For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
To many, faith and faith alone is thought to be all which is required to be saved. Thus, many are deceived into thinking that salvation will come to them simply by saying, usually in a prayer, that they believe in Jesus and accept Him into their heart. After that, they are saved and will stay saved if they are a good person when compared to the likes of, say, a serial killer. James 2:14-26 shows repeatedly that biblical faith, faith which is living and acceptable in God’s sight, requires much more than a simple, heart-felt acknowledgement of faith.
Works are what legitimize one’s faith in the eyes of God. James proves this to be true by first rhetorically asking, “What use is it…if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” (2:14). He then gives the illustration of how useless it would be if someone had no clothes and was starving and a Christian DID nothing to help them but instead simply SAID to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled” (2:15-16). Therefore James concludes his illustration by saying, “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (2:17).
It means nothing for Christians to SAY they believe in God if they are not willing to obey the commands of the God in Whom they say they believe. James illustrates, “But someone may well say, ‘You have faith and I have works’” (2:18a). James’ response? “Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (2:18b). Imagine someone asking you if you believe that Jesus is Lord, you respond affirmatively, they then ask you if you’re willing to obey a command of His (like Matthew 7:12), and you say that you’re not willing to do that. Their conclusion? “He doesn’t really believe Jesus is his Lord.” It’s impossible to SHOW someone that you believe in God without ACTION on your part which obeys God’s commands. James illustrates this again by sarcastically pointing out to those who say that they “believe that God is one” that “the demons also believe, and shudder” before asking again, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” (2:19-20)
He then cites Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as an example of faith justified by works (2:21-23). God “tested” Abraham (Gen. 22:1ff) – specifically, his faith – by demanding of him something that any parent would find extremely hard or impossible to do. Abraham “talks the talk,” but will he “walk the walk” if I tell him to sacrifice Isaac? As the Hebrew writer points out, Abraham’s faith in God was so strong that he reasoned that God would resurrect Isaac after the sacrifice (Heb. 11:17-19). He passed the test (Gen. 22:9-12), and thus showed according to James that “faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected,” i.e., made complete (2:22). Thus, quoting Genesis 15:6, James shows that Abraham’s faith – his trust in God – “was reckoned to him as righteousness” (2:23). God thought him righteous because of his obedient faith. That’s why he was God’s “friend.”
James also cites Rahab as a similar illustration. She was “justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way” (2:25; cf. Josh. 2:1-21). All of Jericho had heard of God’s power in His aid to Israel, but only Rahab was humble and faithful enough to submit to God and help His people…even though she had the power to turn them over to their enemies. It’s true that she lied in doing so, but her lie is not what is being praised here. God is praising her faith – despite her character flaw – which was proved by her willingness to put her and her family at risk to help His people.
James’ point? “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24). “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (2:26). It’s interesting that the one time we can find the phrase “faith alone” in the Bible is when God goes out of His way to show that justification comes “NOT by faith alone,” but “by works” as well. So much for the notion that salvation comes by faith alone. Works of obedience to God’s commands prove the legitimacy of one’s professed faith in God.