When I was a child, I attended a funeral with my mother. I remember being spooked by the person in the casket, yet struggling to look away. I thought that at any moment they might jump up or maybe lift a finger. I lacked the maturity to know it wasn’t right to stare, so I watched and I waited.
You know, I never saw even the smallest movement. Why? Because, as James says in his letter, “the body apart from the spirit is dead” (James 2:26). When the spirit has fled, all that remains is the decaying physical body of an image-bearer.
I don’t usually write about such morbid things, but James gives us this same picture to help us understand how faith and works relate to each other in the life of a believer. The heart, brain, and organs have to be working in order for a body to, well, work. Likewise, if there is no faith in the heart of a believer, it is impossible for there to be good works. While even non-believers can do seemingly “good” deeds, truly good deeds are only those which are accomplished through faith in Jesus Christ.
Okay, but this can be confusing, can’t it? Why does James seem to contradict himself in the preceding verses when he claims, “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24)? Because, as we see elsewhere in Scripture, a true believer displays genuine faith through their good works and obedience to Christ (John 15:8; Matt. 7:17–20).
We are justified by Jesus’ redemptive work alone. But the evidence that redemption has occurred in a Christian’s heart is their good works and the fruit they bear.
Jesus’ words in John 15 shed light on what James is talking about . . .
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” (John 15:5–8, emphasis mine)
True believers abide in the True Vine and bear much fruit. How will they know we are disciples of Christ if our relationship to sin hasn’t changed and we look just like the world? That is precisely the point James is trying to make when he says, “faith apart from works is useless” (James 2:20). If a person claims to have faith in Jesus and yet continues to live their life as they did before, they prove to be a liar. God doesn’t just save us and leave us where we are, He transforms us. Praise the Lord!
When preaching on this passage, Charles Spurgeon said, “The new birth would be a thing to be ridiculed if it did not really produce a hatred of sin and a love of holiness.”1 This is not an overnight, perfect transformation, but rather a gradual change. Day by day, the Spirit renews us, growing our love for the Lord and reorienting our hearts to view sin rightly (2 Cor. 4:16).
Friend, I know these verses may spark uneasiness in your heart. Please know, you and I are justified wholly by the blood of Christ alone. Nothing we could do could ever earn our salvation. James wanted his original readers and us to know that salvation leads to obedience to the Lord—not perfect obedience, for we all still sin daily, but an ongoing growth toward Christlikeness.
Some of us may tend toward morbid introspection, where we become so inwardly focused that we despair and constantly question our salvation. I don’t believe James would want that. While it is good practice to “confirm your calling and election,” as Peter would advise, our eyes need not be fixed on ourselves for long (2 Peter 1:10). The fruit we bear is not meant to cause us to focus on the fruit itself but rather to direct our eyes back to the God who is working within us to produce it.
If you are unsure of whether or not you’ve experienced this kind of transformation, the good news is, you can come to him today. Turn to Jesus for salvation—seek His face. He is ready and willing to save you.
1 Study note on James 2:17, in CSB Spurgeon Study Bible (Nashville: Holman, 2017), 1663.