… faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead …
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. (verses 17, 20-24)
Faith and works – how do they interact?
I think of a classic statement from the Apostle Paul: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). He makes the clear point that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone. What a relief! What joy! We can’t work for it. We can’t earn it. Salvation is a gift, pure and simple. It is given to us by God’s grace, and it is received simply through faith.
That’s what the Scripture says. Faith is the issue. Period. “Not by works, so that no one can boast.”
So how, then, can James now say, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (verse 17, ESV)? Did he really mean to say that? I think he must have, because he doesn’t leave it there – he doubles down and drives it home: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (verse 24, ESV).
Are these two portions of Scripture colliding?
No. Since Scripture is God’s own word, we have sure confidence that it doesn’t contradict itself. So, when scriptural statements seem to be in opposition, we need to take a second look.
Paul is talking about a faith that trusts God completely, just as Abraham did when the Lord promised him a son in his old age. He simply believed, “and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). It wasn’t the things he did (his “works”) which brought this about. No. It was faith – faith that was truly alive.
James, on the other hand, is interested in this last point. Is a person’s faith truly alive, or is it actually dead? How can you tell? You can tell, James says, by its actions. This is what he means when he says, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” In that case, it’s not real faith.
James then, like Paul, goes on to use Abraham as an example. He tells us that Abraham’s faith in God led to actions of obedience to God’s own commands. “His faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did” (verse 22). Abraham’s faith was fully alive – not dead. We know it because he took action – “he offered his son Isaac on the altar” (verse 21).
The question for us is basic and compelling: Is our own faith alive or is it actually dead? Do we have a faith that sits back, content to simply “believe,” but unwilling to step into active obedience to the Lord? Do we resist loving our neighbours as ourselves (verse 8)? Do we refuse to forgive? Do we passively allow the world to shape us into its own mold rather than submitting to God’s transforming work? Do we take up our cross daily?
Is our faith actively alive?
Paul would agree with James. Having strongly affirmed that we are saved by grace through faith (not by works), he immediately follows up by saying: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”(Ephesians 2:10).
Faith – alive and true – actively engages in good works. It obeys the Lord. The scriptures agree.
Will we embrace a faith like that?
O Lord, work in me a faith that is alive and true, trusting you fully for salvation. Then strengthen me, in faith, to actively obey, stepping into every good work you have prepared for me. To your glory. Amen.
Reflect: Is there some act of obedience the Lord is calling you to step into? Listen. Trust him. Do it.