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Have you heard the phrase "faith without works is dead"? This is an often misunderstood and misinterpreted biblical truth. Many see a contradiction between this and another biblical truth about salvation: "by grace you have been saved...not a result of works." Here are the verses:
"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." —Ephesians 2:8-9
"For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead." —James 2:26
While these verses may seem contradictory, they actually both point to the same truth: only God can save the soul and change the heart. We can't earn our salvation, but salvation will result in fruits of the spirit, and that fruit is a reflection of an inner change of heart (Ephesians 4:22-24).
If a person who professes to be a Christian isn't showing evidence of the fruits of the spirit, then it's likely they're living a "dead" faith.
Whenever we study the Bible, we have to remember that a single verse, or chapter, or even book has to be taken in context of the overarching story of God's character and gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, as well as with historical, cultural, and literary context.
Sometimes James 2:14-26 is removed from its context to promote a works-based means of salvation (Titus 3:5). But a works-based gospel isn't a gospel at all and is repeatedly denounced through Scripture. (Also see: Is Jesus the only way to Heaven?
Additionally, a works-based justification would mean that we could attain righteousness by our own actions, stealing the glory from God. A human being would then get all the credit instead of the Creator of the universe. Yet giving glory to God is one of the reasons we were created.
While good works aren't the path to salvation, they are still an important evidence of a changed heart—a reflection of how God has renewed the spirit within. Ephesians 4:22-24 uses the metaphor of exchanging an "old self" for a "new self," as though it were clothing: "...put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness."
There are many who claim to follow Christ but whose lives suggest they haven't actually experienced a saving faith. Jesus says in Matthew 7:16, "You will recognize [my followers] by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?" (See Matthew 7:16-23 for context.)
We could never be 100% certain of the state of another person's heart, but a follower of Christ and a child of God will be convicted/taught/led by the Holy Spirit—not by the world. And as such, that person will be found in different places and doing different things with different motives than someone who does not have the Holy Spirit influencing their heart.
Also see: What are the Fruits of the Spirit?
"Dead faith" is a proclaimed faith in name alone. "Dead faith" has no power or sign of true, redemptive work or change. Just because someone raises their hand in church and says, "Dear Jesus save me. K—thx!" that doesn't mean they've been saved. Saying a prayer yet showing no positive change in lifestyle or even a desire to change over time does not equal a saving faith.
Salvation and a regenerate heart aren't "purchased" by saying a few words. In fact, Romans 8:26-27 tells us that we don't even know how to pray rightly to begin with—that the supernatural intercession of the Holy Spirit alone allows us to talk to God at all.
"Dead faith" reveals a heart that just wanted a spiritual "safe zone" or a "get out of hell free" card. A living faith reveals a renewed heart that recognizes their own sinfulness and rests in the grace and mercy of the Lord to change their life (John 3:3). A living faith bears fruit through good works.
Please understand that Christians will never be perfect until God perfects His sons and daughters in Heaven (Philippians 1:6). Christians with a living faith will still sin, yet they will have a desire to be "imitators of God," who IS perfect (Ephesians 5:1; Matthew 5:48). The difference between someone who claims to be a Christian yet has a dead faith and one with a living faith is their response to sin and if they show a desire to sin more or to repent from sinful behaviors (Romans 7:15-20).
"No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God." —1 John 3:9
Have you been convicted against patterns of habitual sin? Are you making active steps toward accountability, support, and healing from sinful choices? Do you confess your sin to God when you fall back into old patterns (1 John 1:9)? Do those patterns grieve your heart (Ezekiel 36:26)? These actions are all signs of a regenerate spirit and a repentant heart that is growing and walking in the grace of God and also seeking to become more and more like Christ.
A living faith does not mean you are perfect. A living faith means you are trusting in, loving, following, and learning from the God of the universe who IS perfect, who IS love, who is unchanging in His passion for you. A person with living faith is heartbroken over their sin and brought to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:5-13).
If you struggle with the fear that you're not meant to be saved, you are not alone. There are many other Christians who also struggle to know if their faith is genuine at all—alive or dead—or if they might do something bad enough they might lose their salvation. Thankfully, the Bible gives us plenty of assurances and checks when it comes to our own faith. God does not want us to be scared of or in the dark about His forgiveness (2 Timothy 1:7; Psalm 34:17-20).
"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." —Romans 8:1
"Dead faith" is a proclaimed faith in name alone, has no power or sign of true, redemptive work or positive change in lifestyle or even a desire to change over time does not equal a saving faith. Christians with a living faith will still sin, yet they will have a desire to be "imitators of God," who IS perfect. The difference between someone who claims to be a Christian yet has a dead faith and one with a living faith is their response to sin—are they heartbroken or do they show a desire to sin more? A living faith means you are trusting in, loving, following, and learning from the perfect God of the universe who is unchanging in His passion for you.
September is an avid film nerd from growing up on weekend trips to Universal Studios Hollywood. She is passionate about the intersections of Christian spirituality, faith, and storytelling in popular culture. Outside of 412teens and digging up obscure horror flicks from the 2000s, she works as a freelance developmental editor and acquisitions consultant while comforting her clingy feline floof, Faust, from the anxiety of existence.