What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.James 2:14-17 NIV
One of the more common theological discussions that I hear concerns the relationship between works and faith. Some will claim that there are certain things one must do in order to be saved. And baptism is one thing that many hold to. On the other hand are those who will say that we are saved by faith alone apart from works. And I happen to agree with that position.
But we should not ignore what James has to say here about faith and works. To be clear, James does not say that our works are necessary for salvation. I think James would agree wholeheartedly with Paul that we are saved by faith alone (Rom. 3:28). But if works are not necessary, then what is he saying in this passage?
What Is Saving Faith?
I believe what James is doing is providing some clarity as to just what saving faith is. He tells us that it is more than just intellectual ascent. The demons do that and it has no value for them. Instead, saving faith produces something in the life of the believer. What James says here is very much in line with the eleventh chapter of Hebrews. For each of the people listed there it is said that by faith they did something. Their action was prompted by faith. Paul also says essentially the same thing in Galatians 5:6.
What James is really doing here is calling on us to test our faith. Is it active, producing fruit for the kingdom? Or does it have little impact on your daily life apart from social activities at your church? If the latter is true, James is saying that your faith is dead and useless and you need to light a fire under it.