There is no shortage of people who may hold correct beliefs about Jesus, yet their faith is unaccompanied by works. It is dead.
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What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 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? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
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. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown,you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 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? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Over the past several years, a number of high-profile Christian leaders have, in one form or another, succumbed to serious moral failure. The most recent perpetrator, Ravi Zacharias, is particularly disheartening.
Perhaps the most prominent Christian apologist of the past century, Ravi was a man who made much of Jesus. He equipped believers to defend their faith to a hostile and unbelieving world, and many unbelievers came to know Jesus through his international ministry. Yet it has recently come to light that Ravi was leading a duplicitous life. His private life was entirely at odds with his public ministry.
What are we to make of it when a person’s life is inconsistent with his or her profession of faith?
Our passage today helps answer that question, although it is one which has led to no shortage of controversy throughout the history of the church.
True believers are committed to the belief that people are justified by faith alone apart from works of the law (Romans 3:28). Yet those who would take issue with our position have a strong argument. They rightly claim that the only place in the Bible where the words “faith alone” are used is in James 2:24, where he says that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
So which is it? Faith alone? Or faith-plus-works?
Scripture is abundantly clear: we are forgiven of our sins and accepted as righteous in the sight of God through faith alone in Christ alone (John 1:12; 6:37; Acts 10:43; Romans 5:1; Galatians 2:16; Philippians 3:9). As Jonathan Edwards once said, “You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.” Salvation is entirely a work of God’s free grace to us in Jesus Christ.
Yet the point James makes is that doctrinal orthodoxy without transformed character is inconsistent with saving faith. After all, “Even the demons believe” (James 2:19). Their theology was spot-on, but they were pure evil. The faith that unites us to Christ will produce spiritual fruit – Christlikeness – and obedience to his commands, however imperfectly. Thus the truth of the old adage: “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.”
This challenge has tremendous practical value for us. There is no shortage of people who may hold correct beliefs about Jesus, yet their faith is unaccompanied by works. It is dead. Despite their claims, there is no tangible evidence that they genuinely follow Jesus.
But it would be wrong to suggest that the answer is to simply muster up our own native strength and try our best to obey Christ. The answer to our deepest needs is never to be found within, but is to be discovered outside of us; not merely in a doctrinal formulation or assent to a set of beliefs, but through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Our hope is not in our faithfulness to him, but in his faithfulness to us and to his Father. It’s in the good news that Christ Jesus has come into the world to save sinners like you and me.
And when the reality of who Jesus is for you in the gospel shapes your fundamental identity, your life begins to reflect his holiness. You strive, in his power, by his grace, to honor him in your thoughts, speech, and actions. His grace compels you to willing obedience. Your faith begins to bear fruit. Your joy in Christ flourishes. And He receives the glory.
Rev. Darin Stone is a State Capitol Minister in Raleigh, North Carolina.