The Truth About “Faith Without Works Is Dead”
“So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
Martin Luther was a very controversial figure, to say the least. In the 1500’s, the Catholic church was called out by Luther in a memo named, 95 Theses. In this letter, he wrote 95 things the church was doing that went against the gospel. He then nailed it to the front door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. If you think that I’m a grace guy–ha! Martin Luther would put me to shame!
Based on his study of Scripture, as well as his own personal religious burn-out, Luther felt the church had the gospel all wrong. Isn’t it amazing how the harder we try to earn God’s approval and acceptance, the more we realize we can’t?
For this reason, Martin Luther thought the Book of James shouldn’t be in the canonization of the Bible. Why? Because James’ epistle appeared to go against grace. I disagree with Luther, I think James is just fine where it’s at. But here is an example in James in which Luther thought a Sharpie was needed:
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14)
Now, at first glance, and if you take it out of context, this verse will insight one of two things in you: fear or self-righteousness. This is a go-to verse for the Christians who don’t understand what God has really done for us by sacrificing His Son. They will use James 2:14-17 to manipulate new believers, as well as be hyper-critical of seasoned Christians.
For so long, I read this verse as, “You better have works or you’re not saved!” That makes no sense because grace would then be void. The very definition of grace is “un-earnable favor.” Anything we work for is earned. Plus, how do we know if we’ve done enough works to tip the scales in our favor? We don’t, because that’s impossible.
This ideology is demonic and anti-gospel. It creates hierarchies of Christianity, which is exactly what Satan wants. His desire is to get us to believe we are a 2 out of 10 because of our lack of good works, or a 6 or 7 at best because of our “good works.” But truth be told, we are an 11! We are off the charts because of Jesus’ work, not ours!
After I realized working to stay saved wasn’t true, I began to see this passage in James as such: “Sure, you still have faith, but you need to revive it by doing something! You gotta do more! You gotta be more! Get to work and stop being a passive Christian!”
However, that theology evolved as well because such a mindset creates severe stress. God is not a God of stress. He is a God of peace, comfort, and a sound mind–and He lives in me (see 2 Timothy 1:7). If I feel pressured, that is not coming from God. Instead, it’s coming from old, unrenewed thinking, from religious people, or from the enemy–but not from God. I am a branch who produces fruit of the Spirit. Branches are never pressured to grow fruit from the vine (see John 15:5, Galatians 5:22,23).
So if I’m not being pressured to “work up” some fruit, then what is James talking about? Context is key. If we don’t look deeper into this passage–all around it–it will not make sense. Without a frame of reference, Paul would be arguing with James to this day, because he told the Romans the opposite of what James wrote:
“And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” (Romans 11:6)
And again, he said the same to the Christians in Ephesus:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8,9)
So which is it? Is it works or faith?…The answer is yes. No, they are not combined, that would nix grace completely (see Galatians 3:1-3). However, James is letting us know that a decision must be made when it comes to your salvation. He uses two examples of people who made one choice to become righteous with God–a choice of faith–once and for all.
To build his case, James claims, “Even the demons believe!” (See James 2:19). And that’s true, those who are in the spiritual realm have their doctrine correct: Jesus is the Messiah. They know that! They have head-knowledge of God! But the difference between us and them is they are already damned to hell, we aren’t. We still have time to make a decision to believe Christ has forgiven us.
Also, notice James doesn’t say, “Salvation without works is dead,” no, he says faith without works is dead. He is saying we must make a decision by faith about who Jesus is. James is no fool! As Jesus’ own brother, he knew that works never saved anyone! He understood the New Covenant and what the blood of Jesus did for us. Works didn’t save anyone before Jesus, and works definitely can’t save us after His new agreement was put in place (see Hebrews 8:13).
This is why we must look at James’ examples of people making a one-time decision to believe. First, he talks about Abraham:
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” (James 2:21)
Do you see what completed Abraham’s faith?…A decision. Abraham had done many works, but James only lists a single action, a single decision. Being willing to sacrifice Issac didn’t make Abraham righteous, he was righteous before that. James recites Old Testament Scripture to be clear about this point:
“Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (see James 2:23, Genesis 15:6)
Belief is what gives us our credit as righteous people! The moment of belief is a decision! Abraham believed God before Issac was even conceived, so he was already righteous before this particular act at the altar (see Genesis 15). This proves that the New Covenant is older than the Old Covenant because Abraham was before Moses. God has always been interested in one main thing: “Do you believe me?”
James then lists one other person, a “matriarch” of our faith, Rahab the prostitute. Yes, a woman of the night is one of James’ examples of faith being brought to life through a decision. She wasn’t even a Jew! This was before the Cross! Hmmmmmm…makes me think. But I’ll stay on track here.
Rahab was a Gentile call girl, so why would James mention such a person? Why not pick someone else regal, like he just did Abraham?…He listed this harlot to prove our righteousness with God is based on a one-time decision of believing God! It’s not about who we are according to the world or religious people!
“Matt, how can you say it’s one time, based on this Scripture?”
Let’s look at it in context. Does James say, “Rahab did this good thing and that righteous work, then she stopped prostituting and became a pioneer of Christianity by all she had done.”? No! She was an outsider! A non-Jew! She wasn’t even included in God’s original chosen people to carry His Oracles! So what made her righteous? One act of faith that involved works! James writes:
“And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” (James 2:25)
What did Rahab do to be justified? She encountered the spies, and then made a decision to open a door.
- Received the messengers
- Sent them out by another way.
Two works, one action. And if you look at Abraham’s example, the same case is made. Abraham had to load up his stuff, make a trek up the mountain, and bound Issac–multiple works yet one action of faith!
But as for Rahab, in the Book of Joshua, the Israelites were promised the city in which she lived, Jericho. When she encountered the spies who were doing recon work, she could have easily had them captured and killed, but she didn’t. She made a decision to help them! She made a one time choice of faith for God, and God noticed!
Friends, James is letting us know that just because we have knowledge about Jesus, that doesn’t mean we’ve made a choice to place our faith in Him. When we do make that choice, we get new desires on the inside of us because He now lives in us and we live in Him (see Colossians 3:3, 1 Corinthians 6:19).
You might be thinking, “How is that even possible? How can we be in Jesus and Jesus be in us?”
Only when you see it spiritually will you understand. It is not the physical Jesus we become one with, but the Spirit of Jesus–the Holy Spirit. Let’s look at it this way: Say you have a handkerchief and a glass of water. You take that handkerchief and you push it down into the water. What happens? Does the water go away? Does the handkerchief disappear? No. They become one, even though they are still separate. The handkerchief is in the water and the water is in the fabric of the handkerchief. This is what happens with you and the Spirit of God when you decide to believe you need Jesus’ forgiveness–once.
In Romans 6, Paul calls this “baptized into Christ,” yet not once does he mention water. Baptized simply means placed inside of. The grace-confused Christians have taken this part of the gospel–baptism–and retrofitted a law of being immersed in a liquid in order to be made right with God. No amount of any liquid in all of the universe can place us inside of Jesus, only our one-time faith in Him can. Water baptism is simply a celebration of your spiritual rebirth, it’s not the actual day you are born again unless that was the day you decided to first believe.
But to get back on subject here, faith without works is dead. A choice must be made! James gives us two examples of people who made one-time decisions to go from the sideline of viewing God’s goodness, to jumping in and playing!
Do you want to do that today? Do you want your spirit to be born again? Do you want to go to heaven? Do you want God to come live inside of you, right now, and never go away? If so, repeat this prayer with me and believe it as true. This decision will change everything inside you because God Himself will be joined with you forever:
God, I believe. I am deciding today to believe you for the forgiveness of Jesus. I want it. I admit that on my own I am a sinner. I don’t want to be a sinner anymore in my spirit, so please give me a new, perfect spirit. I want to be just like you, right now. I believe that by me making this decision today, I am your child forever, and you’re my Dad. I believe you will make your home in me and we will become one. So come on in, I’m inviting you! I’m ready! Teach me more about yourself, and teach me more about my new self! I want to grow in love with you! In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.
This devotional is from 60 Days for Jesus, Volume 3. Get your copy here!