Haven of Truth Article – A Dead Faith?
By Pastor Barry Black
“Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast.” Hebrews 6.19
What comes to mind when you think of the word “faith”? The simple, biblical definition of faith is “to believe”, “to trust or rely upon”. InJames 2:17 we read, Even so, faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Is it possible that a person’s faith could be described as “dead”? If so, what defines a faith that is “dead”? In fact, a legitimate question we could ask ourselves would be “Is my faith dead”?
When studying the book of James, it is very important to remember that the book of James is not a “gospel tract”. In other words it was not written for the purpose of telling lost people how to receive eternal life. Rather, the book of James was written to encourage and urge those who have already received eternal life (believed upon Christ) toward practical Christian living.
The Problem Revealed
14 What doth it profit, brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? 24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. 26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. “…can faith save him?”
At first glance, these verses can seem a little confusing. However as with any passage of scripture (particularly passages which at first glance appear unclear, or are often misinterpreted), there must be careful interpretation (“rightly dividing the word” – 2 Timothy 2.15). Remember, James is not writing to tell readers how to receive eternal life (i.e. how to be saved). If that were the case, he would certainly contradict Ephesians 2:8,9, which clearly tells us that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Two, The Problem Investigated
In James 2, the word “dead” is found three times in regards to faith and works – verses 17, 20 and 26. Let’s take a look at the first instance that James mentions: Even so, faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone (James 2:17). Now, to find out what James is talking about, we need to carefully read the previous verses – James 2.15,16:
If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
James puts the whole problem in perspective in very practical terms. He then took a very relevant problem to give this issue clarity. Verse 15 describes a Christian brother or sister that is in need. James tells us in verse 16 that to simply say some well-meaning words without giving any help does not “profit”. The words spoken may sound very nice, but when someone is without clothing or food, kind words simply do not help at all. The old adage is true, “actions speak louder than words”. James then continues in verse 17, “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” We know what faith is, faith means “to believe, to trust”. But what does James mean by “dead”? Does it mean to no longer exist?
After a storm, you probably have the same problem that I have – those pesky limbs on the lawn which fell from your trees as a result of wind or ice. Those same limbs which once bore fruit, or provided shade; there they are on the ground – dead. Seeing them there on the ground, you realize that they are good for little but burning (seeJohn 15.1-6), or maybe being made into mulch. When you see those dead limbs, you would not say, “Oh, look at those limbs which either never existed, or have ceased to exist”. They exist…they are simplydead. Though they were once useful, they are now dead – no longer of any practical value. James makes the point quite clear: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” (James 2.26). When a person dies, their spirit leaves their body. In fact, Paul tells us that for the believer, to be absent from the body means that we are with the Lord (see 2 Corinthians 5.1-8). Death certainly does not mean that the person never existed, or no longer exists; death means that the body is no longer alive, it has ceased to function.
Three, Problem Solved
Another important element in understanding what James is saying is to realize that the word “saved” in the Bible has more than one application. The word “saved” means “deliverance” or “to be delivered from trouble”, etc. It can refer to being saved/delivered from eternal punishment in hell by receiving eternal life (as inEphesians 2.8,9). It can refer to saving/delivering someone from physical death, as in the case of Job – Job 2.6; or Noah and his family – see 1 Peter 3.20; 2 Peter 2.5; and those who sailed with Paul – Acts 27.31. It can mean to be delivered from temporal judgment or chastisement (James 5.19,20; 1 John 5.16,17). It can also mean to be delivered from losing rewards at the judgment seat of Christ – 1 Corinthians 3.11-15. It is evident that James is not referring to salvation in the sense of eternal life, but rather in the sense of being delivered from loss of rewards now, or loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ, or possibly both of those. In summary, James recognizes their faith, but warns them of the danger that their faith could become unproductive; and the loss that could incur as a result. So, let’s recap the highlights:
- James is not concerned with the reality of the readers’ faith. If you notice, more than once he refers to them as: “brethren” (James 1.2, 2.1, 2.14).
- If James uses the word “saved” as describing eternal salvation, then he would be implying that eternal salvation is received, or maintained by faith combined with works. This would contradict the gospel of grace, and James would be guilty of the heresy of “another gospel” (2 Corinthians 11.1-4, Galatians 1.6-9).
- The word “dead” in relation to works does not mean“nonexistent”, it means “unprofitable, of no practical use”.
- As James clearly illustrates, words without actions cannot meet practical needs (James 2.16).
- Faith is “invisible”, but is made evident to others by our good works (faith put into action).
- When good works flow from and combine with our faith, we mature as a Christian.