Martin Luther, the famous German reformer, wanted to throw the book of James out of the Bible because of this specific passage. He didn’t win that argument. In this passage James addresses the question: What is the nature of genuine faith in Christ? In other words, what does it look like? What effect does it have in our lives?
Faith in the fact that there is one God is good, but not remarkable, James says. It puts you on a par with demons. In fact, demons might be a bit ahead of you, because when they think about God, they “shudder.” If your belief in God does not result in godly actions, then that faith is essentially “dead.”
Body and breath go together. A body without breath is merely a corpse. James says it’s the same thing with faith and works. Let’s stop trying to rip them apart. When faith is genuine, it results in good works. We trust the Holy Spirit to motivate us. The love of God fills our hearts, so we respond to the needs of those around us.
Now, you can get wrapped up in theological debates about whether faith or works is more important, but that misses the point. True faith changes you. Faith flows into works. The two are inseparable.
Plants grow. That’s what they do. Fruit trees bear fruit. And people with genuine faith in Christ put out the fruit of good works. James is not saying that we earn salvation by being good or doing good. He’s saying that a fruitless faith is pointless, worthless. It’s not really faith.
We should also note a subtle difference between believing that and believing in. We can believe that God exists, but trusting in Christ is the key— that relationship radically alters how we live. When we believe in our powerful Lord, like Abraham and Rahab did, we will find that our faith is confirmed by our actions.
Talk with God about your own faith. Do you have “faith with works” or “faith without works?” Ask God to give you the power you need to put your faith into action.
Also, talk with at least one other close Christian friend about this question: Is my faith more on the inside or the outside? Both are good. Both are important. But if you just feel your faith and don’t show it, you’re out of balance. (It’s also possible to tilt the other way, doing stuff for God, but not taking time for personal growth.)