“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 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? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
(James 2:14-17 NIV)
James, as is his pattern of writing, begins an important topic with the term of endearment, “my brothers and sisters”.
His subject? Faith without works vs. faith with works. James states his premise as a question: Is faith without accompanying works really faith? James preceded this question with a warning in chapter 1, verse 22, when he said, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
James’ purpose was (and is) to question those who call themselves followers of Jesus Christ, but have no evidence in their lives that proves their claim. There were individuals in the Jewish community who were twisting Paul’s words and using their (alleged) faith as a subtle excuse to avoid obedience to God’s word and living out what they believe.
James was not judging these individuals to make himself look better; rather, he was concerned for their very souls. These folks were walking around claiming that they had their “get into heaven free” card, and therefore, could do anything they wanted, completely disregarding the rest of God’s Word. James was warning them that their supposed “get into heaven free” card may be a fake, and if their lives depended on it after they died, it would be too late to correct the problem…. Their eternal destiny is at stake.
For the record, James is not saying that our works (our good deeds) has any part in our salvation. In fact, quite the opposite. James agrees wholeheartedly with Paul, that salvation is by faith alone, through Christ alone; our righteousness (the forgiveness of sins and right standing before God) comes from Christ, and not from ourselves.
In today’s passage, James lays out his premise (v. 14), provides an illustration (vv. 15-16), then draws his conclusion (v. 17).
The premise: Is faith without works really faith?
James provides an illustration to make his point. If you see someone completely destitute, with no clothing or food, and you offer them kind words, but do nothing to relieve their poverty or meet their immediate need, have you really helped them?
To make the point, let’s flip the illustration. Let’s suppose that it’s you or me in the situation. We find ourselves with no money, no shelter, no food, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and it’s 40 degrees and raining. Someone stops and says, “hey, hope you find a place to stay, some warm clothes, and get something to eat.” They immediately drive away. Would that help you or your situation? Obviously, not at all.
James uses this illustration to conclude that there must be some sort of activity to prove our faith is alive. Just as a body with no heartbeat or breathing or brain activity is dead, our faith without accompanying signs of life is dead.
Jesus used a similar illustration when describing the judgment day (Matthew 25:31-46). In a court of law, would there be enough evidence to convict us of being a Christ-follower?
The apostle John uses Jesus’ life as an example of faith lived out:
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:16-18 NIV)
Am I loving others with actions and truth? May our faith be evidenced by our actions.