Having a Saving Faith


In his short letter, James addresses the topic of faith and its relationship to works. At one point, he asks a question that is quite relevant to our discussion: “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone?” (James 2:14 NLT, emphasis added). The obvious answer to his question is no. Faith that never does anything is not a saving faith. James continues to illustrate his point by employing the example of helping those who are cold, hungry, and in need. A so-called faith that does not help the needy is “dead and useless” (James 2:15–17). True faith is made visible by the works it does. “I will show you my faith by my good deeds” (James 2:18 NLT). 

When Faith is Real

Faith is only real when it manifests itself in obedience to God and love toward others. James even ridicules an inactive, dead faith by comparing it to what demons believe. “You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?” (James 2:19–20 NLT).

Martin Luther once said, “Christians are saved by faith alone but not by faith that is alone.” He meant that true faith would necessarily produce works and joked that while people were arguing whether faith produced works, those with true faith were in the streets doing good works. In this Luther followed the consensus of the Patristic Fathers.[1] Augustine made sure to link faith to works in his commentary on Jesus’ words in John 15:5, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”[2] Augustine’s point was that real faith is not passive but active. Real faith moves people; action is faith’s primary property.

In his letter, James concludes by explaining how faith works, using Abraham as his example. Abraham confirmed he had faith when he was willing to sacrifice Isaac on the altar. James writes: “You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete” (James 2:22 NLT).

What We Can Conclude

So we can conclude with James and the church founders that a faith that saves is a faith that acts. Yet we must understand this truth in light of Paul’s words, “Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Eph. 2:9 NLT). Recall that the essence of the good news of salvation is that it is a gift. Grace cannot be earned; salvation cannot be attained without God’s mercy. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23 NLT, emphasis added).

So whatever we conclude about the relationship between faith and works, we know that works even done in faith will not earn our salvation nor earn us merit before God. I believe that the best way to reconcile faith and works is to say that we are saved by faith, but this faith must be one that acts—a living, active faith that expresses itself in love. If it does not, we are not saved. As James reminds us, we cannot be saved by a dead faith.

Problems in Our Churches

Here is where we run into problems in our churches. Because faith has been taught as agreement to a set of beliefs or a praying a specific prayer one time rather than obedience to Jesus, our churches are crowded with confused people. Many think they are Christians and wonder why they have little interest in what their pastor or priest is telling them. Conversion for these individuals has never included Jesus’ call to follow him, and they have never been taught what it means to be a disciple. If discipleship is not taught as the normal calling of every follower of Christ, then we have a mess of people who see themselves with a ticket to heaven but view the Christian life as a collection of optional activities. Their faith is weak, if not altogether dead. If we think we will make Christlike disciples from a flawed gospel, we are wrong.

[1] Most Patristic Fathers held that salvation was not by works, yet that no one can be saved without them. See Alan Stanley’s fine work, Did Jesus Teach Salvation by Works? The Role of Works in Salvation in the Synoptic Gospels(Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2006), 20–60.

[2] Augustine quoted by Stanley, Salvation by Works, 25.

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This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

Image credit: Shutterstock.