Faith and Good Works

We have a special volunteer at Grace Fellowship International. She has been retired for years, but this has not diminished her commitment to help spread the ministry of Christ-centered counseling. Grace Wilens believes in the value of intercessory prayer. This conviction shows up in her faithful ministry of compiling and sending out the weekly GFI prayer e-mail. Thanks, Grace![1]

Just as Grace’s belief in prayer is demonstrated in her prayer letter ministry, so saving faith is revealed in virtuous words and actions. James 2:14-26 shows how real faith shows up in a believer’s life.

This passage has been a source of confusion to those who think it teaches justification before God by faith plus works. When interpreted in context, however, we shall see that the same Holy Spirit who inspired James inspired Paul (who repeatedly taught salvation by grace through faith apart from works). The Holy Spirit does not contradict Himself!

James was warning about the danger of professing faith without really possessing faith. Paul was warning about the danger of trying to add meritorious works to faith as the basis of salvation [2]. Let’s explore how James’ message unfolds and harmonizes with the rest of the New Testament on this fundamental issue of salvation by grace through faith.

The Scripture introduces the question, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can [the] faith save him?” (James 2:14). Notice how the question relates to one’s profession: “… if someone SAYS …” It is all too easy to claim belief in Christ without having a saving relationship with Him. How can we differentiate true faith from an imitation? The Greek text reads, “Can THE faith [the kind of faith described in the following examples] save him?” The implied answer is, “no.”[3]

James calls attention to the need to demonstrate true faith as an evidence of its reality: “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:15-17). Just SAYING that the need should be relieved is much different than showing compassion and helping practically.

Commentator Albert Barnes gives the essence of this lesson: “The individual professes indeed to believe the truths of the gospel; he may be in the church of Christ; he would esteem it a gross calumny to be spoken of as an infidel; but as to any influence which his faith exerts over him, his life would be the same if he had never heard of the gospel. There is not one of the truths of religion which is bodied forth in his life; not a deed to which he is prompted by religion; not an act which could not be accounted for on the supposition that he has no true piety. In such a case, faith may with propriety be said to be dead.”[4]

Can real faith be isolated from outward words and actions? An imaginary objector could say: “‘You have faith, and I have works.’ [James replies] ‘Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.'” Notice again the “show me” emphasis. The only way real faith can be detected by people is if it is manifested in corresponding works.

Mental assent to the reality of God is not enough to bring deliverance from sin and its penalty: “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe–and tremble!” (v.19). Saving faith includes repentance and trust in the Lord Jesus.

Now the great patriarch Abraham is called forward as an example of demonstrated faith: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God” (James 2:21-23). Notice that Abraham was justified (Gen. 15:6) BEFORE he was called upon to dramatically show his faith (Gen. 22:1-19). Abraham was willing to give up Isaac; this was a witness to his servants (Gen. 22:5) and to all who have learned of this famous act of obedience (Heb. 11:17-19).

The conclusion is drawn, “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). Greek scholar A.T. Robertson specified the meaning of “justified” here: “not ‘is made righteous,’ but ‘is shown to be righteous.’ James is discussing the proof of faith, not the initial act of being set right with God (Paul’s idea in Rom. 4:1-10).”[5]

Not only was Abraham justified by real faith, so was Rahab. Her testimony is also included in ‘the hall of faith’: “By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace” (Heb. 11:31). Both the virtuous, male Hebrew and this scarlet lettered, female Gentile were justified by a real faith that was demonstrated practically. James gives this concluding assessment: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”– i.e., it is lifeless … a mere empty profession.

A key issue in understanding in James’ argument is the SUBJECT. Who “declares righteous” (justifies) the professing believer in this context? Commentator D. Brown observed that, “To show faith to man, works in some form or other are needed: we are justified judicially by God (Rom. 8:33); meritoriously, by Christ (Isaiah, 53:11); mediately, by faith (Rom. 5:1); evidentially, by works. The question here is not as to the ground on which believers are justified, but about the demonstration of their faith.”[6]

So, we see that this passage complements the doctrinal exposition of Paul’s epistles (written later): “‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness … Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Rom. 4:3-5; 3:28).

Faith is the ROOT and good works are the FRUIT. Christ does the saving: “Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).

With justification by faith clarified, let’s not miss the emphasis of this Scripture. As you abide in Christ, demonstrate your faith through good works!


[1] You can receive these e-mails by contacting

[2] Eph. 2:8,9; Gal. 2:16; Rom. 5:1; 10:4

[3] Greek notes: “Rhetorical question…, Condition of third class with ‘ean’ and the present active subjunctive of ‘legw,’ ‘if one keep on saying.’ …It is the spurious claim to faith that James here condemns. Can that [the] faith save him? Negative answer expected (‘mh’).”- A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament.

[4] Notes on the New Testament by Albert Barnes on vs 15-17.

[5] Word Pictures in the New Testament.

[6] Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, 1871. Also on v. 18: “‘Show’ does not mean here to prove to me, but exhibit to me. Faith is unseen save by God. To show faith to man, works in some form or other are needed …”

Copyright 2007 by John Woodward. Permission is granted to copy for non-commercial use. Biblical quotations are from the New King James Version, copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson.