Faith Without Works Is Dead

By Osamagbe Lesley Egharevba | Lagos, Nigeria

But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? (James 2:20)

Many people today in the world teach the “salvation by faith only” doctrine. By this, they mean that faith (belief) is the only thing required for one to be saved and one does not have to do any work in order to be saved. This doctrine, in reality actually disregards any kind of work commanded by God to be done in order for one to be saved. What is even more interesting is that in the only place the words “faith only” appeared in the Bible, it is clearly stated that we are not saved by it – “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). The aim of this writing is to examine the statement in our text above (James 2:20) and see the relationship between faith and works and then find out if both are required for salvation or not.

What Is Faith?

In this discussion, faith refers to belief in God and His Word. In Hebrews 11:6, the Bible says “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” This passage of the Scriptures clearly tells us that one must believe in God before such can come to Him. And in Mark 16:16, Jesus stated that one of the conditions that a man must meet in order to be saved is to believe. With these passages, it is clear that faith is required for salvation. But the question is: should it stand alone or must it be accompanied by works? Our text is clear on this, that faith that is standing alone without works is a dead faith. Also, James 2:17 states: “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” But what kind of “works” are we talking about? Looking through the Bible, we see that “works” can be classified into two. Let us examine them.

Two Kinds of Works

The word “works” is used in two different ways in the New Testament and with two different meanings. This is not unusual as a word can have different meanings and we have to allow the context to tell us the meaning intended. For example, when we take a look at how the word “world” is used in the Bible, we see more than one meaning. In John 3:16, we read: ” For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth on Him might not perish but might have everlasting life.”  Also in I John 2:15, we were told to “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.  If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” God loved the world and gave His Son to die to save it. Yet if a man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. How can that be true? The word “world” (kosmos) is the same in both passages whether English or Greek. The difficulty is resolved by understanding that the word “world” in John 3:16 refers to man while in 1 John 3:15 the word “world” is a reference to the sinful pleasures which draw us away from God. A perusal of the Scriptures will reveal that there are other words in the New Testament that may be found in one passage to mean one thing while in another place the meaning is entirely different, sometimes opposite in meaning from its use in other passages. It is the same way with the word “works” as used in the New Testament.

Hence, it is important to take a look at how the Bible describes works. This is because one major cause of confusion and disagreement on the issue of salvation by grace through faith is over the meaning of the word “works.” And when we fail to make a clear distinction between meritorious works (which nullify grace) and the works of God (obedience which makes faith perfect), confusion and misunderstanding are the results. These are the two kinds of works mentioned in the New Testament and while the former is excluded and irrelevant to our salvation, the latter is not. To show this distinction, I wish that we turn to the Scriptures.

The first class of works which is irrelevant to our salvation is found in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast. Of what kind of works is our salvation not based on? It is not of boastful works and it is not of man’s device. If I am able to take myself to heaven without the help of God, then I could boast of doing such by my own works or efforts. But our salvation is not so for we fully depend on God to enter heaven. This is not the kind of works that saves a man and this is the kind of works that Abraham was not justified by, as stated by Paul in Romans 4:2.

The second class of works is found in Acts 10:34-35, while Peter was speaking at the house of Cornelius, he said: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him, and works righteousness, is acceptable by Him.” Here we have a class of works that is acceptable and necessary for one to be accepted by God or to be saved. Peter says a man must work righteousness before he is accepted by God! In fact, the Bible repeatedly affirms that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14,17,20,24,26). This is the kind of works that Abraham was justified by as stated in James 2:21. Paul and James were speaking of works from two different perspectives when they used Abraham as an example.

The point is this: Our salvation is not of the first class of works (boastful works, works done by man, originated by man, and of which he is the inventor). It is not of this type lest a man should boast. On the other hand, it is of a class of works described by Peter as “works of righteousness.” Whatever comes under the head of righteousness is included in the gospel plan of salvation. And what is righteousness? David tells us what righteousness is in Psalm 119:172 when he said; “For all Your commandments are righteousness.” And so, a man works righteousness by being obedient to all the commandments of God. In fact, Jesus was baptized to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15) even when He had no sin (I Peter 2:21-22).

Hence, the works that are obligatory upon mankind are works of God, to which man submits. Therefore, repentance, confession and baptism are not works of the law and neither are they works of man’s righteousness but they are a part of man’s faith response to the amazing grace of God which has appeared to all men (Titus 2:11). Jesus said in John 6:29; “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”

Are We Still Saved By Grace When We Have To Do Something?

Many think that if we do anything in order to get salvation, it becomes of works (of man’s righteousness) and not of grace. That is not true. In Luke 17:10, Christ says, “When you have done all things which are commanded you then ye shall say, We are unprofitable servants; we have only done that which was out duty.” We have not earned salvation; we have only done our duty, and we will be saved by grace through faith when we have done all things that he commanded.

Paul says in I Corinthians 1:30-31: “But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption – that, as it is written, he who glories, let him glory in the LORD.” And in Galatians 6:14 he says “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” A demonstration of that fact is brought up in the falling of the walls of Jericho. The Israelites had to go around the walls for 6 days, and on the 7th day, they had to go around seven times, and then blow the trumpets and shout before the walls fell. Is there any man who would think that there was any virtue in their work, except obedience to God? They did not get the land by their own efforts but they had to do something (obey God’s commandment) to get it. God had given the city to them (Joshua 6:2), but they had done what He commanded them to do (Joshua 6:3-27). In Hebrews 11:30, it says “by faith the walls of Jericho fell down when they had been compassed about for seven days.

Naaman was cleansed of his leprosy when he dipped the seventh time (II Kings 5:14). He was not cleansed at the point he decided in his heart to do it. He had to do what the Lord commanded, not part of it, but all of it. He went to the river, he dipped once, he dipped twice, he dipped the third time, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, and still, he was not cleansed but when he dipped the seventh time, he came clean. When he had done all that the Lord commanded him, he received the blessing of the Lord. Was it the water that cleansed him or was it his effort? No! The Lord saved him but AFTER he obeyed and did what he was asked to do.

The blind man was told to go wash in the Pool of Siloam. He went and washed and came seeing (John 9:7). Any man could look at the washing and see that the waters of Siloam did not bring back his eyesight to him. No man of intelligence would say a thing like that. Rather, it was his obedience – he did what he was asked to do! And so at this time when Jesus has said, “he that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved…” the believer, turning from the world to do the will of God, in penitence going his way, is baptized into Christ— is buried with his Lord by baptism into death— and he is also raised with him, through faith in the operation of God and thus, coming into Christ, his faith is made perfect and avails him and he is by his obedience, purified in soul, for Peter said in 1 Peter 1:22, “Seeing ye have purified your souls in your obedience to the truth.” That, indeed, is the way to salvation. Therefore, the fact that a man does a work in obedience to God’s command as a condition to be saved, does not mean he is saved by his own works or efforts.

What Kind of Faith Saves a Man?

Paul said in Galatians 5:6; “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.” The faith that avails is the one that brings the blessings of God, and notice how that is done. In I John 5:3, John tells us just how that is, for he said, “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” That is the love of God, and faith working through love avails; faith working through love saves; faith keeping the commandments of God is the salvation that has been promised. Is baptism a command of God? If it is a commandment of God, then faith working through love, faith working through keeping the commandments of God, which is the love of God, avails and thus faith, leading the individual down in the water, to be buried there with his Lord in obedience to His commandment, is faith working and faith being perfected and that kind of faith saves when it is thus perfected.

Galatians 3:26-27 teaches that the kind of faith that saves a man is the kind of faith that includes baptism. “We are all children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” The word “for” in verse 27 is from the Greek word “gar” and it means to “introduce the reason” (of something previously mentioned). This word “gar” connects with what preceded and shows how they got into Christ by faith. How? By being baptized into Christ they put on Christ and were saved. Thus, it means that they were children of God by faith inasmuch as they have been baptized.


It is strange that some denominational preachers today teach that obedience (works) is not required for salvation when both our faith and love of God are completed by our obedience. Are they saying we can be saved without complete faith?  Are they saying we can be saved without a complete love of God? James 2:22 says about Abraham’s offering of Isaac “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;” (ESV). I John 2:5 reads “But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in Him:” (NIV). So, unless one wants to say we can be saved with an incomplete faith and an incomplete love, or a dead faith, one has to admit obedience is necessary to our salvation because faith and love are both incomplete until they obey.

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