“But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” (James 2:20, AV)
Let us say that you had developed a cure for a most dreaded disease. You knew that it would work 100% effectively. Yet, with both the knowledge that it would work and the belief that it would work, you decided not to use it to treat patients. In this case, your knowledge and belief would be useless. Millions would die, perhaps even yourself because you did not implement the cure that you knew would work. If you had faith that the cure would work, why would you not use it? In this case your faith would be useless. In fact, you would be foolish.
This is exactly the point that James is making here. First, he calls the person who thinks that faith can be separated from works, “vain,” or an empty person. The ESV Bible translated the word, “foolish.” The person who somehow believes that one can have true saving faith without some sort of manifested transformation that results in good works is devoid of understanding of the truth.
James further points out that a faith that is devoid of works is useless. It has no effective purpose. Now all of this points again to James main effort which is to show that the actions of people are noticed by others. Moreover, for believers in Jesus this is vital because a believer’s good works justify the reality of his or her faith. It is not that works save a person or that faith plus works save a person. It is that true faith produces good works and these works are the justification of our faith in front of others. Remember Jesus’ words.
“Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14–16, AV)
First, Jesus makes a statement of fact regarding believers. They are the light of the world. The reason for this is that Jesus, who is the true light came into the world (John 1:9), and the light of Jesus dwells in every true believer by His Spirit (Rom 8:9).
Second, Jesus tells us that light is not designed to be hidden. There is a purpose to the light. It is designed to radiate and illuminate others. The light of Christ that is in every believer has a purpose. It is to be seen by others and illuminate them with the truth.
Last, He indicates that this light is to so radiate from believers that it will be seen as good works by others. This is for the ultimate purpose of glorifying God in the eyes of outsiders. This is our witness to the world. There is a purpose to our faith and it is to reflect the power of God’s grace at work in us.
James purposes here exactly correlate to Jesus’ teaching in this area. Faith without works is useless. Moreover, one must ask the question. If one says he has faith but there is not evidence of it, that is a manifestation of the light, can that person truly be one of faith?