When our Master began preaching, he did not only require men to believe in his name, but also exhorted us to forsake our evil ways, and charged those who became his disciples to distinguish themselves by their good works.
"Let your light so shine before men," said he to his disciples, "that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, which is in Heaven' (Matt. 5:16.)
And when Jesus sent his apostles to preach the Gospel, he enjoined them to teach those whom they baptized, to observe all things whatsoever he had commanded them, (Mat. 18:20) - a commission they faithfully executed. For they declared to their hearers that Jesus is the author of eternal salvation to only those who obey him. (Acts 5:32)
When we reflect on these things, we might think that ministers of the gospel should have nothing to do except to instruct us in the practice of our duties; and that we should have no occasion to prove either the necessity of faith, or of good works. But yet so prone are men to degenerate from true principles, that both of these are now necessary to be done.
Some hope to be saved by their faith in Jesus Christ, though they are destitute of those good works which God has ordained that we should walk in them.
St. James seeks to convince them of their mistake.
He shows them, that as it would be an idle presence, for a man to say he loved his brother, if he did not show his love by kind actions; it would be mere presumption for anyone to rely upon his faith, if it was not producing good works.
"What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (2:15-17)
The works here intended are undoubtedly good works, done in obedience to the will of God, and proceeding from faith in Jesus; and therefore, though from the context it may seem, that he principally intends works of charity and mercy, yet they comprehend the whole Christian practice, without which our faith will not, for when he asks, "can faith save him?"
He affirms in the strongest way that faith alone cannot save him. This says that faith in Jesus, which is producing good works, will save us, as a means by which is necessary to our salvation.
Many will therefore be most unhappily disappointed, who flatter themselves with the hope of heaven, because they believe in Jesus, and rely upon his merits, but do not reform their lives. And yet is not this the unhappy condition of many Christians? They hope to be saved by Jesus, but few live in conformity to his precepts and example.
Works, which are necessary to render our faith effectual for our salvation, must be done according to the will of God revealed in the Gospel, and proceed from faith and the other true principles of religion; they must extend to the full compass of our Christian duty, and be uniform and persevering.
But though faith, destitute of good works, is not sufficient for our salvation by Jesus, yet we are not to rely upon the observation of moral duties; without faith in our blessed Mediator.
All the doctrines of Jesus have a tendency to promote holiness of life; and therefore those who most perfectly understand them, ought to be most active promoters of good works. And if they, notwithstanding their superior knowledge, live wickedly, their faith will be so from saving them, but it will add to their guilt, and aggravate their condemnation.
None are more confident of their salvation than the hottest zealots, even though their lives are irregular. How often do they condemn others who are holier than themselves, and because they think themselves sound in the faith, have no scruples about their own salvation, however they live, as if they hoped to atone for the badness of their temper, and the irregularity of their lives, by the heat of their zeal?
For such an intemperate, and flaming zeal as this, is so far from promoting good works, that it actually destroys them. Those who defame and oppress their neighbors, because they are not of the same judgment with themselves, act most uncharitably, and transgress the great and plain law of equity given us by our blessed Savior.
Let such people consider, and tremble at the words of our apostle, "do you not know, vain man, that faith without works is dead?"
And at the words of Jesus himself, "Not everyone that says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father, who is in Heaven." (Matt. 7:21)
The fairest external profession of religion, therefore, will not secure to us the favor of God, unless we live in obedience to Jesus, and our obedience flows from an inward principle of religion in our hearts.
No faith in him can be saving, but that which produces a universal obedience to his authority and commandments. Yea, a man may say, to use the words of James, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18)
(Adapted from a sermon by Rev. James Morris, 1757)