But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? James 2:20
That phrase, "faith without works is dead" has probably caused more argument, misunderstanding and confusion than the whole book of Revelation. Martin Luther called the epistle of James an epistle of straw without a word of gospel in it. I wouldnít go that far as I think there are some good things in James. But this phrase is not one of them and is usually yanked out of context and used to condemn and beat people over the head into conformity. Maybe James stumbled over the words or was just having a bad day.
The problem is that this phrase implies a distinction between "faith" and "works". The proper distinction is between "works of the flesh" and "works of the spirit." Works of the flesh means that our will power is used to do good (or evil as the case may be) and is simply a lack of faith. It means to place us in the same position as God and in effect usurp His glory. Works of the spirit on the other hand means Godís power working in us through the Holy Spirit and is the end result of faith.
Now the Bible scholars say Iím not supposed to do what Iím about to do. But, I donít care because this helps my understanding. The word translated "work" is "ergon" and is cognate with the English word energy. We can paraphrase James as saying, "If the Holy Spirit is not energizing you it means you have no faith." If that is what James was saying, then I agree. If he meant anything else, then James was an idiot and Martin Luther was right.
When we set aside our puny self-willed efforts at goodness and agree to allow God to work in us, it is called "faith." It is the trust that God will replace our carnal desire with His desire. This is why it is called "fruit of the Spirit" Ė it comes from God and not from us. We do the faithing and the Holy Spirit does the working in and through us. It is a hand-in-glove relationship. We have nothing to boast of because the work was not of our will power but by His power. Thus to do more works, we need to get more faith.
But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing. If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. (James 1:4-6)
Now this is one of the good things in James. Patience! A major part of faith is courage and tenacity (nothing wavering), but patience is just as important. When we see someone in need, a compassionate heart will naturally want to help. Thatís all well and good, but if we go out in our limited understanding we can work contrary to the Holy Spirit.
Consider a hypothetical situation. We see someone in financial distress and out of love and compassion decide to help. What we didnít realize was that the Lord was allowing the pressure in order to force the person into repentance. When they reach the breaking point they will turn to the Lord and cry out for help. If we intervene too soon, the pressure comes off and the moment of breaking never happens. Do you want that on your hands? I donít.
So we must learn to always ask the Lord. Do I give help here? He may say, no, wait a bit. When the person finally turns to the Lord for help, we then become the instrument of His provision. The person then learns that when they trust God, provision comes. If we act before we are commanded to act, we can work at cross-purposes and defeat the work of the spirit. Thus the life of faith also includes obedience to the Lordís will, even when it is not clear what is going on.
All of these things, courage, tenacity, patience, obedience, and more are wrapped up in that word "faith."