“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.”
The core principle here is that a profession of faith means little without the practice of faith. Note that James asks two questions about faith without deeds. 1) What good is it? (answer: none). 2) Can it save? (answer: no).
Let’s be crystal clear. We are not saved by works or deeds. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ. What James is concerned with here is the authenticity of faith. His message is that authentic faith is manifested in a changed life. Christians do not do works in order to be saved; they do works because they are saved.
Because profession is easy and practice is hard, we must beware of easy-believism. The gospel that Jesus proclaimed was a call to discipleship, a call to follow Him in obedience, not just a plea to make a decision or pray a prayer. It was an offer of eternal life and forgiveness for repentant sinners, but at the same time it was a rebuke to outwardly religious people whose lives were devoid of true commitment.
The Lord’s words about eternal life were invariably accompanied by warnings to those who might be tempted to take salvation lightly. He taught that the cost of following Him is high, and He admonished people to count the cost before making the decision to follow. Remember what Jesus said in the “count the cost” passage in Luke:
“‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14.26)
Jesus is not telling us to hate our families, nor is He telling us to sell all of our belongings and join a monastery. He uses hyperbole to communicate the foundational principle of true Christianity: everything in our lives must be submitted to the lordship of Christ.
Our families are incredibly important to us, but they must be subordinate to the lordship of Christ. Our jobs are vital, but our work must be subordinate to Christ. Money is necessary for meeting practical needs, but our finances must be subordinate to Christ. The Lord calls us into relationship with Him, and His love and lordship are at the heart of that relationship.
Jesus’ message is this: If you profess faith in Me for salvation, but you are not willing to subordinate everything in your life to My lordship, then you need to think again about what following Me really means. I am not simply offering you salvation, I am inviting you into a relationship. And in that relationship, I am not just Savior, I am also Lord. If you want salvation but not lordship, then you cannot be one of My followers. If you want blessings without responsibility and obedience, then you cannot be one of My followers. I am not offering you salvation that is detached from loving obedience.
Profession is easy, but practice is hard. Jesus knows this, which is why He calls us to follow Him and be doers, not just hearers of the word.
“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!” (James 2.17-19)