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What Does James 2:26 Mean by 'Faith without Works is Dead'?

Here James affirms that deeds (or actions) are the byproduct of a living faith. Works do not justify us or make us righteous before God, nor are they the means to salvation. Rather, our deeds are the fruit that grows from one who is obedient to God’s commands and transformed by His grace.

Joel Ryan
What Does James 2:26 Mean by 'Faith without Works is Dead'?

"For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also" (James 2:26).

Saved by Grace Through Faith

If we believe that James 2:26 promotes works-based salvation, this passage would inherently contradict the writings of Paul and teachings of Jesus, which, thankfully, it does not. We are saved, not by works or deeds, but by the grace of God, redeemed by His work on the cross. 

Biblical meaning of 'faith without works is dead'

In his letters, Paul writes:

  • “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5),
     
  • “to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).
     
  • “for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-9). 

Throughout the New Testament, it is made abundantly clear that it is Christ who saves and by His wounds and “stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). 

By faith, we accept the power of salvation and forgiveness offered for sins, and in doing so, we learn to submit to the lordship and authority of Jesus Christ. We are transformed and “born again” in the process (John 3:3). 

  • “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
     
  • “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).

In no way does James argue that works are the key to our salvation or provide access to God’s grace. “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:22). It is by God’s grace, a grace we do not deserve, and God’s work that we are saved, not our own.

So what then is the purpose of works in the Christian life? 

Good Works from True Faith

To those who believe in Jesus Christ, the subsequent response to salvation is obedience. Those who believe in God choose to obey His commands and willingly forsake their former, sinful ways. As one submits to the Lord, their hearts are changed. Their desires begin to mirror His desires and their deeds reflect His heart for the world. 

Deeds are the outer reflection of this inner transformation. They are the evidence of a heart that has been and is continually being transformed and renewed by God. 

In several passages of the New Testament, deeds are often compared to fruit. A follower of Christ who is obedient, submissive, and committed to God’s way of doing things, will naturally bear good fruit in their lives that will be evident for others to see. 

Jesus told His disciples, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Paul also wrote to the Galatians that, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:22-34). 

A heart that is continually being transformed into the likeness of God will reveal itself through actions that align with the word and will of God. 

As Christ said, “no good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit.  Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:43-45). 

In alignment with James’ writing, Jesus warned, “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19). Those who are willfully disobedient and continually sinful reveal a faith that is stagnant or even dead. As Paul writes, “do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Many will be surprised in the end to learn that their faith was never real to begin with, and at that moment, as Jesus says, “then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me’” (Matthew 7:23). 

Good works are fruit born and grown from a healthy faith. A life absent good works and good fruit will often indicate a faith that is dead. 

Photo Credit:©GettyImages/Fizkes


Joel Ryan is an LA-based children’s and young adult author who teaches writing and communications at Life Pacific University. As a former youth pastor, he has a heart for children and young adults and is passionate about engaging youth through film, literature, and theater. His blog, Perspectives Off the Page, discusses the creative and spiritual life through story and art.


Originally published October 02, 2019.