Is Faith Without Works Dead?

The Bible defines faith as the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1). It is undeniable that faith without substance is no faith at all, but merely a false hope.

However, those who do not rightly divide the Scripture often are plagued with a misunderstanding of the separate faiths that have been offered throughout dispensations. It is a misconception to think that the substance of faith remains the same for every person and group in the Bible.

The Just Shall Live by Faith

Scripture records that the just in every age shall live by faith, and yet the substance or content of that faith changes as it is revealed.

“For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” – Romans 1:17

It is an unchangeable principle of God that the righteous, in any age, must live by faith, and operate according to the obedience of that faith (Acts 6:7, Romans 1:5).

“But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” – Hebrews 11:6

However, we must recognize the dispensational changes in the substance of that faith as it is revealed from God. Noah had faith in a flood and salvation by an ark. Moses had faith in God who would deliver them from Egypt, and salvation from enemy bondage.

The Hope of Israel

It is clearly stated in the opening verse of James, that he writes to the ‘twelve tribes’ and ‘my brethren’, who were Israelites, scattered by the persecution of unbelieving Israel.

Writing to the twelve tribes, James writes concerning the faith and hope of Israel during the Pentecostal period. It is during this time that the gospel of the kingdom was preached by Peter who proclaimed the ‘last days’ before Christ’s return (Acts 2:16-17, 3:19-21).

Instead of having a hope based upon the preaching of the cross, Israel’s hope was in the salvation offered by the coming Holy One and promised kingdom (Luke 1:68-75). It was this information that Peter presented for acceptance by faith.

“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.” – Acts 2:36

Along with believing Jesus to be the Holy One, Peter called upon Israel to repent and perform the works necessary to exhibit their repentance according to what Jesus had taught.

“For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:20

A Faith That Produces Works

In order to enter the kingdom, Jesus taught that Israel must be righteous. In fact, they must be perfect ‘even as your Father in heaven is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48).

If a believer was to have faith in the coming kingdom with Jesus as its Messiah, then they would of necessity be obliged to perform the works of the law as obedience to that faith.

The substance of the faith was entering the coming kingdom with Jesus as Messiah. The obedience to that faith would naturally be performing works required to enter the kingdom, and be admitted into Jesus’ kingdom.

“He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.” – John 14:21

When faith was obeyed by these Jewish believers, they would exhibit the works required by their faith. The substance of their faith was obedience to the law, even the new covenant, as Jesus, the Holy One, both taught and exemplified (Matthew 5:20, 8:4, 23:2-3).

A Dead Faith

If the substance of your faith was the coming kingdom, which required a righteous performance of works for admission, then you could evaluate a person’s faith by their obedience to perform works.

“But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” – James 2:20

The faith of these Jewish believers at Pentecost demanded the obedience of works. Otherwise, the substance of their faith was not alive – it was dead!

Only someone who did not have faith of a coming kingdom, or did not want to enter the coming kingdom would deny necessary works.

James reasons that a man reaches justification, which is the proof of salvation, through the necessary works.

“Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” – James 2:24

Another Hope, Another Faith

The just will live by faith. Until the revelation of the mystery, the substance of faith always included God’s involvement with the nation Israel, its promised kingdom, and its associated covenants.

It was not until Paul that salvation was offered by grace through faith alone apart from any special nation, kingdom requirements, or covenant stipulations (Romans 4:5, Eph 2:8-9, Romans 11:6, Eph 2:12).

Paul offered a hope not based upon a promised earthly kingdom of peace and righteous rule, but a hope of salvation found within the preaching of the cross (Eph 2:7, Romans 5:2-4).

The saving faith we are taught includes the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who was delivered for our offences and raised again for our free justification (Romans 4:25).

We are given free justification by grace apart from any meritorious work of our own (Romans 3:24).

Contained in this further revelation which was not revealed to Peter, James, or John prior to Paul was that our faith is not in a covenantal law, which required performance, but in the death of Jesus Christ for our sins.

“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;” – Romans 3:21

The Obedience of Faith

The substance of our faith is the atoning work of Christ on the cross in our place (Galatians 2:16, Romans 3:21-26).

Unique to this dispensation of emphatic grace, the obedience to this faith requires no works at all!

“But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” – Romans 4:5

Instead of evaluating our faith based upon performance, our faith is evaluated based on Christ’s performance in our place, which was sufficient for every man! Praise God!

It was when we were weak, and given up by God as enemies, Christ died for us:

“For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” – Romans 5:6

Dead Faith in the Dispensation of Grace

Citing James 2:14-26, teachers seek to justify a performance-based evaluation of ‘true’ faith today in the dispensation of grace. Yet, unknowingly, they rob people of the benefits the righteousness of God which only comes freely by faith in Christ (Romans 3:22-24, 5:2).

In order for a faith to be dead in this dispensation, the substance of their faith must be inactive. That is, if our faith is in Jesus Christ’s work on the cross, then a dead faith would be like preaching a dead Jesus who could not perform that which he promised (Romans 4:19-21).

Contrariwise, any person who has faith in the cross of Christ has the full assurance of salvation because God is able to perform that which we could not – a proper atonement of our sins.

Our faith can only be annulled or dead if the work of Christ was annulled or insufficient. Impossible!

Do not be robbed of the glorious grace of God by a lack of rightly dividing the Scriptures. It is the precious truth of the efficacious atoning blood of Jesus that is the focus and climax of the gospel!

Whereas James taught a faith that required works in order to be ‘perfect’, we are given a perfect position by our faith in Christ alone! Amen and Amen. (2 Cor 5:21, Phil 3:12)

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Published: Monday, September 21st, 2009
Last Modified: July 22, 2016