James says, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26). Faith without works is a dead faith because the lack of works reveals an unchanged life or a spiritually dead heart. There are many verses that say that true saving faith will result in a transformed life, that faith is demonstrated by the works we do. How we live reveals what we believe and whether the faith we profess to have is a living faith.
James 2:14–26 is sometimes taken out of context in an attempt to create a works-based system of righteousness, but that is contrary to many other passages of Scripture. James is not saying that our works make us righteous before God but that real saving faith is demonstrated by good works. Works are not the cause of salvation; works are the evidence of salvation. Faith in Christ always results in good works. The person who claims to be a Christian but lives in willful disobedience to Christ has a false or dead faith and is not saved. Paul basically says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10. James contrasts two different types of faith—true faith that saves and false faith that is dead.
Many profess to be Christians, but their lives and priorities indicate otherwise. Jesus put it this way: “By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So by their fruits you will know them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers’” (Matthew 7:16–23).
Notice that the message of Jesus is the same as the message of James. Obedience to God is the mark of true saving faith. James uses the examples of Abraham and Rahab to illustrate the obedience that accompanies salvation. Simply saying we believe in Jesus does not save us, nor does religious service. What saves us is the Holy Spirit’s regeneration of our hearts, and that regeneration will invariably be seen in a life of faith featuring ongoing obedience to God.
Misunderstanding the relationship of faith and works comes from not understanding what the Bible teaches about salvation. There are really two errors in regards to works and faith. The first error is “easy believism,” the teaching that, as long as a person prayed a prayer or said, “I believe in Jesus,” at some point in his life, then he is saved, no matter what. So a person who, as a child, raised his hand in a church service is considered saved, even though he has never shown any desire to walk with God since and is, in fact, living in blatant sin. This teaching, sometimes called “decisional regeneration,” is dangerous and deceptive. The idea that a profession of faith saves a person, even if he lives like the devil afterwards, assumes a new category of believer called the “carnal Christian.” This allows various ungodly lifestyles to be excused: a man may be an unrepentant adulterer, liar, or bank robber, but he’s saved; he’s just “carnal.” Yet, as we can see in James 2, an empty profession of faith—one that does not result in a life of obedience to Christ—is in reality a dead faith that cannot save.
The other error in regards to works and faith is to attempt to make works part of what justifies us before God. The mixture of works and faith to earn salvation is totally contrary to what Scripture teaches. Romans 4:5 says, “To him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.” James 2:26 says, “Faith without works is dead.” There is no conflict between these two passages. We are justified by grace through faith, and the natural result of faith in the heart is works that all can see. The works that follow salvation do not make us righteous before God; they simply flow from the regenerated heart as naturally as water flows from a spring.
Salvation is a sovereign act of God whereby an unregenerate sinner has the “washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” poured out on him (Titus 3:5), thereby causing him to be born again (John 3:3). When this happens, God gives the forgiven sinner a new heart and puts a new spirit within him (Ezekiel 36:26). God removes his sin-hardened heart of stone and fills him with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit then causes the saved person to walk in obedience to God’s Word (Ezekiel 36:26–27).
Faith without works is dead because it reveals a heart that has not been transformed by God. When we have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, our lives will demonstrate that new life. Our works will be characterized by obedience to God. Unseen faith will become seen by the production of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives (Galatians 5:22). Christians belong to Christ, the Good Shepherd. As His sheep we hear His voice and follow Him (John 10:26–30).
Faith without works is dead because faith results in a new creation, not a repetition of the same old patterns of sinful behavior. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
Faith without works is dead because it comes from a heart that has not been regenerated by God. Empty professions of faith have no power to change lives. Those who pay lip service to faith but who do not possess the Spirit will hear Christ Himself say to them, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers” (Matthew 7:23).