I love my wife dearly. I tell her all the time how much I love her. But what would she think if the only sign of that love was my words? What if I insisted on my own way in everything? What if I put all of my needs above hers? What if I never did anything for her? Well, I certainly wouldn’t win a husband-of-the-year award!
Without any sort of action on my part, it would be hard for my wife to believe that I truly love her. As the saying goes: actions speak louder than words. In the same way, James is calling out what he considers dead faith (v. 2:26).
James also makes a curious statement that seems to contradict Paul: “We are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone” (v. 2:24). Yet, Paul says, “We are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law” (Romans 3:28). So, what in the world is going on here? I’m glad you asked.
Paul and James are speaking to the same thing from different perspectives. Neither believes you can be made right before God by just doing good things. What James cites in the stories of Abraham and Rahab is that their works demonstrated their faith. In other words, their works were a byproduct of the faith that was already present.
Just as my wife knows I love her because of my actions over and above my words – because those actions demonstrate the truth of the words – our actions demonstrate our faith over and above our words about our faith. That is why James says, “Faith is dead without good works” (v.2:26). If my faith in Christ has not impacted my life in a way that causes me to live differently, then my faith rings of hollow words.
The key to not Ietting this go awry and to not suddenly start a new religion – based on works righteousness – is to understand that the works are a result of the faith alone. The faith is not a result of the works. Because of my faith in Christ, I want to truly love others as he has loved me. Therefore, my actions will tend to demonstrate that impact of my faith in Christ on my life. Similarly, because I truly love my wife, my actions toward her will tend to demonstrate the impact of my love for her on my life with her.
Good works are not a litmus test for real faith. Rather real faith will naturally result in good works. That order matters to how we live out our faith. “We love each other because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The love of Christ leads to our faith in him. And our faith in him leads to loving others well. And loving others well leads to others seeing the impact of our faith in tangible ways. And that tangible impact can lead others to seek the source of our love, which leads them to Christ. Thus, we are called to live out our faith in more than words.
Question for reflection:
- When you do something good for others or for the church, do you tend to consider it doing something for God or because of God? If the former, does that sometimes lead to hoping that those actions will lead to God doing something for you? If so, reflect on how you can turn your relationship with God (and others) from transactional to transformational. In other words, what steps can you take to begin seeing your good works more as an outpouring of your faith in Christ? How can your good works become less about what you might get and become much more about how you get to give because Christ lives in you?