Question: "Why is faith without works dead?"
Answer: In his epistle, James makes the statement “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26). Faith without works is dead faith because the lack of works reveals an unchanged life or a spiritually dead heart. There are many Scriptures that make it very clear that true saving faith will result in a transformed life, which 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 Scriptures. James is not saying that our works make us righteous before God, but he is making it clear that real saving faith is demonstrated by good works. Works are not the cause of salvation; works are the evidence of salvation. The person who claims to be a Christian but lives in willful disobedience to Christ with a life that shows no works has a false or dead faith and is not saved. James is clearly making a contrast between two different types of faith—truth faith that saves and false faith that is dead.
Many profess to be Christians, but their lives and their 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 show the type of works that demonstrate salvation, and both of those examples are of people who obeyed God in faith. 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 be seen in a life of faith demonstrated by ongoing obedience to God.
Misunderstanding the relationship of faith and works comes from a misunderstanding of what the Bible teaches about salvation. There are really two errors in regards to the relationship between works and faith. The first error is the gospel of “easy believism.” This error is the belief that one can “make a decision for Christ” or “pray a prayer of salvation,” and based upon that profession of faith salvation occurs. This is also called “decisional regeneration” and is dangerous and deceptive. Often those who advocate this view of salvation say that once a person has prayed the sinners’ prayer or made a profession of faith he is saved regardless of how he lives afterwards. This leads to the creation of a new category of person called the “carnal Christian” in order to excuse the ungodly lifestyles of many who have made a one-time profession of faith in Christ. Yet, as we can see in James and other verses of Scripture, this type of profession of faith that does not result in a life of obedience to Christ is in reality a dead faith that does not save.
The other error in regards to the relationship between works and faith is to make works part of what justifies us before God. The mixture of works and faith together creates a works-based system of righteousness which is totally contrary to what Scripture teaches. There is no conflict between Romans 4:5, “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,” and what James wrote when he said, “Faith without works is dead.” Works come from true faith and a heart that has been justified by God by faith alone. The works that follow salvation do not make us righteous before God; they simply flow from a heart that has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit as naturally as water flows downhill.
Understanding the relationship between faith and works is important because it helps us avoid the errors mentioned above. Saying we believe in Christ does not save us, nor does praying a prayer of salvation or making a “decision” for Christ. Salvation is a sovereign act of God whereby unregenerate sinners have the “washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” poured out on them (Titus 3:5), thereby causing them to be born again (John 3:3). When this happens, God gives them new hearts and puts a new spirit within them (Ezekiel 36:26). God removes their sin-hardened hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh and fills them with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit who causes them to walk in obedience to His statues and judgments (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 by the way we live and our works of obedience to God. It will be evident by the fruit of the Spirit in our lives (Galatians 5:22) and a desire to obey God and live a life that glorifies Him. Christians belong to Christ, and as His sheep they hear His voice and follow Him (John 10:26–30).
True saving faith is always manifested by good works and a life that desires to live in obedience to God. Ephesians 2:8–10 makes it clear that works do not save us but that we are saved “for good works which God prepared beforehand that we would walk in them.” When we are truly born again we will have hearts that are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s law is written in our hearts so that we might walk in His statutes and judgments. 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. It is an empty profession of faith from someone to whom Christ will say, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.”