“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 2:14-17ESV
When I was in high school, there was a senior named Shawn who went to my school and was also in my youth group. There are a lot of things I could tell you about Shawn after knowing him for awhile: he was good at basketball, he was funny, he was well-liked, and he was kind to everyone he met. But the thing I remember most about him is something you could know from the first time you met him: Shawn loved orange. I remember one time seeing him without any orange on and not even recognizing him at first, and I’d known him for years at that point. He must have had every type of clothing in orange. I remember even an orange pair of dress shoes and an orange suit. His backpack was orange. His wallet was orange. I wouldn’t be surprised to find him today driving an orange car and living in an orange house (regardless of resale value)! Living in Colorado, even his favorite sports team was orange (go Broncos!)
The point to all this is Shawn didn’t even have to tell people what he was passionate about. To know Shawn was to know he liked orange. You didn’t even really have to know him to pick up on that preference. It was obvious to everyone what he was about.
In James 2:14-17, it’s easy to read the words “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” and hear the shattering news faith in Jesus alone is not enough for salvation. It’s easy to think this means God is still the angry judge, evaluating if we’re good enough to get through the proverbial “pearly gates.” A perspective like that brings little comfort or peace when we fall short. It’s rather like walking into class in high school and finding out the teacher is giving you an unplanned final you could never have prepared for. You could pass, but you’re pretty sure you’re going to crash and burn. After all, each of us has at least one story we’re not proud of.
Praise God, salvation still stands in Christ alone. Romans 3:23-25NLT makes that clear:
“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood.”
So how do we understand the James passage in light of what Paul wrote in Romans?
Remember Shawn? It was easy to tell he loved orange. It was probably one of the first things you could know for sure about him. What James is saying, here, then, is good works are not something that gives salvation. Rather, good works, like a heartbeat and breathing point to a living body, point to a living relationship with Jesus Christ. They are a symptom of an underlying reality people can see and get a picture of what’s going on inside of us. We know and live in the incredible reality the God of the Universe loved us enough to become us and die for us and lives in us as we live in the world. Those good works are His incredible love overflowing from our souls into the world around us, bringing his scarred hands and feet into the lives of others to mend broken hearts and celebrate the truth.
Those good works come out not just in the missionary in 3rd world countries, or the pastor in the pulpit, or the believer at the soup kitchen. Those love-centered good works come out when ordinary believers live out their every day lives in love and glory to God. When you follow the speed limit driving to work. When you give your best to your family. When you do your work to the best of your ability each day (or night). When you pay your taxes. When you are kind to your waitress. When you do your homework. When parents are patient with their kids and kids respect their parents. When you smile at someone who looks like they’re hurting or even change a diaper! These are all good works.
And the best part about these good works? Philippians 2:13NLT states, “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” Good works are not something we can make ourselves do, but something God makes us able to do as we grow in our faith, learning to love and trust Him more and more as we know Him more and more.
- When you hear the term “good works” in a Christian context, what comes to mind? (For me, it’s nuns.)
- Why do you think the idea of doing “good works” is so intimidating to Christians?
- When you think of good works in the simple way described in this blog, what good works do you see God already doing through you in your life?
- Challenge for the Week: Each morning, before you begin your day, ask God to reveal to you how you can live out your faith in some small way that day. When the opportunity arises, go for it!