14 What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
18 But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.
How do we know if our faith is dead?
James answers this important question in these verses. This passage may be one of the more misunderstood passages in the New Testament. Martin Luther called James an “epistle of straw” due to these verses. Many believe that James intentionally contradicts the teaching of the Apostle Paul about the nature of saving faith, yet this is not true. James does not have access to Paul’s writings as he pens this epistle; therefore, he does not write to contradict Paul. He gives invaluable information about the nature of true faith.
Since James wrote this letter before Paul’s epistles, we should interpret James on his merit without influence from Paul’s writing. We must understand that James and Paul fight the same battle from two different perspectives. Paul teaches that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8–10) while James explains that our deeds or actions will always reveal true faith. As such, James shows that there is a type of faith which does not save—a dead faith. He explains that genuine faith produces fruit in the Christian life while a dead faith is ineffectual and does not save.
The Lord Jesus taught the same thing. He knew that even though men professed belief in Him, many times they only believed in His miracles, yet their hearts were far from Him (John 2:24–25). He told Nicodemus that intellectual assent to His works or believing that God sent Him does not guarantee saving faith. Jesus proclaimed to him that you must be born again or transformed by the Spirit to be saved (John 3:3) and that the fruit of the Spirit reveals the reality of this transformation.
We must know if our faith is dead or alive; therefore James gives three signs of a dead faith:
An ineffectual profession (James 2:14)
In this verse, James asks if faith not accompanied by works can save. We must notice that this person has claimed to have faith, but has no deeds of righteousness. James believes that a lack of righteous actions reveal a dead faith even when a person professes Christ. In other words, their profession is ineffectual if not accompanied by righteous deeds.
Be warned, you may believe that Christ exists, and you may even believe in His atoning work on the cross, but if your deeds do not match your profession, then it is ineffectual and will not save you (Matthew 7:21–23).
Charles Spurgeon says it this way, “He that is without faith is without works; and he that is without works is without faith.”
Insincere mercies (James 2:15–17)
In this section, James gives the example of a brother or sister of humble circumstances approaching a rich brother for help. Instead of receiving them, the wealthy brother or sister sends them on their way with meaningless platitudes. They tell the needy brother to be warmed and be filled but don’t give them what is necessary to keep them alive. They may have feared the loss of status or wealth, but that’s no excuse for leaving someone cold and hungry. And, it reveals a wicked and unbelieving heart. Therefore, James states, “Faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” According to James, your lack of desire to help those in need reveals a dead faith which will not save you.
Martin Luther aptly states, “Faith doesn’t ask whether good works are to be done, but before it is asked, it has done them.”
Inconsequential confidence (James 2:18-19)
James tells his readers, “You believe God is one. You do well.” You may have confidence in your profession of faith, but confidence does not guarantee salvation. You may have a vast knowledge of spiritual things, but this knowledge will not help you if you have a dead faith.
In a shocking statement, James tells his readers, “The demons also believe, and shudder.” If you put your confidence in your profession of faith without righteous deeds, then you have a dead faith and are in no better position than the demons. In other words, you have a demonic faith. In the words of Martin Luther, you chatter on about faith and good works, but your faith is worthless.
According to James and Paul, we can only be assured of our salvation if we see evidence of Christ dwelling in us (2 Corinthians 13:5). We will not be perfect because we still dwell in our flesh, but our progress should be evident to all. If this is true of you, then rejoice and praise God! If not, I pray that you seek Christ while He may be found and call upon Him while He is near (Isaiah 55:6).