But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!—James 2:18–19
How do you know if you are really a Christian? How do you know if your faith is true? The answer is not “get busier for Jesus.” The answer is found in the sufficient grace of God received by faith in Jesus. The book of James can feel like a stern rebuke—because it is. James was a pastor who needed to bring a hard truth to confused congregations, people who misunderstood the gospel and failed to grasp what the Holy Spirit effects through it—love and generosity.
Among these congregants were proud, wicked people who favored the rich above the poor (James 2:1–7); who spoke good words of blessing in one moment and destructive curse words of condemnation the next (James 3:9–10). There were people in this congregation whose hearts—filled with selfish ambition and demonic suggestions—had little place for the gospel (James 3:13–18). These were the sort of people whose hearts were at peace with a world that opposes God’s reign (James 4:4); who boasted of their worldly accomplishments and pursuits (James 4:13–14); who built lavish lives upon poverty-stricken backs (James 5:1–6); and who had failed to address the most basic issues in helping suffering people: patience, prayer, forgiveness, love, and service (James 5:7–20).
Chapter two of the book of James attacks the heart of the matter. Churches had twisted the gospel of grace into a self-serving message of personal prosperity and human achievement. James didn’t just attack their injustice and sinful practices. He identified the core problems—a faith that even demons can live with and an insufficient gospel. James acknowledged that these congregants affirmed the faith of their fathers: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19; see also Deut. 6:4–5). Yet, believing in the oneness of God was not enough. They needed more. They needed saving faith.
James issued a bold challenge to his congregation: “But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).
His point was simple: The faith that saves will always express itself in good works. Saving faith—a trust in who Christ is and what he has done—spills out in love for God and love for neighbor. This is the wisdom from God: the gospel that is received by faith alone gains both Christ and the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit is the down payment of God’s promised salvation, and he is the one who produces love, generosity, and a heart for restoration and reconciliation.
This is the challenge for us today: if we say we trust Christ for salvation, do we really understand what that means? Do you really think that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection from the dead was enough to save? Do you really expect to receive what God promises? Do you really expect the blessed presence of the Holy Spirit to enter your life to wreck your worldly pursuits, draw your heart to Christ, and produce a grace-loving, mercy-seeking, restoration-pursuing attitude that only God could create? James was addressing the problem that occurs when we fail to understand what Jesus’ saving work on the cross means for sinners in both their justification and their sanctification.
True faith doesn’t just know that God is one, or that Christ died for sinners, or even that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father as king over a new creation. True faith trusts and receives the whole package of God’s promises—acceptance with God and the Holy Spirit’s love-producing presence.
If you trust in Jesus for salvation, the good news is that God has also given you the Holy Spirit; and he will produce what God commands: love, joy, peace, assurance, and obedience. You won’t be perfect—at least not yet—but you will experience a taste of this good God, the Lord who pours his love into your heart. Your weak faith in Jesus is enough to receive what God promises.