Faith Without Works is Dead
James 2:14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 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? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe--and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? (NKJV)
This may well be one of the most misunderstood passages in the Bible. On the surface, James may appear to be contradicting the Bible teaching that we are saved by faith alone. It may appear that James is saying that we are saved by a combination of faith and works, but James is not saying this at all.
James asks how does it benefit the kingdom for man to say he has faith but does not follow it up with works (v. 14a)? Good works are the outward sign of faith.
Can faith (alone) save us (v. 14b)? James is hinting that the answer is no. But what kind of faith are we talking about? Are we talking about the faith of believing in God, or the faith of trusting God enough to turn our life over to Him? Faith alone, without works, is a sign that we have not turned our life over to God.
What James is saying here is that good works are a result of faith, the faith of trusting in God. The person that is truly saved will exhibit the fruit of his saved condition (Gal. 6:22-23). He will be changed. He will be a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). He will produce good works.
Should a Christian say to the needy "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled" without caring for their needs (vv. 15-16)? Is this what the Good Samaritan did? All the needy person sees is a hypocrite. The words are not matching the actions. The Christian is professing love, but not showing love. Does that benefit the kingdom?
“Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (v. 17). James is saying that if someone claims to have faith but shows no indication of that faith, his faith is dead. In other words, his faith is useless. It does not benefit the kingdom.
Faith without works is inferior to faith with works (v. 18). A faith that professes belief in God is not the same as a faith that puts God in charge of your life. Even “the demons” believe in God (v. 19). A Christian profession of faith is the expression of belief in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. It is a turning over of our life to Jesus. It is more than an acknowledgement of who God is. A Christian profession of faith results in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which results in good works.
James describes one who has faith alone, without works, as “foolish” (v. 20). He is foolish because he is fooling himself. There is no indication of a changed life. He is still trying to live life in his own strength. He has not turned his life over to the Lord. He is not allowing the Holy Spirit to live through him.
So, James is not saying that we are saved by a combination of faith and works. He is saying that if our faith does not produce good works, it is useless. It does not benefit the kingdom of God.
That kind of faith is also useless to us. It is not enough to just believe in God. Even the demons believe in God. Faith means trusting in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. He is the Lord of our life, meaning we have put Him in charge of our life. We have been indwelled by the Holy Spirit and we are yielding to the Holy Spirit who is producing good works through us. We are not saved by good works. We are saved by faith, but when we are saved we produce good works.
Online Bible Commentary