Show me your faith apart from works, and I will show you my faith by my works. James 2:18
James' point, of course, is that it is not possible to demonstrate saving faith, or be assured of possessing it, apart from the works which true faith engenders. Faith is more than intellectual assent. It is even more than tasting the good things of the Lord and delighting in them -- feeling joy or peace or other forms of subjective well-being. These are part of faith, to be sure; however, if these are all that a person possesses as proof of saving faith, they will not suffice. Faith without works is dead, James tells us -- no real faith at all (Jms. 2:26).
In the 16th century Martin Luther struggled with James' letter -- "a right strawy epistle" he said -- because of its unabashed emphasis on works. Luther was laboring to correct a view of the way of salvation that was common among theologians of his day, namely, that our works somehow contributed to our being saved (Roman Catholic theologians of the day, recognizing this same overstatement among certain of their colleagues, were at the same time working to achieve a corrective). Luther at times overstated his position of "faith alone," so much so that he gave the impression that merely confessing belief in Jesus and feeling really convinced about it were all that a person needed to be sure of heaven. The Reformation's insistence on "faith alone" as the means of justification and salvation has led to a kind of "cheap grace" in our own day -- salvation eagerly received but productive of no evidence of a changed life. It was against this notion that James and Paul -- and, indeed, virtually all the Reformers -- wrote so vigorously.
Some, they knew, will insist that, because they understand and affirm the claims of the Gospel, indeed, have even professed them publicly at a certain place and time, they can be sure of salvation and eternal life. Faith, such people suggest, is a matter of understanding and affirming. But James says the devils do that much, yet, rather than rest assured of salvation, they shudder at the implications for their eternal plight from what they know about the Gospel (Jms. 2:19). Others will say, "Well, it's not just that I know and affirm these things. I really feel the Lord with me, in me. I can practically taste His goodness." Thus they appeal not only to an intellectual affirmation but a conviction of the heart. But the writer of Hebrews tells us that not even that is indicative of saving faith (Heb. 6:4-9). The "things that belong to salvation" (v. 9), the writer insists, relate to works of love done fervently through faith, focusing on the promises of God (vv. 10-12).
Or, as Jesus put it, referring to those who are "true trees" of faith, "Thus you will recognize them by their fruits" (Mt. 7:20). Picking up on such thoughts, the Apostle John declared that the only way we or anyone can know whether we possess true, saving faith is by the evidence of good works that comes out in our lives: "And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says, 'I know him' but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked" (1 Jn. 2:3-6).
We are not saved by works, but we are not saved without them. Let us give neither ourselves nor our neighbors any false assurances in this matter of saving faith. Mere "faith" -- intellectual assent or heart conviction or both -- apart from the obedience of faith -- faith working through works of love (Gal. 5:6) -- is dead.