What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 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. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.James 2:14-26
How do you know you have faith? Many people struggle over the validity of their confession of Jesus as their savior. Am I really a Christian? Am I really saved? Is my faith genuine? It is certainly right to be sure about your eternal salvation. Eternal joy or eternal suffering is the payoff. Eternal anything is important because it is eternal.
But how can I objectively look at my life and be assured of the genuineness of my faith?
James lays it out for us. Genuine faith produces corresponding actions in the life of the person of faith. If there are no corresponding actions but only a confession, that faith is dead. It is producing nothing. It is like a fallow field that produces no crops. From a farmer’s point of view, a fallow field is a dead field.
James refers to corresponding actions as works. He gives three examples. One a hypothetical illustration and two from history. The hypothetical is me stepping up to the homeless man who is panhandling on the corner. I engage in a little friendly conversation then pat him on the back and tell him to be filled and kept warm and then walk away. I don’t take him to the local restaurant and buy him a meal or buy him a blanket to keep him warm at night. I just walk away with well wishes. This illustration isn’t James’ argument for us to care for the poor. It is his illustration of the vapid nature of a confession of faith that has no corresponding actions.
The first historical illustration is from the life of Abraham. Abraham had been declared righteous by God well before the instance when he agreed to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. I point that out so we don’t confuse this story with being declared righteous through our works. Abraham’s work, or corresponding action, was to, in obedience, offer Isaac on an altar. James’ point is that Abraham had genuine faith and the fact of the existence of that genuine faith was illustrated by his obedience to God’s instructions to sacrifice Isaac. His offering of Isaac didn’t justify him, it was proof of his justification by the faith that he already had.
The second historical illustration is that of Rahab the harlot who believed in the God of the Jews and when they came to spy out Jericho, her home, she aided them and the cause of their God. Her aiding the Jewish spies was her corresponding action to her faith.
So, how does this resolve our question of knowing whether or not we have genuine saving faith? Are there any actions in your life that correspond to saving faith? Do you have an inclination to love God?
First, let me be clear. Do not ask yourself if you are now a perfect Christian. If you do, I can guarantee you that your answer will be no. That is how I would answer that question. So, we are not looking for perfection. We are looking for direction. Since you have trusted Jesus, have you moved toward a walk with God? Have you made some actions of repentance from sinful conduct? Has your life changed any since you came to faith in Jesus Christ? If there have been absolutely no changes in your life, then you should be asking yourself whether or not you have genuine faith.
For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works (corresponding actions) is dead.James 2:24
On the other hand, if there have been some changes in your life, even small ones, that is evidence of genuine faith. We are called to be conformed to the image of Jesus and significant changes will happen to all who have genuine faith over time as the Holy Spirit works in our hearts.
Am I saved by my obedience? No, but if I am saved I will obey and it is expected of us as disciples of Jesus. Jesus makes it clear that his disciples will obey his commands.
“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”John 14:21
“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.”John 14:23
Genuine faith saves. Genuine faith obeys Jesus. A faith that does not obey Jesus will not save and it is not genuine.
This may seem harsh, but James is a rather no-nonsense man and his writing reflect this.
If you find yourself in the position of a person with a claim of faith but no evidence of it or corresponding actions, what are you to do? The message is the same as to any other unbeliever. Repent and believe the gospel, the good news of all that Jesus has done for us. Begin to obey Jesus. Be baptized and begin to obey all things Jesus has commanded us. That is the definition of a disciple of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20