“The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love.” That is what Paul said in his letter to the Jesus believers of Galatia (Galatians 5:6). We are not justified — that is, identified as being in right relationship with God — by performing certain rituals, such as circumcision (which was the issue of the day for the churches in Galatia). No, we are justified by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The nature of faith is that it expresses itself in love, and it turns out that love fulfills the law of God. “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14).
This is also essentially what James says in his letter to scattered Jewish Christians, though some in the Church have had difficulty seeing it. Martin Luther, champion of “justification by faith” in the days of the Protestant Reformation, thought the letter of James to be “a right strawy epistle.” However, he had gotten so tightly wound up in his own rhetoric that he missed the meaning of James. But see how James speaks about faith:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 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? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.In James’ mind, there are two kinds of faith. He draws the contrast between a faith that is alive and one that is dead. You can tell the difference by the action that accompanies it, or does not accompany it. And the accompanying action James has in mind has everything to do with love. “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well” (James 2:8).
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. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder. (James 2:14-19 NIV)
To be clear, James is not telling us how to be justified before God by our deeds. Nor is he telling us about a sort of faith that justifies us before men that is different from the faith one that justifies us before God. But what he is telling us is something about the nature of the faith that justifies us before God — it is a faith that is accompanying by action. This is very like what Paul taught, as we can see in Galatians 5:6, and also in Ephesians 2:8-10:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.A faith that never goes beyond acknowledging propositions about God or Christ or the cross is a dead faith. Even the demons have that, and it causes them to tremble. But that is not the same thing as trust. A dead faith is devoid of life and is completely useless. The only thing left to do with something that is dead is to bury it. Such is a faith that is without love.
Look at the example James gives. Suppose a brother or sister who is destitute comes along, and someone says, “Go in peace, keep warm and well fed,” but does absolutely nothing to aid them in their need, even if it is in his power to help. Is that faith? Hardly. The man who does that doesn’t even believe his own words, much less have faith in God.
Faith that is alive and real actually makes a difference in how we live and how we respond. It is accompanied by action. Faith without action is dead. So is faith without love. Yet even love, if there is no accompanying action, is dead.
Paul and James would both point us to the same thing: It is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that saves us. But the nature of that faith is that it expresses itself through love and is accompanied by action.