This is another verse that caused me some fearful moments. “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead” (James 2:17). Have I done enough good works to prove that I am really saved? For my book, Assurance of Heaven, I examined 32 commentaries on this verse. Twenty-seven basically stated that if you do not have works, it is proof that you’re not saved. Two of the commentaries were convoluted and only three were clear that these were saved persons failing to show forth spiritual fruit.
Well which is it? If you see these as unbelievers, which most people do, then you will be motivated to do a lot of good things for the wrong reason. You’ll try to do things to make you feel secure that you are on your way to heaven. But you will never have any rest for your soul, because you will never know if you have done enough.
The certainty of entering the kingdom of God is not in what we do, but in what God has done for us. Assurance is in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is in the promise of God, who cannot lie, that whoever believes in Jesus has everlasting life (John 3:16).
Context is key!
As always, context is the key to understanding the Bible. The book of James was written to believers. Fifteen times in the book, he refers to them as ‘brethren’ or ‘beloved brethren’, a reference to their spiritual relationship. God brought them forth (He gave spiritual birth to them) by the word of truth (James 1:18). But they had a number of sin issues. They were not being doers of the word (James 1:22). This resulted in showing partiality to the richer brother (James 2:3, 4). They were living according to the wisdom of the world (James 3:13, 14). They were fighting and warring with one another (James 4:1). James called them spiritual adulterers and adulteresses (James 4:4). You cannot commit adultery if you have no relationship with another. The same is true with our relationship with God. In other words they had a relationship with Christ, but they were living according to the principles of the world.
Dead doesn’t mean non-existent
James used the example of a brother or sister in need of food. What does it profit the needy brother or sister, if you do not give them the help they need? (James 2:16) It doesn’t help them and is an example of dead (inactive) faith. Dead doesn’t mean non-existent. It simply means inactive or barren.
Good works are not automatic
Good works are not automatic in the life of a believer. “And let our people also learn to maintain good works, to meet urgent needs, that they may not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14). New believers must be taught many things. One of those is to be attentive to the needs of others.
Our old nature is self-focused. When you are born again, God doesn’t eradicate it. He gives you a new nature created in true righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:24). As believers we should be learning to live out of the new nature by faith. This is a moment by moment, day by day, response to life. Are you being led by the Spirt or are you living out the resources of the old nature (the flesh)?
Failing to walk by faith
The believers to whom James wrote were saved by faith. But they weren’t walking by faith. They were walking according to the old nature, fulfilling the lusts of it. They needed to become doers of the word and not simply hearers only, deceiving themselves (James 1:22). On the positive they would be blessed by being a doer. However, failing to be a doer could eventually lead to premature physical death (James 1:15). As believers we are not immune from living a sinful lifestyle. But realize that God never removed the consequences for living in such a way.
“The fear of the Lord prolongs days, but the years of the wicked will be shortened” (Prov. 10:27).