Devotional: James 2:14-26…Let’s Clarify What Really Saves a Person

James 2:14-26

14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?
15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food,
16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?
17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe– and tremble!
20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?
22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?
23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God.
24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.
25 Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?
26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. 


Let me start this devotional by stating this very plainly: salvation is by grace through faith alone in Jesus Christ. Acts 4:12 states, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” I edited this devotional and felt it quite necessary to establish the truth of the Gospel from the outset.

If there is one thing we must be sure to clarify in this life, it is the issue of faith. What saves a person, does a person need saved, and in what or who must they trust? As a Baptist pastor, I have seen many forms of faith over the years and we tend to pick them out as Baptists: faith in works, faith in character, faith in religious ordinances like baptism or perhaps communion, faith in our good deeds outweighing our bad deeds, faith in a plethora of various deities or religious figures, and on the list goes.

Perhaps what will hit most closely to home in a typical evangelical, Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching church will be the more indistinguishable line of an alternative form of works righteousness. Can it exist in Bible-preaching churches that exalt Christ and the Gospel? I believe the answer is “Yes, it can and does.” What would it be, then? Let me suggest that it is the dividing line between those trusting in their sincerity of faith and those trusting in Christ through the promises of God.

It’s hard to distinguish between the two because they often look quite the same on the surface. If all you’ve ever trusted in, though, is your trust itself, I would beg you to consider whether you’ve ever actually trusted in Jesus Christ. Guilt and shame seem to somehow still accompany those who have only trusted in their sincerity, and it may baffle them as to why this is so; I believe this comes down to the fluctuating nature of our sincerity, and if our sincerity is “strong” one day only to wane the next, we have all reason to fear though we preach the Bible and claim salvation by grace through faith alone. If we are not careful, we may miss having trusted in our intentionality in asking for forgiveness or walking an aisle in church or claiming something like the truths of the “Roman’s Road.”

Since I have grown up in mostly Baptist churches, I will speak once again to our greatest danger which is as subtle as a snake in tall grass: churches that are filled with those who have trusted in their trust and those who have trusted in Christ sharing the same room. It can cause conflict and make no sense when it’s assumed we are all on the same page, which we may not be. For this reason, it’s not crazy that there are people who sometimes in Bible-preaching churches “get saved” years after they “got saved.”

James practically gives us a sermon here in James 2:14-26. There are about five illustrations used to help explain faith and the same conclusion restated multiple times: faith without works is dead. The five examples are this:

1. V. 15-16: showing concern for others in need without giving tangible assistance
2. V. 18: comparative forms of righteousness, purely “faith” vs. purely “works” (we need both)
3. V. 19: demons believe–but do not submit to what they know is true
4. V. 21-23: Abraham offered Isaac as a sign of his faith in response to God’s test
5. V. 25: Rahab had faith that the spies were men of God and that their God was the true God

This has probably been such a contentious passage over the years for how people understood “works” and the divisions that may have been drawn over thinking that James was preaching works righteousness vs. justification by faith. Let’s be clear, he wasn’t advocating works righteousness, but calling out a professed faith that had no substance.

If you and I were in a room and I told you that I had just learned there was a bomb in the room and that it would explode in the next few minutes, would you alter your behavior? Would you run? Would you panic? Would you laugh and sit and look incredulously at me? You see, if you trusted me, you’d be running for cover and get away as far as you could. If you saw kids, you might rush to grab them and do what you could to get them to safety. You’d probably scream and warn others and all the things someone does when danger is imminent. You wouldn’t sit there and be apathetic if you believed me.

The “works” that James speaks of are the evidence of someone being persuaded of information as truth. The “works” are also evidence of trusting God. It is possible that someone doubts God or His intentions and has works; it happens all the time. This very well may be where sincerity pops up for the more Bible-based types. It’s not that we shouldn’t be sincere, by the way, but we are really called to trust God to uphold His promises to us in seeking His forgiveness and acceptance by placing our faith in Christ. Anything else, any other false savior, will only lead to a powerless “gospel” that runs more on willpower than the Holy Spirit’s empowerment. Willpower gets tiring, but God can sustain us even when our own tanks are running empty.

The hope and strength of any true believer’s relationship with God will always be the God who sustains them! If you’ve trusted in your own trust, recognize that the willpower it takes to keep being sincere can get tiring; we often learn to posture and fake it when grace-empowered lives seem quite distant. God has a better way: trust in Him, rest in the Gospel, and live knowing that you are loved by Him and secure in Christ.

Faith without works is dead. James says it again and again, and he is pointing to a trust in God that is evidenced by actions that are done out of trust. Works are as natural to faith as fans cheering for their team–but it’s a necessity that works accompany faith even if the fans don’t cheer for their team. My hope for you today is that you will consider your faith: is it legitimate or is it all talk? Where has it been placed? How has it changed you? Has it changed you?

Last thought: where we find assurance of our faith is often the breadcrumb trail leading us back to what we have been trusting in all along. If I asked you, “Why would God let you into Heaven when you died?” I wonder what you might reply. When someone says, “I prayed…” I have to wonder (not trying to judge) if their faith was in the act of asking or if it were in the promise of God being pressed upon. Remember that it’s not the quality of the request, but the God who answers the prayer.  Faith banks on God’s character, not one’s own; this is so different than how people often view religion.

Another illustration for you: if I asked you to sit in a chair and told you that the chair could hold you, would believing me be enough? Maybe you’d be satisified with that response (you don’t care to sit), but until you sat in the chair, you wouldn’t have fully trusted the chair’s ability to hold you yet. Now, if you sat down and looked at me and said, “Wow, my faith is keeping me held up on this chair,” I might laugh. You see, your sincerity is not keeping you supported, but rather, the strength of the chair. It doesn’t matter how much you trust, even if you’re sitting in the chair; the only thing keeping you up is the chair, not your “belief power.” If the chair isn’t capable of supporting you, you will fall; so too, when people place their faith in anything less than Christ, it will not end well. Translate this into a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ: it is not the fact that you trust or that your trust is so strong that you would be held secure in the grip of God, but rather that God is holding you by His will to love you, forgive you, justify you by your faith in Christ’s substitionary death on the cross and accept you as His own forever.

Please, please, please hear these words today. I don’t care if you’ve been a faithful member of a Bible preaching church for fifty years or you’re just a kid reading this, this is the distinction you must make in regards to what it means to be saved. Your eternity is at stake and both Heaven and Hell are real, whether or not that is popular in our day and age. Offense will not matter on the other side of the grave but Whom you have trusted in will. May God be with you as you consider these words today.

Yours in Christ,

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.