Why Mere Belief Won’t Get it Done



January 23, 2019

James 2:14-19

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.


James has led up to this point in his letter with a series of jabs. He has let us know his intentions to challenge our faith multiple times. Finally, today, he gives us the right hook. He comes right out into the open and says it. For effect, permit me a one line paraphrase:

If you say you believe in God and there’s nothing in your actions that prove it, you are deceived.

I often turn to Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, to see how he renders such texts as this one:

Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? vv.14-17. The Message Translation

How long will we mistakenly equate faith with believing the right things about God? A demon, James says, believes the right things about God yet has no faith in God. When we will we stop assuring people that their right beliefs about God constitute saving faith? Faith that cannot be seen in tangible action cannot be called biblical faith. Let’s consult the great chapter on faith in Hebrews 11. It begins:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1

Faith is not something that exists in one’s head. It lives in one’s every day walking around life or it does not live at all. Faith is the tangible action that produces the visible evidence that what was heretofore invisible can now been seen.

For James, even this level of teaching about faith and deeds is too conceptual. He brings it home with an every day example:

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?

I think it may be a good idea to stop talking now and just sit with these preceding words from James. Lest there be an end to our words, our actions will never catch up.


God, our Father, I want to be a real Christian. Grace me with a faith that proves itself through love, the real live activity of love for other people. Break through my deception with the grace of your truth. In Jesus name, Amen.


1. Try doing a faith audit on yesterday. Can you think back through your day and remember any points of tangible action that signified your faith in Jesus Christ? If not yesterday, how far back do you need to go?

2. Right beliefs about God are good, but they alone do not rise to the level of faith. How does this challenge your notion of saving faith (i.e. believing the right things equals salvation)?

3. If we believe one must do the right things in order to be saved and not merely believe the right things, how is this not some kind of works-based salvation? Can you articulate the nuance here?

For the Awakening,
J.D. Walt

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