What does it mean that faith without works is dead?
People act in line with what they believe. For instance, if we believe a stove top is hot, we will not place our hand on it. If we believe vitamins are essential for good health, we will take them. Good marketers persuade people to believe they need a certain product in order to induce people to buy it. The actions that result from our faith are no different from those that result from other of our beliefs. If we truly believe God is who He says He is and that the Bible means what it says, we will act accordingly.
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The New Testament is replete with descriptions of the works that result from our faith. James 2:14-26 is the most well-known passage regarding the lifelessness of claimed faith unsubstantiated by works. In essence, it explains the way that faith is demonstrated by our actions. John 15:1-17 compares the believer's relationship with Christ to that of branches to a vine. A branch that is truly connected to the vine will bear fruit. Those who have true faith will also have works. Philippians 1:9-11 says, "And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God." Similarly, Galatians 5:22-25 describes what our lives will look like if we live by the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 2:10 talks about good works for which we have been created.
It is important to note that works follow faith. Works are a good diagnostic barometer of where our truth faith lies. Our good works in no way relate to our salvation. Paul makes very clear in Ephesians 2 that apart from Christ we are dead in sin (Ephesians 2:4-9); we are therefore incapable of truly good works. However, after our salvation, we can perform the "good works, which God prepared beforehand" (Ephesians 2:10). Works are a fruit of our salvation, not a means by which to earn it.
That being said, once we are saved, we are expected to do good works. We are a reflection of Christ. As such, we do good to those around us (Galatians 6:10). We are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17), so we act in new ways. The works we do should come from a transformed heart. Jesus said that people would know His followers by their love (John 13:35). In this way we are a light to the world (Matthew 5:14). Good works, then, demonstrate the veracity of our faith and the character of the God in Whom we believe.
Faith without works is dead because true faith transforms a life. It is also true that works without faith are dead. Jesus said that some would call Him "Lord, Lord," but would not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21-23). Some of these people will not have demonstrated the fruit of good works. Others will have done works apart from faith in an effort to save themselves. All our works are as filthy rags to God apart from Christ (Isaiah 64:6). They are tainted by our sin and not sufficient to take us from being dead in our trespasses (Colossians 2:13) to being alive.
When we have true faith in Christ, we are made new (2 Corinthians 5:17). Our lives are transformed and good works result. Faith is not intellectual assent only; it involves life change. Our faith is evidenced by the way we live.
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