The letter of James says, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). What does this mean? Aren’t we saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ?
Yes, we’re saved by grace through faith. The apostle Paul says that clearly in Ephesians 2:8–9. But some people say, “Well, you know, when you say, ‘I have faith, but I don’t have works,’ you’re basically useless for everybody else around you.’” That’s part of the point that James is making. In James 2:14, he says, “What good is it my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” That kind of faith is just empty. He adds, “If a brother or a sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
So works should accompany faith, but works are also different from faith. James goes on to say, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith, apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). James draws an analogy, comparing faith and works to the body and the spirit. So, as the body is different from the spirit, faith is different from good works. Faith is not works. And one of the big problems out there in the church today is that people confound those two things. They talk about faith as if it was a work, which at the end of the day, undermines the gospel, which tells us that we’re not saved by our works but by faith in Jesus Christ.
But true, saving faith shows itself in works. When we believe in Jesus Christ, we receive him for our justification. Faith is not a work—it’s an empty hand that receives the grace of God, the gift of the Holy Spirit. And through that free gift we receive the Spirit of God and justification. After we’re justified by faith, the Holy Spirit continues to work in us to transform our wills. This transformation leads us to work to serve the Lord.
That’s what happens in the Christian life. We call it sanctification. So there’s no contradiction between James and Paul. Paul tells us we’re justified by faith alone, and James is talking about how the reality of our faith is revealed in the way we live. There are nominal Christians who just say, “Oh, yeah, I believe in Jesus,” but their faith in Christ really doesn’t mean anything in their lives. They believe in Jesus, but nothing has changed. That’s a serious problem. That’s not true faith. That’s not a real understanding of who Jesus is and what he’s done for you. True faith shows itself in works, in a life gripped by the grace of God.
Of course, we still sin every day in thought, word, and deed. We’re never sinless this side of of heaven. But we’re growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, and God promises to work in us and to sanctify us. That’s the reality for the justified. And that’s what James is getting at in this passage.