Necro Theology: Faith Without Works

Dead men tell no tales. They also beat no dead horses, and hammer no door nails. There’s a lot you can’t do when you’re dead. It’s a principle that applies to our spiritual state as much as it does to our physical. Spiritually speaking, the Bible says we are dead in our “trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). We have no hope of saving ourselves. But according to Scripture there is a difference between believing in word only and believing with life. There is living faith, according to the Bible, and a dead faith. Like a dead man, a dead faith doesn’t do much. In this new series I am looking carefully at James’ discussion of dead faith in chapter 2 of his letter. I’ve termed the series “Necro Theology” from the Greek word Nekros, meaning corpse. I fear that many churches have a dead faith and if we want to avoid it we need to understand what it is. To that end we turn to James chapter 2 and study.

Our main text of study in this series will be found in James 2:14-26. James has been addressing the disparity between those who hear the Word of God and yet do nothing. Be doers of the Word, he says, not only hearers. He then turns to unpack this more fully.

14 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.

He begins with the general principle which will be more fully illustrated in the remainder of the verses. Verse 14 presents the foundational key for understanding the rest of the chapter. This initial question, which is largely rhetorical, is our starting place.

“What good is it?” The obvious answer, the implied answer, is “no good.” If someone says they are a believer but does nothing to evidence that they are then their profession is worthless. This man professes with his mouth but does nothing more. He “does not have works”. The structure of the verb here is suggestive of a continual lack of evidence, a routine of disobedience. James uses a general term here: works. But he does have some very specific tasks in mind. We will see this unpacked more clearly as the text moves forward, but he has already pointed us to some key pieces of fruit in the believer’s life.

James says that a true believer gives evidence through endurance (1:3), perseverance under trial (1:12), purity of life (1:21), obedience to Scripture (1:22-23), compassion for the needy (1:27), and impartiality (2:1-9). Later in the letter he will go on to mention compassion (2:15), control of your tongue (3:2-12), humility (4:6, 10), truthfulness (4:11), and patience (5:8). For James being a Christian is more about what you do than what you say. After all, can an “workless faith” save someone? It’s a crucial question!

James is asking us to consider carefully here the nature of salvation. He is asking us to state plainly what we know about how a person is saved. The form of his question here implies a negative answer. “No, a person is not saved by faith without works.” It’s important that we not misunderstand the Scriptures here. James is not, as is sometimes asserted, teaching that salvation is by faith + works. Some commentators throughout history have been ready to cut James from the canon for fear that he undermines grace. We read elsewhere in Scripture that salvation is all of grace, and not of any works that we have done (Eph. 2:8). But both Paul and Jesus said things similar to James.

Paul wrote that “It is not the hearers of the law who just before God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13). Likewise, Jesus said that we may judge a tree by its fruit. He said:

43 “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit,  44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.  45 The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:43-45)

So, what then do all these ideas mean if they do not match up to the Scripture’s various teachings on salvation by grace apart from works. Simply put, they mean that if you are genuinely saved you will produce good works.

After all, that is what we have been saved for (Titus 2:14), and Jesus says if we love Him we will keep his commands (John 14:15). This is not a type of perfectionism. James goes on to teach us that “we all stumble in many ways” (3:2). The issue, as the Greek structure makes clear again and again in this chapter, is a lifestyle or pattern of good deeds. The marker is not perfection but persistence. If you can call yourself a Christian and yet see no evidence there is cause to question whether or not your faith is living.

A dead faith is not simply useless. In the Scriptures a dead faith is disastrous. This is why Peter says make your calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10). This is why James warns us that a dead faith cannot save you.

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