Faith without Works is Dead

by Mike Ratliff

14 What use is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead by itself.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; and I have works. Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” James 2:14-18 (LSB)

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 it 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 own personal worth, goodness, or 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?

1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; 3 therefore all that they tell you, do and keep, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. 4 And they tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. 5 But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. 6 And they love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and respectful greetings in the marketplaces, and being called Rabbi by men. Matthew 23:1-7 (LSB) 

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.

13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. Matthew 23:13 (LSB) 

What was Jesus solution?

28 “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 (LSB) 

28 Δεῦτε πρός με πάντες οἱ κοπιῶντες καὶ πεφορτισμένοι, κἀγὼ ἀναπαύσω ὑμᾶς. 29 ἄρατε τὸν ζυγόν μου ἐφʼ ὑμᾶς καὶ μάθετε ἀπʼ ἐμοῦ, ὅτι πραΰς εἰμι καὶ ταπεινὸς τῇ καρδίᾳ, καὶ εὑρήσετε ἀνάπαυσιν ταῖς ψυχαῖς ὑμῶν· 30 ὁ γὰρ ζυγός μου χρηστὸς καὶ τὸ φορτίον μου ἐλαφρόν ἐστιν. Matthew 11:28-30 (NA28)

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,Δεῦτε(Deute), is actually a Greek adverb that means to “come hither.” It can also mean to “follow.” The word translated “to”,πρός (pros), is a preposition and 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.

37 “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. 39 He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it. Matthew 10:37-39 (LSB) 

The Son did not leave Heaven to become a man and live among His creation to draw a Church full of self-focused, fleshy 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.

18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to keep all that I commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20 (LSB) 

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 self-focused, fleshly, 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 to me” Jesus tells us whom He is calling unto Himself in the next phrase. Who are they? They are “all who are weary and heavy-laden.” Who is this? The Greek word translated “weary” 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 self-focused. 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 self-focused, fleshly, and hard-hearted come near unto Jesus? What do the those like this 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 one of those for a long time, but I was desperate and hungry. Who put that desperation and hunger in me? The Holy Spirit did that. In response I tried to please God by being very religious. However, that did not work for very long. Fortunately 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 self-focused, fleshly, and hard-hearted who are desperate to know God and are being drawn by God unto Himself. They are the ones responding to Jesus call, “Come to 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 (working hard to know God by being religious) 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 works-righteousness 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 works-righteousness, self-focused 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 humble 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 humble 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 “humble 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 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. Works-righteousness 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 our Hearts. 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 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 not Spirit-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 all who are not Spirit-led. 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.

1 And you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom we all also formerly conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. 4 But God, being rich in mercy because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.Ephesians 2:1-10 (LSB) 

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.

14 What use is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead by itself.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; and I have works. Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” James 2:14-18 (LSB) 

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 do with saving the Christian; however, a believer walking 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.

1 “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vine-grower. 2 Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He cleans it so that it may bear more fruit. 3 You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit from itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. 7 If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. 9 Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. 10 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 (LSB) 

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.

Soli Deo Gloria!

3 thoughts on “Faith without Works is Dead

  1. Mike have you ever written on the scope, definition spectrum of what the Bible describes as Works? Being careful not to fall into the

    Matthew 19:20 The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? Trap.

    There does seem to be a wide variety for a life that is living out the Works of God.

    As examples here are a few scriptures that seem to point to the diversity of works. There are many more and I’m sure you could present this in a clear and useful way.

    1Co 12:28  And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.
    Eph 4:11  And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;

    Matthew 19:16-21 And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? 17 And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. 18 He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, 19 Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 20 The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? 21 Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.

    Mar 10:21  Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.

    Psalms 82:3-4 Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. 4 Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.

    Mic 6:8  He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

    1 Corinthians 13:1-6 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. 4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

    Matthew 28:19-20 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

    John 6:28-29 Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? 29 Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.


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