Nineteenth-century French daredevil Jean Francois Gravelet Blondin (aka "Blondin the Great"), crossing a body of water on a tightrope
14What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 18But someone may well say, "You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works." 19You believe that God is one You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.
Most, if not all of the Jews (indeed, most people in general) of St. James’ day claimed to believe in God. Many of them even engaged in pious rituals. But too many of them totally neglected their fellow man, particularly the poor. Little has changed today. Most people in the world (roughly 90% of Americans) say that they believe in God. But what percentage of people actually do anything as a result of that faith? For how many of them does their faith actually affect their daily life?’
St. James poses a question to his readers: “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” In my previous faith tradition, I would have said, “Why yes, of course! Works play no role in salvation. If I say I have faith (assuming I’m not lying), then yes, I am saved.” But the clear answer that St. James has in mind is “No! Such faith cannot save him!”
Then he gives an example to illustrate this fact, drawing upon one of his favorite themes: the responsibility of Christians to care for the poor. He asks, “if a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? The implied answer of course, is that it is of no use at all! If we find a person in need and just say that we hope their need gets filled, that does them no good. In order to actually do any good, and in order to prove that we really want them to be helped, we have to do something! We have to help them!
In the same way, “faith, if it has no works, is dead.” In other words, true faith contains within it works. True faith, faith that saves, cannot be separated from works; they are not two different things, but rather two sides of the same coin. Faith that does not issue forth in works is no faith at all. It is false faith, or in St. James’ words, it is “dead.”
St. James points out that a person could rightly say "You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works." In other words, it is better to show faith with works than to attempt to show faith without works. For how can you really prove that you have faith except by works? As FF says, “…works are the only way in which saving faith can be shown to exist” (32, emphasis his).
There is an old story that is probably overused, but it illustrates St. James’ point perfectly, so please indulge me to use it. Back in 1859 there was a performer known as "The Great Blondin." This man was a stunt performer or "daredevil." He was a tightrope walker, and he would perform amazing death-defying tightrope stunts. People would come from far and wide to see The Great Blondin perform. They were amazed at his skill and courage. Blondin's stunts were dangerous enough to make the weak hearted swoon and faint.
Once, at one particularly spectacular stunt, where Blondin would attempt to cross the Niagra River on a tightrope, he yelled a question to the crowd. He asked, "Do you believe that I, the Great Blondin, can successfully cross high above this river on a tightrope?" And the crowd yelled back, "We believe! We believe!" Then Blondin began his crossing, and to the thrill of the crowd, he made it safely. The crowd went wild. They clapped and cheered and yelled all the more.
Then Blondin asked the people, "Do you believe that I, The Great Blondin, can again successfully cross over the Niagra River on this tightrope -- this time while pushing a wheelbarrow?" The crowd enthusiastically yelled back, "We believe! We believe! We believe!"
So seeing their enthusiasm, Blondin yelled to the crowd: "Who among you is willing to ride inside of the wheelbarrow and allow me to push you as I cross on this tightrope?" The crowd went silent. No one said a word. All that could be heard was the sound of the wind blowing....
(Note: To see a great photo of this event, click here.)
The Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and pretty much all Christians before Martin Luther have always believed that works are necessary for salvation. Works alone cannot save us, but neither can faith alone. I like to say it this way: We must have works to be saved because we must have faith to be saved.