James 2: 14-17
14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
This passage is both one of the most important ones in the Bible and also one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted ones. At face value it may seem as though James is implying that one can earn their salvation. If faith without action is dead, then action must accompany faith in order to be a saving faith, or so the logic goes.
We need to remember the context of the passage is about not showing favoritism and helping those who are less fortunate however. James speaks a lot about putting action behind one’s beliefs. The other thing that is crucial to remember is that the Bible does not contradict itself and if one must have deeds to validate their faith it would appear to be against what Paul teaches in Ephesians 2:8-9:
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
Our salvation is a gift from God, not something that we have to earn or even have the ability to earn. If we could gain salvation through our works, then we would have something to boast about and take pride in. Instead we are saved by grace. Or in other words, we don’t do anything to deserve salvation. Grace is unmerited favor; there’s no good reason why we should be given it but we are anyway.
So how do we reconcile the fact that we are saved by grace and the fact that faith without deeds is dead? Probably the best way to think of it is to come to an understanding that faith is something that is active instead of passive. You can’t just say that you have faith; if you have faith it will make some sort of impact upon your life.
We always talk about how God will take care of us and how He will not abandon us in times of trouble. These are pretty common thoughts and beliefs in Christianity. However, how many Christians immediately start to worry when financial trouble occurs or fall apart when a health problem is discovered? Where is faith in these times?
If a Christian says that they have faith in God, then that faith needs to be expressed during the times that faith is required. It has to be more than just lip service but instead it has to really be lived. This is precisely the point that James is making in these verses. Faith is not genuine if it is only expressed but it must be lived out as well.
The flip side of this is that deeds have no relationship to salvation. There are plenty of people who do good deeds for many different reasons and they are not saved. The presence of action is not an indication of salvation or faith. However, when faith is accompanied by action, it is evidence that the faith is genuine.