What Does Faith without Works Is Dead Mean in James 2:26?

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.

Contributing Writer
Updated Aug 18, 2023
What Does Faith without Works Is Dead Mean in James 2:26?

In James 2:26, we read jesus say: "For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also."

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. This verse is a part of James' larger discourse on the relationship between faith and works, emphasizing the idea that genuine faith is accompanied by corresponding actions. James is not advocating for a works-based salvation, but rather he is addressing the issue of a "dead" faith that produces no tangible evidence in a person's life.

In an excerpt of Tony Evans Commentary on James 2, we read: "According to James, such a person is senseless and missing the point entirely because saving faith without works is useless—that is, it has no spiritual value in history (2:20). It will only leave you feeling defeated. If you want to understand the strength of your faith, look at what you do. In the Hall of Faith of Hebrews 11, the author repeatedly describes what various Old Testament figures accomplished “by faith.” Belief was demonstrated by what they did.

Faith must be demonstrated, not just discussed, to be beneficial in history. A person is justified by faith alone apart from works for heaven, but he is justified by works for usefulness on earth...Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. The faith of a believer can atrophy, and we can become orthodox corpses unless our faith is put to work. Many of us have spiritual life, yet we’re spiritually sick. We attend church to hear what the Great Physician has to say and leave feeling good about his prescription. We remain spiritually unhealthy, though, because we don’t swallow the medicine. Once we hear God’s Word, we must act on it to be transformed by it."

Understanding Salvation by Faith Alone

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? 

What 'Faith without Works is Dead' Really Means

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 of good works and good fruit will often indicate a faith that is dead. 

Why Are Good Work So Important to Faith?

Good works are important to faith for several reasons, each of which contributes to the depth and authenticity of one's spiritual walk with Jesus Christ. Good works are not a means to earn salvation, but they are an outpouring of the transformative power of faith. They reflect the love, compassion, and obedience that come from a heart changed by God's grace. Good works serve to make our faith tangible and meaningful, benefiting both ourselves and those around us.

  1. Obedience and Love: Jesus emphasized the importance of love and obedience in the life of a believer. Good works are a tangible way to express our love for God and our obedience to His teachings. Jesus said in John 14:15, "If you love me, keep my commands." Our actions can showcase our devotion and commitment to God's ways.

  2. Impact on Others: Good works have a positive impact on the lives of others. Acts of kindness, compassion, and service can uplift and encourage those around us. Through our actions, we have the opportunity to be a light in the world, reflecting the character of Christ and drawing others toward Him.

  3. Fulfilling the Great Commission: In the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), Jesus instructed His disciples to make disciples of all nations. This involves not only sharing the Gospel but also teaching them to obey all that He commanded. Good works, as a part of this obedience, can help others see the transformative power of faith and inspire them to follow Christ as well.

  4. Glorifying God: Good works can bring glory to God by showcasing His character and values. When we engage in acts of love, mercy, justice, and kindness, we reflect the attributes of God Himself. Others may be drawn to God through observing the positive impact of faith-driven actions.

  5. Strengthening Faith: Engaging in good works can strengthen our own faith. When we see the positive outcomes of our actions and experience the joy of helping others, it can deepen our understanding of God's love and provision. Acts of service can also reveal God's faithfulness in unexpected ways.

Find inspiration with 15 Bible Verses Every Christian Should Know By Heart HERE for you to download or share with loved ones!

Photo Credit:©Unsplash/@joshuaearle

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.


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