the examples of Abraham and Rahab to prove his point.
In Genesis 22, we have the account of an incredible command from God and the radical obedience of Abraham. God tested Abraham’s faith and asked him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, whom Abraham loved so much and through whom God was to keep His promises to Abraham.
God knew He would provide a ram for the sacrifice and would never allow Abraham to take the life of his son. God hates human sacrifice. But, Abraham didn’t know God’s plan, and God was testing Abraham by requiring obedience that would stretch Abraham’s faith further than it had ever been stretched before.
Abraham’s obedience to God when it would cost him everything proved the depth and sincerity of his faith in God.
Then, James takes us to the story of Rahab recorded in Joshua 2. Moses had died, and Joshua was to lead the Israelites across the Jordan River and into the land God had promised them.
Joshua sent two spies to scout out the situation on the other side of the Jordan and around the city of Jericho. The two spies ended up at the house of a prostitute named Rahab. The king of Jericho heard there were two spies from Israel staying with Rahab and confronted her.
She lied to the king sending him and his men on a wild goose chase in order to protect the spies. When she explained to the two spies why she had helped them, it was clear her actions were born of faith in the God of Israel as the one true God. She had heard what He had done for His people, His wondrous deeds on their behalf, and she was choosing to align herself with their God. Her actions proved where she had placed her faith.
It was Abraham and Rahab’s obedience, the good they did, that proved their faith to be true.
Now, is James saying that our good deeds, or obedience, earns a right relationship with God? No, not at all.
As Paul says in Romans 3:28, So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law.
Again, in Ephesians 2:8-9, we are reminded that it is not our good works that save us but God’s grace when we place our faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. Salvation is not a reward, but a gift.
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.
James, in this passage, isn’t speaking about what justifies a sinner; he’s speaking about the evidence that a sinner has been justified. Actually, good deeds without faith aren’t any better than faith without good deeds.
And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him. Hebrews 11:6
You see, works without faith are dead works, and faith without works is a dead faith. True faith in Jesus makes possible obedience that pleases God, while obedience proves true faith in Jesus.
I like how Matthew Henry puts in in his commentary on this passage:
The justification of which Paul speaks is different from that spoken of by James; the one speaks of our persons being justified before God, the other speaks of our faith being justified before men: “Show me thy faith by thy works,’’ says James, “let thy faith be justified in the eyes of those that behold thee by thy works;’’ but Paul speaks of justification in the sight of God, who justifies those only that believe in Jesus, and purely on account of the redemption that is in him. Thus we see that our persons are justified before God by faith, but our faith is justified before men by works.
In today’s culture, it has become increasingly popular to divorce faith in God from obedience to God, but James reminds us they are inseparable.
An apple seed remains a seed until it is acted upon by other things: sun, water, soil, and air. The seed cannot make itself alive, but once acted upon, once brought to life, it will begin to grow. The seed breaks open. Roots grow down into the soil as a tiny plant pushes up eventually emerging from the ground. The plant will continue to grow and mature into a tree that produces fruit, apples, in this case, which is a natural result of the life within.
No one would look at an apple seed and claim it is the same thing as a tree. No one could expect to get apples from a seed without the seed having been brought to life. Take an apple seed and set it on the shelf of your pantry. See how quickly it satisfies your hunger with apples. It is good for nothing. There is no life to it.
It is the same with faith. Unless faith is alive and productive, it is as pointless as a seed on a shelf. There must be life before there can be fruit, and fruit gives evidence of life.
A seed cannot boast that it made itself a tree, for it did not. It was helpless to produce anything good until acted upon by forces outside itself. In a similar way, we cannot boast in our good deeds for we are helpless to produce anything good in us. The good work begun in us was instituted through Christ’s finished work on our behalf.
As the great reformers put it, we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. But, the tree and its fruit are evidence the seed has indeed been made alive just as the obedience of our lives and the fruit it produces are evidence we have been made alive.
If a person claims faith in God, but this faith does not produce that which is natural to faith: obedience to God, then what is the point of the faith? It is dead. It is like a seed on a shelf. Growth and fruit are as natural to living faith as they are to a living plant. Where there is no growth or fruit, there is no life.
This is why James says our works, not just a claim to faith, show us to be right with God. It is faith lived out that proves the veracity of faith within. Good works are to faith as breath is to the body. Both are evidence of life.
Although no one will live out their faith with perfection this side of heaven, are our lives marked by growth in obedience to God? If we tell someone we are a Christian, will they find that hard to believe, or can they look to the good we do as evidence of the truthfulness of our claim? Do the lives we live outwardly give evidence of the faith living within?