Faith – Work = Dead.
What does James 2:17 mean?
Many years ago, Christian musician Rich Mullins summed up this verse in a song called Screen Door. In it, he says “Faith without works is like a song you can’t sing. It’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”
The teaching of Christianity was revolutionary, and it still is. The emphasis of the gospel is on grace, through faith, and not by the good deeds—works—which we do. Instead of demanding sinless perfection and sacrifice, or some subjective judgment, God was offering forgiveness of sins and an eternal home with Him for all who believe in Christ. That leads to an all-important question: “What does it mean to have a saving belief in Christ?” This is the issue James is tackling in this part of Scripture.
Reading James in context with the rest of the New Testament helps us to answer that question. In this particular case, James is making a crucial point about the gospel: simple mental agreement is not enough. “Knowledge” is not “trust.” Salvation does not come when a person agrees to the facts of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Accepting Christ is not like agreeing that the city of Lincoln is the capital of Nebraska. Such a “belief” requires no response, no action. In verses 15 and 16, James also pointed out that merely claiming something does not make the claim true. A person who says “I believe,” but does nothing to support such a belief, does not actually believe what they have claimed.
James makes clear that saving faith in Christ is active and transformative. Salvation is about placing our trust in Christ; this necessarily transforms us in such a way that we begin to make new and different choices. Living faith in Christ changes the direction of a person’s life. It always results in the believer beginning to participate in good works. Where there are no works, there is only a dead “words only” faith—the kind James refers to in the first part of verse 14.
It’s important to note here what James is not saying. He is not in any sense claiming that salvation requires good works. He’s not talking about following the law or being perfectly sinless. He’s talking about doing good works that are consistent with loving other Christians and obeying the Father. That’s what those who trust in Christ begin to do.
In other words, we are saved only by faith, and this faith which saves will produce good works. According to James, those who lack works are not saved—not because they lack works, but because their lack of works proves that they lack saving faith.