Faith without Works is Dead

by Mike Ratliff

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. (James 2:14-18 ESV)

The passage I placed at the beginning of this article is one the most abused and misunderstood passages that I know of. If it is read casually, it can be easily misunderstood. If is exposited by someone possessing a faulty hermeneutic, it can be twisted to say what no other part of the Bible teaches, that faith plus works is required for salvation.

Works salvation is nothing new. Jesus’ earthly ministry took place in a religious environment that was oppressively legalistic and works based. What is a works based theology? It is a religious system built around one succinct point; salvation comes to those who earn it. If you have little or no works then you are out of luck. It brings people into bondage because it teaches that salvation is based on their worth or their goodness or their faithfulness. Under this theology, you live your life and try to be as good and faithful as you can and when you die if your good works outweigh your sins then you are in, but if it is the other way around you are not going to make it. Keeping rules is very big in a “works” theology. What was Jesus’ reaction to those who oppressed others with their legalism?

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you–but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” (Matthew 23:1-7 ESV)

Who persecuted Jesus? It was the religious leaders of His day. They resented His teachings against their legalistic works based theology that saves no one and in fact kept people from believing unto salvation.

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” (Matthew 23:13 ESV)

What was Jesus solution?

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 ESV)

In this passage, Jesus is speaking to the religiously burdened people who were mired in works based religious system. Let’s break down this passage into phrases and work through them so we can clearly see what Jesus was speaking about.

The first phrase is, “Come to me…” The first word in the phrase is actually a Greek adverb that means to “come hither.” It can also mean to “follow.” The word translated “unto” means to “move toward” or “ascend to” or “near.” The third word is of course the pronoun Jesus used referring to Himself. This gives a word picture of Christ calling all to draw near to Him. It says much more than simply coming to Him religiously then moving away to do our own thing. Jesus is calling to Himself those who will draw near to Him for eternal change. He is calling those who will believe on Him as Lord and savior. This is a call to those who will come near to Jesus as disciples. Those who seek a savior in Christ have come to the right place, but if they are not willing to submit to Him as Lord then they can not be His disciples.

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:37-39 ESV)

The Son did not leave Heaven to become a man and live among His creation to draw a Church full of Soul-led pew-sitters into eternal glory. He came to “seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:10) He came to be the perfect blood sacrifice, The Lamb of God, to pay the price and penalty for the sins of all who will believe. His death on the cross paid that price as all sin was placed on Him as He died. He was raised from the dead on the third day then forty days later was ascended to the Heaven. Just before He ascended, He gave a command to His disciples and us as well.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)

Jesus came to make disciples. He is telling us we need to be His disciples and be dedicated to making disciples as well. The remaining eleven apostles (Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ and killed himself) went from a group of Soul-led, vacillating, hardhearted believers who were mired in unbelief to eleven Spirit-led, faithful, tenderhearted believers who changed the World. They were able to do this because they devoted themselves to Christ and submitted to the control of the Holy Spirit. As they submitted, they were able to “go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19)

After the call to “Come unto me” Jesus tells us whom He is calling unto Himself in the next phrase. Who are they? They are “all who labor and are heavy laden.” Who is this? The Greek word translated “labor” means to “work hard.” The subject of this phrase is “all.” Jesus is calling everyone who “works hard.” Works hard at what? Look at the second part of the phrase. The words “are heavy laden” is a combined set of words that means the subject of the phrase is overburdened with ceremony. This implies spiritual anxiety. This implies someone who has an impossible burden of religiosity piled on them which they will never be able to accomplish with their own abilities.

Before we go to the rest of this passage let’s pull together what we have learned so far by paraphrasing the first two phrases. Jesus is speaking to a group of people in a “works” theology religious system. He says, “Come near unto me, all of you who are working hard at being spiritual.” Incredible! Here is a gem of a passage that specifically addresses those who are trying to be spiritual in their own strength. Who are they? They are the Soul-led. They are the spiritually bankrupt believers and non-believers who are striving after the wind in complete vanity. Many of them are working very hard at being religious, but it is by their own will power not within the grace of God.

What happens when the Soul-led come near unto Jesus? What do the Soul-led do when they encounter God? They flee. They cannot stand to be in His presence because of their sin and His Holiness. Their Hearts are hard and they are in unbelief. However, Jesus is calling them to come near to Him. Who responds? Well, I was Soul-led for a long time, but I was desperate and hungry. Who put that desperation and hunger in me? The Holy Spirit did that. He drew me unto Jesus for healing, teaching, and spiritual growth. My heart became tender and broken before the Lord. Those who respond to this call are the Soul-led who are being drawn by God unto Himself. They are the ones responding to Jesus call, “Come unto me.”

The third phrase in this passage says, “and I will give you rest.” This phase is simple to break down. Jesus is saying, because of someone coming near unto Him, He will do something for him or her. The words “give you rest” is another word grouping. The grammar in this phrase suggests the one speaking will “apply refreshing” to the object. Who is the object? The one who has come near unto Jesus is the object. What do they receive? Jesus gives them the gift of rest and refreshment. This passage is usually translated with this word grouping meaning “rest”; however, I am convinced as we “rest” in Jesus He refreshes us. He sure does with me. I come to Him in desperation and anxiety all the time and He will calm me down and fill me with joy and peace. That is refreshment.

Once more, let’s pull together what we have broken down. Jesus is calling all who are spiritually worn out (Soul-led) to come near unto Him. When they do, He will give them a refreshing rest. This implies, in Christ, the vanity of empty religion is revealed for what it really is and those who come near unto Christ are freed from it. However, that is not all there is to this passage. We have covered the first sentence, which is v28. This verse is a condensed statement by Jesus of what He will do for those who come near unto Him seeking relief from the burdens of Soul-led religiosity. Verses 29-30 are the expanded detail of v28.

In v29, we have the fourth phrase in this passage, which says, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me.” Pardon me as I get a little technical. It won’t be bad, I promise. New Testament Greek is a wonderfully expressive language. It has many depths of possible meaning. For instance, Greek verbs have tense and voice as in English, but they also have mood. Therefore, when studying verb usage in New Testament Greek you must determine the tense, mood, and voice.

The first word in this phrase is “Take”. It means to take up an object and lift it up for use. The tense is aorist, the mood is imperative and the voice is active. Aorist imperative says this verb is a command that must be performed immediately. The Voice is active so the subject of the phrase must do this action. What is Jesus commanding? He was telling the ones who have come near unto Him who were spiritually worn out to pick up and put on His Yoke.

No one is forcing them to pick up and put on the Yoke of Christ, but it is a command. This command comes right after the promise of rest and refreshment for those who come near unto Him. This shows us that the taking up His Yoke is part of the process of gaining that rest and refreshment. This command is one of those either-or test questions. As we come near unto Christ for His rest, refreshment, and relief from our Soul-led walk He gives us a choice. The choice is either to submit to the Yoke of Christ (His Lordship) or to continue in self-will. If we choose the former, we will have His rest and refreshment. If we choose the latter, we will go right back to “chasing after the wind.” Once again, we have a picture of God showing us the way to true fulfillment.

The next phrase in v29 is, “for I am gentle and lowly in heart.” The way this is phrased it is clear Jesus is telling us the process of taking on His yoke and learning from Him will be a pleasant experience because He is gentle and lowly in heart. He is reassuring us that even though we are submitting to His yoke it is not hurtful or debasing. The word translated “gentle” could be translated as “meek” or “humble.” The word “meek” in English implies cowardice or timidity. In New Testament Greek, it does not mean that at all. The word actually implies one who is powerful yet humble and in-control. Jesus demonstrated his graciousness throughout the time He walked the Earth during His Earthly ministry. His character is God’s character. The gentleness of Christ should reassure those submitting to the Yoke of Christ they will not be treated in any way that is not in their best interests. We can “rest” in Christ’s gentleness because it is an outcome of His Love for us. Christ’s love for us is the highest form of love. Our word, “AGAPE,” is a transliterated Greek word. This word for Love speaks of a love based on the best interests of the one loved, not what the one who is loved actually desires.

The next characteristic of Jesus from v29 is “lowly in heart.” What does that mean? We must remember that our example for becoming Christ-like is Christ. When we become godly, Christ-like believers, we will have taken on His character. His character is one of humility that never seeks its own. This character always puts others ahead of self and God above all. Remember back in the first and second phrases of verse 29 Jesus commanded all who come near to Him to take up His yoke and learn from Him. What are those who do this going to learn? This is Jesus teaching us how to take on His character. This is Jesus showing us what we have to let go of and what we must take on. He will be showing us the steps to fulfillment. He will be teaching us how to walk the Walk by Faith. All of this will be what is best for us. This is Jesus giving of Himself entirely so we can be fulfilled in our obedience to His Lordship.

The last phrase in verse 29 gives us the outcome of our taking on the Yoke of Christ: “and you will find rest for your souls.” The outcome of submitting to the Lordship of Christ is rest for our souls. The word rest in this verse can mean “recreation.” It is based on the same root as the word “rest” from verse 28, but speaks of joy rather than refreshing. I have been so full of joy at times I would weep and weep and be totally fulfilled. The outcome was very enjoyable and lead to peace and contentment.

The last part of this phrase tells us where that rest or recreation will take place. This implies the Soul is where all of the hard work was taking place while being “heavy laden” from verse 28. Soul-led religiosity, which is all about “works,” takes place in the Soul. It is wearying. It will wear us out if we attempt to work and work for fulfillment rather than submitting to the Yoke of Christ.

This submission brings our focus to God. It places the Spirit in predominance over the Soul. It causes the believer to become Spirit-led. The Soul of the Spirit-led is crucified or denied. That does not mean it is locked up somewhere and is being punished. It means the Soul takes on its original function. What was that original function? God designed Man’s Soul to express and reflect Him. For our Soul to take on this function, it must come under submission to the Spirit. The Spirit-led believer walks the Walk by Faith. He or she lives their life seeking the will of God in all things. They fear God. They live their whole life continually turning to Christ in their walk in Repentance with Joy. They are wearing the Yoke of Christ in complete submission to His Lordship. They are constantly learning from Christ as they submit to His teachings. Their bodies are submitted as living sacrifices to the Lord. They are God’s empty chosen vessels. They keep the Lord’s commandments naturally. All of this is accomplished by the Lord’s mercy and grace.

In verse 30, Jesus finalizes this passage with a perfect description of the Walk by Faith. He says, “For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Those who are Soul-led will usually reject this verse. I have heard some say that they feel Christ’s yoke is not easy, it is hard, and the burden is heavy. Of course it is. That is, it is hard, heavy, difficult, and burdensome to the Soul-led because their Soul is trying to do it all. It will never work. The Soul was never designed to be spiritual. To submit to the Yoke of Christ we must become Spirit-led.

Living in submission to the Yoke of Christ is easy when living a life empowered by the Holy Spirit. All of the demands in that relationship with Jesus are simple and easy. Keeping God’s Commandments is easy. Being obedient is easy. Being Christ-like is easy. Why? The Spirit-led is yoked up with Christ. He or she simply turns everything over to the Lord. All problems and circumstances are handled that way. All Heart activities seeking fulfillment away from God are cut off at the pass and captured before they materialize into sin. This whole activity increases joy and peace continually due to being in God’s presence through it all.

I exposited Matthew 11:28-30 in an attempt to show that our salvation is not “works” based, but that works come forth from our submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. When we do that we are taking on His Yoke. If we are yoked up with Him then we will do good works, but they will be no burden at all. Of course, there is another passage which completely negates “works” as part of salvation.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience– among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:1-10 ESV)

Our salvation comes from God and is according to Him. He has designed it in such a way that it is impossible for any believer to boast. If we work for it then we can boast. Let’s return to James 2:14-18 and apply our understanding from Matthew 11:28-30 and Ephesians 2:1-10. Here is that passage again.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. (James 2:14-18 ESV)

If we look at the negative things James speaks of in this passage, we see that people who neglect to do these good works have a spiritual problem. What is it? Their faith is dead. However, if a believer does good works as part of their submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ then they are proving that they are truly His disciple. The works have nothing to with saving the Christian; however, a believer walking the walk by faith, yoked up with Christ will do them.

Having dead faith means what? Does this mean that they are not believers? I believe that is what James is saying. The works are proof of the Holy Spirit working in the life of the believer. Let’s look at John 15.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:1-10 ESV)

What is the fruit that the branches bear? This is being fruitful in the Kingdom of God. Part of that is the Fruit of the Spirit and part is the result of that fruit being manifested in the heart of the believer resulting in good works. What empowers believers to do good works? It is by abiding in Christ and submitting to His Lordship. As a result of that we are pruned by the Father so we will bear more fruit. Just as in James, we see that there is a dichotomy. True believers abide in Christ and submit to His Lordship. By their good works they are proved authentic. The professing believers who do not abide in Christ and have never submitted to His Lordship cannot do good works and are thereby proven disingenuous. The Father takes them away and they are cast into the fire.

Some may say that I am teaching that submission to Christ’s Lordship is “works” and that is how we do the good works so I am teaching works based salvation as well. No, what I am teaching is that the truly regenerated believer WILL do these things, while the unregenerate professing believers can’t. Faith without works is dead. Faith is proved genuine by good works coming forth as fruit in the Kingdom of God. The false teachings that James 2:14-18 speaks of works based salvation become unsupportable if we utilize proper Biblical exegesis. There is simply no echoing teachings in the Bible to exegete back to so that scripture interpreting scripture will come up with that teaching. I pray for your forgiveness for such a long post, but I believe these truths will be helpful in our warfare against the false teachings permeating the Church.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

11 thoughts on “Faith without Works is Dead

  1. I am enjoying your blog tremendously. I’m also glad someone is talking about this. I have been in many situations where these “soul-led” lord their works over others. It is as if good works=God’s blessings=prosperity. So those who are struggling or have mishaps in their life are actually not being as faithful as they should. The direct link between works and blessings from God is unmistakable.

    I feel for these folks, since I used to think that way myself. When real life happens to them, where does their god go? When the blessings disappear or the prosperity wanes, where do they turn? If they apply their model of faith, then they will have to conclude they are not doing enough works. Ironically a hard pill to swallow after being so busy looking down at others for the very same.

    True, God’s work for us should bear good fruit, but I think our idea of this sort of prosperity is very often different from God’s.

    Few do make the connection. Your piece I think will be very helpful in this regard.

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  2. Thanks Nathan. Your comments are always welcome. I can see in them how God has worked in your heart not only for your good, but for His glory.

    When we see believers boasting of their works, we must pray for their spiritual blindness to be broken up by God. True saving faith never boasts in works, yet it is fruitful in the Kingdom.

    Being fruitful in the Kingdom is the resultant Christlikness our character obtains (i.e. the fruit of the Spirit) and the good works that we do because of it.

    God may or may not prosper us in the worldly sense. That should never be equated as the more godly I become the more God will bless me like that. Forget that. I prefer for God to bless me by taking me deeper into Christlikeness and my knowledge of Him.

    Keep the faith!
    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

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  3. You wrote: Our salvation comes from God and is according to Him. He has designed it in such a way that it is impossible for any believer to boast

    ___ AMEN!!! God is sovereign even in the way of salvation. He is the only source of true rest.

    You wrote: The gentleness of Christ should reassure those submitting to the Yoke of Christ they will not be treated in any way that is not in their best interests.

    ___That includes times of trial and Divine chastisement. I am in a time of trial right now. And the Lord in His goodness, has provided rest. While the unregenerate professing believer may try to do “good” works, they do them within their own power and they are thus a burden… not a joy. I call that being on the roller coaster ride of self-sustained religion instead of being on the steady road of God-sustaining, true-saving faith.

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  4. I believe that when God takes us through our trials that He doesn’t just cut us loose and make us fend for ourselves. When the lowest ugliness that I hate enters my life I struggle. I hurt. But, I have learned to turn to my Lord, seek His face, and trust Him to work it all out. That is totally different than the self-focused person. They have the focus on themselves. They see everything from a gain or loss situation for themseleves. God wants us to see our circumstances as opportunities to grow in Grace and become Christlike. Huge difference.

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  5. Yes. Well said. It is a huge difference. It is a difference that still embraces the longing to seek to serve Him and glorify Him no matter what trial comes your way… rather than seeking to be served from a self-focused, woe is me, feel sorry for me perspective. What an amazing thought that my Lord, even in my lowest ugliness, doesn’t cut me loose. I’m His. Forever His servant for His glory.

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  6. Dear Mike,
    as I Have just read your commentary on the verse:
    Faith without Works is dead I totally agree with you.
    However I wonder if this verse also applies to other things.
    For example. me and my husband has personally sponsored 80% of the living expenses for all the students and their teachers at a small Bible School in an Asian country for the last 4 years.

    During this time all our Christian friends have known this situation and for most of the time this year my husband have not been able to recieve his owed salary from 2 different companies that he has worked for until this very week, He had salary owed since March from one of them. So this year has been rather tough but we have kept our promise and kept supporting these students.

    What I am getting at is this. During all this time so many friends have been saying how much they are behind us in what God is doing in our lives but not one of them have given even a small amount of support for these students. (all of our friends live a good ‘middle class’ lives and are not struggling financially so to speak)
    Some of them even claim some of the blessing that will come from this for themselves because they see themselves as specially close to us.
    Now, that I cannot understand!
    To me this verse seem to fit.
    How can they claim they have faith for what God is doing in this area of the world when they do not lift a finger themselves but rather claim some of the blessings after we in faith and without an income gets on a plane and visits them fro 2 weeks!?
    Is this verse covering this area that I struggle with, or am I out of line?
    There seem to be many Christians that claim they have faith for many things but you never see them actually do anything practically about the situations. I am not talking about ‘works’ based, ‘have to do this’ thing but rather based on real compassion and love?

    Love to recieve some feedback on this.

    Thanks and blessings,
    Maleen

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  7. Maleen,

    I rejoice that you and your husband are serving the Lord as you do. I believe that you are correct that people whose faith produces no fruit (good works would be an essential part of that) then their faith would be suspect. However, there are many Christians who struggle mightily with obedience. I would suggest that you pray for these non-helping friends and put the judgement into the Lord’s hands. Speak to them as the Spirit gives you utterance, but do not speak against them without His prompting. Does this make sense?

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

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  8. Thanks Mike,
    I will surely follow your advice to stay away from judgement and pray for their hearts to become obedience to their callings.
    You said it so clearly,
    their words produces no fruit, It makes it so clear.
    I will let the Holy Spirit lead them to the truth.

    Thanks again & bless you tremendously!

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