“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.” James 2:18
James is teaching us that true faith must be visible. It is a cliche, but challenging, question to ask yourself – if being a Christian was illegal, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Another way to look at is if you were on a reality TV show would the audience be able to tell you had faith, and if so, how long would they have to watch to determine that? What would make it obvious to them?
James tells us that his faith can be seen by his works – faith must lead to works. The two cannot be separated. It is an inconceivable notion to James that you could have faith and not works. The two are interwoven.
This may seem in opposition to Paul’s teaching about the role of faith alone in Romans 4 and 5. But while Paul shows us that faith alone leads to our justification, the faith that saves is never alone. In Romans 12:9-21 Paul lays out his marks of the true Christian. They are all intensely practical and focused on working for the good of others. We are to let love be genuine, to abhor what is evil, to love each other with true brotherly affection. True Christians, according to Paul, will be known for trying to outdo one another in showing honour, for contributing to the needs of the saints and abundant in hospitality. We are to be constant in prayer, living in harmony with one another and not seeking revenge but rather trying to find ways to bless our enemies so that we may overcome evil with good (Romans 12:9-21). Paul is making it clear that true genuine faith results in practical outworkings. You simply cannot have genuine eternal destination changing faith that doesn’t impact how you live your earthly life. So we see there is no conflict between Paul and James – both are teaching us we need faith, and that faith must result in the fruit of good works.
It is important to note also what James is not saying. He is not saying that works alone is enough – he is teaching that the works need to be as a result of faith. Your works by themselves would never be enough to cover the debt of sin. That only comes through faith in Jesus’ all complete and all sufficient sacrifice on the cross. Our works are not an attempt to earn our salvation – they are an outpouring of our faith. Good works do not replace the need for faith – without the cross they are all in vain for only Jesus’ death can ever cover the wages of sin. But our works show our faith to be genuine. They show we have truly grasped the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. They are our witness to the world – an outward expression of the inward change God has done in our hearts through faith.
It is through the expression of our faith working in love (Galatians 5:6) that we show the world the glory of Jesus’ love. It is through our works they will see we are radically different. It is through our works that we will be the hands and feet of Jesus, reaching out to those around us and showing them of their need for faith in Christ. Faith is never meant to be in isolation – if it is genuine it will always be seen through our works.