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Understanding the Faith that Works

Updated on May 29, 2011
James presents his case before the Jewish Christians and rhetorically questions the validity of a claim to faith without deeds.
James presents his case before the Jewish Christians and rhetorically questions the validity of a claim to faith without deeds.

Faith Responds From A Believing Heart Into An Obedient Life

In the letter of James we read, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead” (Jas 2:26). The Christian is exhorted to exercise a demonstrative faith that is wrought in good deeds and pleasing in God’s sight.

Historically, we the readers, are left to guess the time and spiritual condition of the believers whom James was writing. The only clue given was that of scattered Jews from the twelve tribes. What was James’ purpose for having written such a letter? What was the atmosphere then that possibly triggered him to instruct and encourage the believers? Why the need to emphasize measure of faith against trials, temptations, deceptions and oppressive actions?

James presents his case before the Jewish Christians and rhetorically questions the validity of a claim to faith without deeds. In the near context of chapter two, he confronts the claim with a practical instance from everyday life: an encounter with an unclothed and hungry brother. The pressing situation necessitates a physical dependence upon the action of another brother to care for and meet such needs. A mere response of worldly wishes does the person no good. Polite words uttered with much feeling but no real meaning can dangerously distance our personal safety from the present reality (Jas 2:14-16). Faith unaccompanied accomplishes nothing (2:17). Such a faith is rendered barren because of inactivity. This is the description of a thoughtless and profitless belief yielding no fruitful but foolish results (2:18-20).

Contextual Illustrations Of Faith

As we evaluate the weight of James’ words, we need to recognize the importance of placing verse 2:26 in its near/immediate context of verses 14-26. This passage readily point out the contrasts of a false and genuine faith. Good comparisons were made between the use of James’ two illustrations lifted from everyday encounters: The example of favoritism toward the rich in verses 1-7 and negligence toward the poor challenges us to re-examine the outworkings of our faith in verses 14-16. An emphasis on James’ question “Can this kind of faith save you?” addressed the difference between one’s claim to faith (mere intellectual assent) as opposed to one’s call to action (direct personal involvement). Do we carry this claim out of convenience to our own selfish ends or out of a commitment to Him who we have to do?

The definition of faith is well described between what is fake and what is fact. The three types of faith described—demonic (v. 19), useless (v. 20), and dead (v. 26)—determine as well as expose the nature of one’s belief. The two facts of faith in verses 17 and 18 amply conclude its true condition: that of being lifeless and devoid of deeds. It shows how James literally strips off faith’s false facade and renders it naked to the shame of its impostors.

To further strengthen the argument, James warns of the stiff consequences of judgment issued in the subsequent verses (2:8-13). As we expound this passage, we would benefit and support “the faith that pleases God” recorded as the chapter’s eminent truth. Loving your neighbor as yourself in verse 8 calls for the individual expression of believers to actively participate in fulfilling God’s royal law: the law of love. Being the source of all other laws, the royal law oversees all human relationships. This verse correlates well with Galatians 5:6: The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. According to Fee and Stuart, “Orthodoxy is correct belief. Orthopraxy is correct action. Through the prophets, God calls the people of ancient Israel and Judah to a balance of right belief and action. This, of course, remains the very balance that the new covenant requires as well (cf. Jas 1:27; 2:18; Eph 2:8-10). What God wants of Israel and Judah is, in a general sense, the same as what He wants of us. For those who obey the stipulations of the new covenant (loving God and loving one’s neighbor), the final, eternal result will be blessing, even though the results in this world are not guaranteed to be so encouraging. For those who disobey, the result can be only curse, regardless of how one fares during life on earth.”[i]

Ancestral Applications Of Faith

A significant portion of the passage we are studying focuses on the actual ancestral applications of faith. This section draws its strength from the two experiential evidences of Abraham and Rahab—a friend of Jehovah and an outcast from Jericho. A patriarch and prostitute who are highly regarded by the Jews as models who manifested righteous deeds that pleased God. Their actions spoke louder than words. The root of their faith bore fruit in obedience. Personal sacrifice was what it cost them: the life of his son and the safety of her family. In both cases, we witnessed that faith expresses itself by a demonstrated action. Mears notes, “Faith which does not express itself in works is of no value. Faith is revealed by what we do. What is the use of anyone’s saying that he has faith if he does not prove it by his actions? Just as a body without a spirit is dead, so faith is dead without actions (2:17).”[ii] Faith fleshed itself out in the lives of a man and woman who desired to obey God. The evidence was wrought in deeds of righteousness.

Righteousness was found in Abraham’s altar of action. Faith and action “working together” (2:22) make up two sides of the same coin. The root of Abraham’s faith in Genesis 15:6 bore fruit years later in Genesis 22. In the same way, Rahab’s sacrifice of safety was recorded as a righteous act (Jos 2:6-22; Heb 11:31; Jas 2:25). The results of their belief was manifested in their desire to obey God. These ancestral examples demonstrate the great difference between a naked faith and one clothed in righteousness. Faith that pleases God is always active, never passive. “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is also dead” (2:26).

Doctrinal Balance Of Faith

Of course, a balance is needed in citing the difference of the justification and the validation of faith. These are important issues that should be clarified, especially for those who come from a background with strong leanings against a doctrine of works. Their preconceptions in the matter would facilitate such a question. Getz comments, “When studying the letter of James, particularly the passage we’re looking at in this chapter, Luther concluded that James was contradicting Paul. It is easy to see why. First, he had been reared in a religious community where he had been taught that a person gets to heaven by performing good works. Through personal study of the Scriptures, he discovered that this was a false doctrine. Consequently, he literally put his life on the line for the doctrine of justification by faith.”[iii] From Luther’s cultural perspective, we can see why he overreacted and misunderstood the sayings and teachings of James.

A distinct contrast, therefore, should be made with the faith that comes by hearing (Rom 10:17) and the faith that expresses by doing (Jas 1:22). The correlation of verses between these books (the message of Paul and James) would help substantiate rather than contradict the teachings of faith. Wilkinson and Boa add, “In Romans 4, Paul used the example of Abraham to show that Abraham was justified by faith, not by works. But James asserts that Abraham was justified by works (2:21). In spite of the apparent contradiction, Romans 4 and James 2 are really two sides of the same coin. In context, Paul is writing about justification before God while James cites the evidence of justification before men. A faith that produces no change is not saving faith.”[iv] In a comparison between the message of Paul and the message of James, the emphasis is readily observed: “Paul’s message calls attention to the ‘root,’ looking at what happens at the moment of salvation while James’ message calls attention to the ‘fruit,’ looking at what happens after salvation.”[v] Paul’s perspective focuses on God’s part, while James’ perspective focuses on man’s part. The terminology differs wherein Romans deals with the justification of faith, while James deals with the validation of faith.

If we were to derive any benefit from Scripture, it would have to depend on how we use it and on what response we make towards its message. Stott observes, “One of God’s recurring complaints in the biblical record itself is that His people continually turned a deaf ear to His Word. His messengers had to keep pleading with Israel: ‘O that today you would hearken to His voice!’ (Ps 97:7).”[vi]

In the same vein, Jesus also warned his contemporaries about their response to his teaching. The parable of the sower exemplifies the manner of how people received the Word of God by the condition of the soil into which the seed fell. “All of us," according to Stott, "are building our life on some foundation. Those who build on rock, whose house will survive the storms of adversity and of judgment, are those who listen to Christ’s teaching and put it into practice.”[vii]

In the remote context of James 1:26-27, the passage, according to Mears, asks us to “keep faith and works in their proper place. Because of all this, James says in effect, ‘the faith that you have is the faith you show.’ Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world (1:27).”[viii]

God still speaks through what He has spoken and listening to His voice through His Word is only the beginning. Jesus said that it is not enough ‘to know these things,’ but that we shall be blessed only if we ‘do them’ (Jn 13:17). Stott concludes, “Perhaps no apostle put this more clearly than James, the Lord’s brother, who wrote: ‘But be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves’ (Jas 1:22). To ‘do’ the truth is to do what it says, to translate its message into action.”[ix] This is the principle of faith: Faith is alive and active, and it responds from a believing heart into an obedient life. True faith that produces genuine fruit. Thus our works, the outcome of our faith in action, reveals the reality of one’s own personal relationship with God.


[i] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 167.

[ii] Henrietta C. Mears, What The Bible Is All About, new rev. ed., with a Foreword by Billy Graham (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1983), 578.

[iii] Gene A. Getz, Doing Your Part (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1984), 21.

[iv] Bruce Wilkinson and Kenneth Boa, Talk Thru The Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983), 467.

[v] Getz, 31.

[vi] John R. W. Stott, Understanding The Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, rev. 1976), 243.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Mears, 577.

[ix] Stott, 246.

© 2009, Gicky Soriano. All rights reserved.

Recommended reading:

James: Faith That Works (Preaching the Word)
James: Faith That Works (Preaching the Word)

The epistle of James is perhaps the most practical--and most convicting--book of the entire New Testament. It is a marvelous exposition of the outworking of genuine Christian faith. True faith works!



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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      the message clears the air on mis understanding of james keep it up.

    • Judah's Daughter profile image

      Judah's Daughter 

      9 years ago from Roseville, CA

      Timely, Carrie Bradshaw (my other profile) has a couple of hubs that expose Mormonism (What Mormons Didn't Tell Me). I encourage you to have your son take a look at this! Praise be to our Lord who is the Light of the World and delivers us out of darkness; amen!!

    • Gicky Soriano profile imageAUTHOR

      Gicky Soriano 

      9 years ago from California

      Timely, I am so glad that the strength of your son's relationship with God allowed him to disentangle himself with this religion (and relationship). Although it may have been a trying six months for you, his faith was tried and its fruit prevailed.

      As a parent, my own nest has emptied in recent years. In my children's growing up and formative years, it was my "faith in action" that they experienced. Now that they are old enough and on their own, it is their faith that must be tried and tempered by God through their own purposeful experiences with Him.

      Thank you for giving this hub a read. I appreciate your insightful comment and words of encouragement. God bless you.

    • Timely profile image


      9 years ago from United States

      Gicky, read through your hub and your last statement "True faith that produces genuine fruit. Thus our works, the outcome of our faith in action, reveals the reality of one’s own personal relationship with God", summarizes it all.

      About 6 months ago my son got tangled into a relationship with a girl in the Mormon religion. The religion as it is referred to, I believe is a cult, that rests totally on works and their faith is placed on an individual instead of God.

      Without his personal relationship with God and the strength he had developed, he could have fell victim as many do to a church that is led by false prophets and well meaning but blind sheep.

      It is sad but the members of that church are not allowed to view any related information about their faith either in books or the internet. I know their has to be some followers that have questions and stray and to those I hope they find a way to words of wisdom such as yours.

    • Gicky Soriano profile imageAUTHOR

      Gicky Soriano 

      9 years ago from California

      Hi James. As always, thanks for the visit. I hope the exposition brought a fresh understanding on the subject as well as challenged your faith. God bless you.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      9 years ago from Chicago

      A wonderful exposition on Faith in action. I totally agree with everything in your article. Thank you for a fine read.

    • Abrushing1968 profile image

      Aaron Rushing 

      9 years ago from USA- Florida

      GS- I do soo agree! May we all be given ears to hear with!

      LOL "I'm behaving in the bible" ROFL! What a great statement! Love it!

      Your brother in Christ


    • Gicky Soriano profile imageAUTHOR

      Gicky Soriano 

      9 years ago from California

      ABR: I like your take on the local billboard. The message would surely turn heads (and not cause accidents I hope). The Christian “lookie lous” would certainly take a hard look at the subtle warning behind the billboard message.

      I am reminded of the story of the rich man and Lazarus. While tormented in Hades, the rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house and warn his five brothers about this place of torment. Abraham said that they have access to Moses and the prophets (as did Lazarus)—it is these that they should be listening to. Knowing his brothers all too well, the rich man insisted that if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent. Abraham replied, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Lk 16:19-31).

      I am not on any crusade against Christian billboards, t-shirts and bumper stickers. Although they have their uses, I am not completely convinced that it will cause people in need of an eternal warning to repent this side of heaven. Like Abraham said, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets,” as in our Holy Scriptures today, neither will people be convinced even if well-meaning Christians (or mega churches for that matter) raise up a $1500 a month billboard from their budget.

      With the world’s population approaching six billion, statistics show that there is approximately one Bible for every living person on Earth! The United States receives the greatest bulk of this distribution. Although the Bible is a bestseller and widely read on this continent, “hearing the message” is key. Sadly, multitudes across America take God’s Word for granted. Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” A Chinese student once said, “I am not only believing the Bible, I am behaving it.” It is my prayer that the lost souls and lookie lous alike, need to get past their hardness of heart and curiosity by learning to listen the Word of God.

      Thank you for your valuable visit to my hub. I thoroughly enjoy interacting with your insightful comments. God bless you brother.

    • Abrushing1968 profile image

      Aaron Rushing 

      9 years ago from USA- Florida

      GS- This was an excellent message on a subject that is dear to my heart. I believe this is the message we in America need to hear, my self included.

      I saw a billboard the other day that read "Jesus loves you!" It was an advertisement for one of the 2 mega-churches in the area.

      I think that message has pretty much been delivered successfully. Don't you?

      Americans knows that Jesus loves them and a good portion could care less! If they want to put that $1500.00 a month billboard to better use they need to change the message to:

      "Christian America, we know Jesus loves us. The question is, Do you love Jesus?"

      I rejoice that the same spirt that is speaking to you is speaking to me. Glory! keep up the good work!

      In Christ


    • Gicky Soriano profile imageAUTHOR

      Gicky Soriano 

      9 years ago from California

      I appreciate your visit thecatholicexpert.

    • thecatholicexpert profile image


      9 years ago

      Great hub, as are all of yours, thanks for posting this!

    • Gicky Soriano profile imageAUTHOR

      Gicky Soriano 

      9 years ago from California

      You're welcome Betty. Thanks for the visit. Keep the faith as you stay the course in Jesus.

    • jesusmyjoy profile image

      Betty Bolden 

      9 years ago from Bucyrus Ohio

      Thank you for this

    • Gicky Soriano profile imageAUTHOR

      Gicky Soriano 

      9 years ago from California

      Way to process your faith JD! Thank you for sharing your personal struggles in faith as well as the insight into what it means to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Rooted in Christ, may your faith bear the fruit of love and obedience in Him.

    • Judah's Daughter profile image

      Judah's Daughter 

      9 years ago from Roseville, CA

      I find my Lord saying to me, "O ye of little faith" so often. I then find my prayer to be that of His disciples, "Lord, increase my faith!" What is obedience? Well, for me, it's bridling my tongue, my emotions, my flesh over what the Spirit would have me do. It's obeying His Spirit; this is the work of faith in me. For each has a measure of faith given to him/her by God. I have to trust and believe He is faithful to His word, and that by my obedience to His Spirit, He will accomplish His will, not mine.

      Thus, Matthew 17:21 "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven."

      I think, for me, this is what it means to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" because we are saved by grace through faith. We must live by faith (in Christ), for the Word says the New Covenant is "that no one is justified by the Law before God; for, 'THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.'" (Gal 3:11). I trust I'm on the right track...still growing and learning...

    • Gicky Soriano profile imageAUTHOR

      Gicky Soriano 

      9 years ago from California

      May you keep your faith alive and active coffeesnob. Bear the fruit of an obedient life in Christ. I truly appreciate your comment. Once again, thank you for your gracious visit. God bless you.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Great article and excellent comparrison between Paul and James on the idea of works.

      "This is the principle of faith: Faith is alive and active, and it responds from a believing heart into an obedient life."

      Loved this statement. In it there is no allowance for faith to be still, and certainly it shouldn't be still. My faith in Jesus make my love deepen for Him, My love for Him brings about obedience. Faith -alive and active - right on!

      thanks for this piece -


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