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. (James 2:14-17)
When someone claims to have faith, what they may have is intellectual assent – agreement with a set of Christian teachings – and as such it would be incomplete faith. True faith transforms our conduct as well as our thoughts. If our lives remain unchanged, we don’t truly believe the truths we claim to believe.
James addresses this section to people who have exercised genuine faith as his “brethren” or “brothers”. The issue in this section (James 2:14–26) is faith without works (James 2:17) versus faith accompanied by works (James 2:18). Genuine faith will naturally produce good works; the two complement each other. When someone truly believes in a cause, that belief will change the way that person lives. Works are actions which follow the “royal law” of love (James 2:8, 15, 16). James is implying in this verse that faith in Christ will demonstrate itself in love for others (see Jesus’ command to His disciples in John 13:34, 35).
In Depth—Faith and Works
The great reformer Martin Luther, champion of the doctrine of salvation through faith alone, never felt good about the epistle of James. He called it an “epistle full of straw” in the preface to his 1522 edition of the New Testament, and he put the book in the appendix. He preferred Paul’s wording of the faith-works equation: “A man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28).
In a sense, Luther had little choice. He was surrounded by men who said that good works could save you. He knew that God alone could save through faith alone, and his mission was to tell them.
But Luther went too far, when he put James in the appendix to the New Testament. Neither faith nor works can be cut off and thrown away. James was taking aim at freeloaders, those who claimed to have no need for good deeds since they had faith. The reality is that if you have faith, works will naturally be a product. You cannot get rid of works just because they do not save you. You cannot sever the effect from the cause. Just as an apple tree will bear apples, so faith will produce good works (Luke 6:43, 44).
Paul had the opposite problem in view when he wrote Romans. His letter targeted those who placed their faith in the Law of Moses. Their trust was in their own good works, and not in God. That is why Paul wrote a defense of faith, and that is why Luther preferred it to James’s defense of works.
Faith and works are not enemies. True faith and righteous works go hand in hand. They are two parts of God’s work in us. Faith brings a person to salvation, and works bring that person to faithfulness. Faith is the cause, works are the effect. James believed it, and so did Paul.
We cannot earn our salvation by serving and obeying God (James 2:17). But such actions show that our commitment to God is real. Deeds of loving service are not a substitute for, but rather a verification of, our faith in Christ. Some interpreters conclude that James is speaking about genuine faith which has become dead. Others maintain that this verse is referring to a faith that was never alive.
References: NKJV Holy Bible, Life Application Bible (NIV), the Nelson Study Bible.