“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 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? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:14–17 ESV)
The scriptures tell us that we must reject a non-breathing faith as if it is a living thing. This is a serious offense in our culture because a non-breathing faith allows us to maintain a private spirituality. You know the old, “I’m spiritual but it’s a very private belief.” The only problem with that is that evil and suffering is very public and it demands a public response! The private, easy-going religious person greets physical need with religious language and non-physicality. Be warmed and be filled sir. In the name of Jesus. Faith without works cannot interact in the world of real needs and real non-faith. Somehow we have allowed faith to exist in a realm where it does not have to be seen, or physical, or worth much. And that is perfect for our busy, physical lives. It costs us nothing to wish the world well.
Show me your faith without works. He moves on - you believe in one god, way to go! We think of faith as belief in the existence of God. Even demons believe that, but at least when they believe it, it provokes an actual response. They tremble. They move, we don’t. What’s wrong with this picture? Is it possible that demons have a more orthodox response to God, a more faithful faith, so to speak, than those who call themselves Christians but live lives of safety, comfort and control? To have faith without works, faith that is little more than a hobby, to do this is demonic. Faith without works is dead and deadly, it reduces the kingdom of God to a trivial reality. This is a tragic misunderstanding that is close to what we might call the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. To deny the works of the Holy Spirit is to deny the Holy Spirit himself. It is to get salvation and the gospel wrong. It is that serious.
The do nothing church, the church content to grow into a base of spiritual maintanence, is an issue of integrity and truth-telling for every member of the trinity: the Father who promised that a world would be changed from the moment of our first sin, for Jesus who promised that his disciples would do his works, and for the Holy Spirit who promised to enliven us so that we might fulfill the great commission. We must not make a liar out of God.
At first glance, if you’re somewhat theologically astute it looks as if James is contradicting the scriptures. After all doesn’t the Apostle Paul tell us that we are justified by grace through faith - not by works. But we have to understand the situation each book is speaking to - in this case James is not speaking to where faith begins but where it finishes. James is attempting to uphold the significance of the grace of God for not just the beginning of faith but for the end. All of us have seen what happens when a beautiful structure falls into disrepair. James is saying that real faith is finished by works, it is not left barren, vacant, a house with beautiful bones but nothing else.
The Apostle Paul says grace is so beautiful it results in salvation. James says the grace of God is so beautiful it results in glory. Faith means the person who has been rescued by God cannot help but rescue. Faith means the person who was poor in spirit, who was desperate for the bread of faith cannot watch the poor and wretched suffer. It is a common thread of argument throughout the Scriptures. Jesus more than anyone else says that being forgiven makes you crazy for forgiveness, and if you aren’t crazy for the forgiveness of man it’s a sign that you’ve not been forgiven at all. The church of Jesus must not only pray for the salvation of Jesus but for the works of Jesus, for the Kingdom of Jesus, that the whole world might breathe a living faith.