Faith is a key doctrine in the Christian life. The sinner is saved by faith (Eph. 2:8–9) and the believer must walk by faith (2 Cor. 5:7). Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6) and whatever we do apart from faith is sin (Rom. 14:23).
Someone has said that faith is not “believing in spite of evidence, but obeying in spite of consequence.” When you read Hebrews 11, you meet men and women who acted on God’s Word, no matter what price they had to pay. Faith is not some kind of nebulous feeling we work up; faith is confidence that God’s Word is true and conviction that acting on that Word will bring His blessing.
In this paragraph, James discussed the relationship between faith and works. This is an important discussion, for if we are wrong in this matter, we jeopardize our eternal salvation. What kind of faith really saves a person? Is it necessary to perform good works in order to be saved? How can a person tell whether or not he is exercising true saving faith? James answers these questions by explaining to us there are three kinds of faith, only one of which is true saving faith.
Dead Faith (James 2:14–17)
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.
Even in the early church there were those who claimed they had saving faith, yet did not possess salvation. Wherever there is the true, you will find the counterfeit. Jesus warned, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21).
People with dead faith substitute words for deeds. They know the correct vocabulary for prayer and testimony, and can even quote the right verses from the Bible; but their walk does not measure up to their talk. They think their words are as good as works, and they are wrong.
James gave a simple illustration. A poor believer came into a fellowship, without proper clothing and in need of food. The person with dead faith noticed the visitor and saw his needs, but he did not do anything to meet the needs. All he did was say a few pious words! “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed” (2:16). But the visitor went away just as hungry and naked as he came in!
Food and clothing are basic needs of every human being, whether he is saved or unsaved. “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Tim. 6:8). “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows you need them” (Matt. 6:31–32). Jacob included these basic needs in his prayer to God: “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking, and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear” (Gen. 28:20).
As believers, we have an obligation to help meet the needs of people, no matter who they may be. “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10). “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me” (Matt. 25:40).
To help a person in need is an expression of love and faith works by love (Gal. 5:6). The Apostle John emphasized this aspect of good works. “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and truth” (1 John 3:17–18). The priest and Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan each had religious training, but neither of them paused to assist the dying man at the side of the road (Luke 10:25–37). Each of them would defend his faith, yet neither demonstrated that faith in loving works.
The question in 2:14 should read, “Can that kind of faith save him?” What kind? The kind of faith that is never seen in practical works. The answer is no! Any declaration of faith that does not result in a changed life and good works is a false declaration. That kind of faith is dead faith. “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (2:17). The great theologian, John Calvin, wrote, “It is faith alone that justifies, but faith that justifies can never be alone.” The word alone in 2:17 simply means “by itself.” True saving faith can never be by itself: it always brings life and life produces good works.
The person with dead faith has only an intellectual experience. In his mind, he knows the doctrines of salvation, but he has never submitted himself to God and trusted Christ for salvation. He knows the right words, but he does not back up his words with his works. Faith in Christ brings life (John 3:16), and where there is life there must be growth and fruit. Three times in this paragraph, James warns us that “faith without works is dead” (2:17, 20, 26).
Beware of a mere intellectual faith. No man can come to Christ by faith and remain the same any more than he can come into contact with a 220-volt wire and remain the same. “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12). Dead faith is not saving faith. Dead faith is counterfeit faith and lulls the person into a false confidence of eternal life.
Demonic Faith (James 2:18–19)
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
James wanted to shock his complacent readers, so he used demons as his illustration. In recent years the church has rediscovered the reality and activity of demons. When our Lord was ministering on earth, He often cast out demons; and He gave that power to His disciples. Paul often confronted demonic forces in his ministry; and in Ephesians 6:10–20, he admonished the early Christians to claim God’s protection and defeat the spiritual forces of wickedness.
It comes as a shock to people that demons have faith! What do they believe? For one thing, they believe in the existence of God; they are neither atheists nor agnostics. They also believe in the deity of Christ. Whenever they met Christ when He was on earth, they bore witness to His sonship (Mark 3:11–12). They believe in the existence of a place of punishment (Luke 8:31); and they also recognize Jesus Christ as the Judge (Mark 5:1–13). They submit to the power of His Word.
“Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord!” (Deut. 6:4) This was the daily affirmation of faith of the godly Jew. “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (2:19). The man with dead faith was touched only in his intellect; but the demons are touched also in their emotions. They believe and tremble.
But it is not a saving experience to believe and tremble. A person can be enlightened in his mind and even stirred in his heart and be lost forever. True saving faith involves something more, something that can be seen and recognized: a changed life. “Show me your faith without deeds,” challenged James, “and I will show you my faith by my deeds” (2:18).
How could a person show his faith without works? Can a dead sinner perform good works? Impossible! When you trust Christ, you are “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10). Being a Christian involves trusting Christ and living for Christ; you receive the life, then you reveal the life. Faith that is barren is not saving faith. The Greek word translated “dead” in 2:20 carries the meaning of “barren or idle,” like money drawing no interest.
James has introduced us to two kinds of faith that can never save the sinner: dead faith (the intellect alone) and demonic faith (the intellect and the emotions). He closes this section by describing the only kind of faith that can save the sinner—dynamic faith.
In Part 2, we will take a closer look at this true saving faith.