Commentator Zane C. Hodges described the relationship between faith and good works: “[W]orks are in fact the vitalizing ‘spirit’ which keeps one’s faith alive, in the same way that the human spirit keeps the human body alive. Whenever a Christian ceases to act on his faith, that faith atrophies and becomes little more than a creedal corpse. . . . Faith remains vital and alive as long as it is being translated into real works of living obedience” (v. 26).
Mature faith is seen in good deeds. This is the simple point of today’s reading. Yet these verses have long been debated; indeed, this passage is why Martin Luther once called James an “epistle of straw.” But is James preaching salvation by works? No. The controversy is based on a misunderstanding.
James was writing to believers, as we can see from his repeated address to “brothers and sisters” (v. 14). This passage is not about salvation at all. James is describing how we as believers should live out our faith. From this practical perspective, faith without good works is “dead,” that is, worthless or useless (v. 17). As some have said: “We’re justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone” (see Eph. 2:8–10).
The example in this passage makes it clear (vv. 15–16). If a fellow believer is in need of clothing or food and one responds with kind wishes, “what good is it?” Talk is cheap. John makes precisely the same point that genuine Christian love for those in need is demonstrated in action (1 John 3:17–18).
James’s response to a rhetorical objection drives home the point (vv. 18–19). Faith without deeds is inconceivable; the idea is nonsense. Living faith always acts in ways that fulfill the “royal law” of love (v. 8).
Are you aware of a believer with material needs? Do you have resources that could help? Then today’s application is clear. You might give directly or go through the deacons or benevolence fund at your church. As Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).