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Chapter 5

Faith that is Alive



For this chapter, it makes sense to begin with a very personal question: Is your faith dead or alive?   Obviously, we all want to respond by saying “Alive, without question.”  However, before you react too quickly, do you really know what it means to have faith that is alive?   As we look into the second half of James chapter 2, we begin to see some very difficult language come from James.   Some of this language – at least on the surface – seems to be in direct contradiction to language used by Paul in his writings – particularly in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  Consider some of these comparisons:


  • James 2:17 – So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
  • Gal 2:16 – yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ


  • James 2:18 – Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
  • Gal 3:11 – no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”


  • James 2:24 – You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
  • Gal 3:24 - the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.


  • James 2:21 - Was not Abraham our father justified[1] by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?
  • Rom 4:2-3 -  For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”


Although these seem as if they are contradictory, there are some subtle differences in the words used that helps us understand their particular usages.  It is important that we fully understand what those words are and comprehend their meaning.


Righteousness:  State of being right before God. 

When we are righteous, we are without fault and blameless.  Righteousness is a condition.   Prior to salvation, we are neither faultless nor blameless.  If we were to go on trial and be judged based on our merits, we would be found guilty.  In fact, we are guilty before a Holy God.  However, Jesus took the penalty of our guilt upon himself when he was nailed to the cross.  As a result, we are made right before God.  Righteousness, therefore, is not the same as being innocent, because we are by no means innocent.  However, righteousness merely reflects that we are no longer accountable for the punishment of our actions.  Jesus is and always has been “right before God” since he is himself God.  Therefore, Jesus is righteous and we have his righteousness imputed to us.


Justification: The act of being made right before God.

The concept here is that of being declared not guilty in a court of law.  Justification is an action.  Although we are guilty, we are declared to be not guilty because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  In the Greek, righteousness and justification have the same root word and meaning and depending upon the translation, may be used interchangeably.


Faith: Placing one’s full dependence upon a belief.

Faith and belief are not equivalent.  Faith has a much fuller, even active meaning than belief.  In the Greek, faith has both noun and verb forms.  In the English, faith is a noun.  We don’t have a verb form of the noun, faith.  We don’t “faith” something.  To account for this language limitation, we say we “believe” something.   When Paul says that Abraham “believed” God, he was using the verb form of the word faith.   For the word “to believe”, the English has both a noun form, belief, and a verb form, believe.  However, contrary to what many dictionaries may say, the English word, belief, is not synonymous with the English word, faith, and therefore “to believe” is an insufficient translation of the verb form of the Greek word for faith, pisteo.  As a result, something gets lost in translation.  In the original Greek, faith is as much something that we DO as it is something that we HAVE.


No matter how we look at it, reconciling these verses between Paul and James can be very difficult, but perhaps this understanding of faith – combined with an understanding of the different perspectives of Paul and James in writing their various letters – can help resolve those conflicts.


Saving Faith Results In Works


2:14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?

2:15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?

2:17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.


James poses an interesting question here: If someone has faith, but not works, can that faith save him?  This seems to be in direct conflict with the words of Paul in Romans and Galatians – until we see the fuller understanding of faith and acknowledge the perspectives of the two writers.

If we are not careful, we can turn James’ question into a very fundamental question about the nature of our salvation.  As such, we need to be very clear about the nature of salvation.  We know from Ephesians 2:8-9 that our salvation is by grace, through faith, and not by our own works.  Because our salvation is by grace, we know that it is at the divine favor of God without any merit on our part.  Because our salvation is through faith, we know that it can only come by placing our hope in the work of Jesus for our eternal redemption.  And because it is not by our own works, we understand that we are not earning favor with God through keeping the work of the law.   How then, can Paul say that our salvation is not by our works while James says that without works our faith cannot save us?

In most of his letters, Paul is writing about the very nature of salvation and how an unbeliever can grasp hold of the salvation that is freely offered through the blood of Christ.  The Book of Romans is the ultimate theological treatise on salvation.  We have even developed an evangelistic tool to use in witnessing based solely on the Book of Romans – The Romans Road to Salvation.[2]   Similarly, when Paul wrote his letter to the church at Galatia, he was addressing theological challenges to the requirements for salvation, specifically that salvation requires more than just faith.  There were people in the region of Galatia who were trying to convince the gentile believers that in order to be saved they had to obey the law – specifically, to be circumcised.

For both Romans and Galatians, then, the perspective is from the unbeliever looking into the truth of salvation.  We are indeed justified – that is made right with God – by faith and nothing more.  In this sense, faith is something we have, not something we do.  Our justification is based upon the work that Jesus did on the cross in fulfilling the law – not based upon our failed attempts to uphold the commands of the law.

Compare this to what James is doing in his letter.  James is writing to Christians who are looking back on their salvation experience.  They are coming out of the conversion experience and are moving forward into their life as a believer.  As such, James is speaking to their response to the fact that they have placed their faith in Christ and instructing them on how that faith is applicable to their new life. 

James’ discussion to these believers is not dissimilar to similar discussions that Paul had with believers.  In Galatians 2:20, Paul says “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.”  Similarly in Galatians 3:11 and in Romans 1:17, Paul quotes a reference from Old Testament prophet Habakkuk (Habakkuk 2:4) by saying “the righteous will live by faith.”   Those who have already been made right with God by their faith in God will continue to live by that faith.  In one more example in 2 Corinthians 5:7, he says we “walk by faith, not by sight.” 

So despite what appears to be inconsistencies on the surface, we see Paul recognizing that as a Christian, we live and walk by faith.  In this sense then, once we have become a Christian, faith is something we do as much as it is something we have.   I believe this is the heart of what James is trying to say here and is the key not only in reconciling these apparent inconsistencies, but in understanding how faith plays out in the life of the Christian on a day by day basis.   

When James speaks of works, therefore, he is not speaking of works of justification (that which the law requires in order to make you righteous before God) – but of works of the Spirit (that which is evidence to the fact that you have been made righteous before God by the blood of Jesus).  To paraphrase what James is trying to say: if the faith that you have does not result in faith that you do, then it really wasn’t faith at all. 

James’ question, therefore, is not about the fundamental nature of our salvation, but rather about the sincerity of our salvation.  In essence, he is pointing out the fact that insincere faith is hypocrisy.  To illustrate this, James gives an example of a person who shows up to church with clearly obvious needs.  If we tell that person we are praying for them and send them away with God’s blessing – but do nothing ourselves to try and relieve their suffering - then we are just hypocrites. 

This is not the way Jesus would respond to the situation.  Jesus’ life was an example of how he wanted us to live and so we are to live as he would.   We know that everywhere he went he spent time healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and giving sight to the blind. Although Jesus taught in the synagogue and preached of the Kingdom of God, he always took time to show mercy and compassion to the masses.  The one thing we can see from both James’ and Jesus’ examples is that sincere faith always results in action.

Ironically, the action that resulted even in James’ example here is not the observance of any particular law or commandment, but rather compassion and mercy towards a brother in need – precisely the same as what we see in the life of Jesus. Furthermore, this is completely consistent with James’ view of religion which we saw at the end of chapter 1.


Works Reveals the Object of our Faith


2:18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

2:19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!


To further clarify this, James goes on to point out that whatever works we perform ultimately reveal the object of our faith.   We have to be careful here, because James is not differentiating mental assent - easy believism – from faith.  From time to time, you may hear pastors speak of the dangers of easy believism, but that is not the distinction James is making here.  To say that “demons believe” is different from having faith would be in error.[3]  In the Greek, there is no differentiation between the word we use for “faith” in the sense of salvation and the word translated “believe” in this verse. That is not to say there is no differentiation between belief and faith – I stand by my prior explanation of that subject regarding the limitations to the English language.  However, the Greek is very clear here that the same word we use for faith is the same word used for what the demons have.  It may come as a surprise to hear this, but in a very real sense, demons have complete faith in God.  Unlike us, however, they do not have a faith in God that results in salvation.  First of all, grace has not been extended to demons the way it has been extended to us.  Remember, salvation is by grace, through faith.  As a result, they have no opportunity for repentance, so they have no basis or reason for hope.  Instead of having an assurance of salvation, they have an assurance of condemnation.  No grace means there is no opportunity for repentance, and so their faith is in the truth that God will punish them for their disobedient rebellion.  This not only makes them shutter but it also instills within them hatred towards all of humanity – and in particular the faithful - that results in their unrelenting attack on the souls of mankind.


·         The object of demonic faith is the dread of their impending judgment – and that results in works of destruction on their part.


·         The object of our faith is the hope of our promised redemption – and that should result in works of righteousness on our part.


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[1] The NIV says “considered righteous”.

[2] One of many places in which the Roman Road can be found…

[3] I myself speak often against “easy believism” and point to this passage as a differentiation between faith and belief.  I probably shouldn’t do that for the reasons explained.

[4] See John 13:34, 14:15, and 15:12.

[5] See 1 John 2:10, 3:10, 3:14, 3:16, 3:17, 4:20, and 4:21.

[6] See Ephesians 2:20

[7] Pastor of New Springs Church.

[8] I was surprised that a pastor of a large, multi-site mega-church couldn’t do a better job of alliteration – that is until I tried to come up with a legitimate alliterated substitute to make these same points.

[9] For me, this is preaching and teaching – and perhaps writing.