What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
—James 2:14-19, NIV
Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching.”
—John 14:23-24a, NIV
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
—Matthew 25:44-46, NIV
Good Deeds Do Not Save Us
If you send flowers to a woman whom you do not know but choose at random, if you take candy to her apartment at awkward times, and hang around her desk at work whispering sweet nothings in her ear, you will be arrested as a masher! You’ll be puzzled as they cart you away, because her boyfriend does the exact same deeds and she doesn’t have him arrested. It isn’t the deeds of love that count, but love made manifest in deeds. In the same way, just doing good deeds doesn’t save us.
Fish in an aquarium cannot go on an expedition to locate their aquarist; neither can humans in a universe go on an expedition to locate their God. There is no deed that we can do to find Him. We must wait for Him to come to us. If you have ever had an aquarium that needed to be emptied and cleaned out, then you know the frustration of trying to catch the fish in your little net. If they cooperate, they are saved, but if they fight you, they may injure themselves or even jump to their death. Likewise, when God comes to rescue us, we must cooperate in trust and not resist, lest we bring upon ourselves our own demise.
Our deeds cannot save us; in fact, they may push us far away from our goal.
Good beliefs do not save us
In the story of Peter Pan, the children learned that the power of sheer belief would allow them to fly. Many of us, inspired by that story, adorned ourselves with a bath towel to serve as a cape and jumped from what was for us as children a great height—perhaps from a dining room chair. I daresay that not one of us who tried this as children actually succeeded in flying, though most of us truly believed.
What failed? Did we not believe enough, or did Peter Pan lie to us?
Sorry to break the news to you, but Peter Pan lied. If you believe something with all your heart, and all your might, and all your soul, but it is not true, the most that you can accomplish is self-delusion.
Whatever beliefs you may profess, even if they are true, they do you no good unless you act upon them:
If you constantly tell your wife of your love, but you never remember her birthday or any special occasion, if physical intimacy is strained and awkward; if you always leave her in the lurch when she is counting on you and never lift a finger to help her when she’s overburdened, your loving words will result in accusations of phoniness or even a summons to divorce court. Those who say ‘Lord, Lord’ but do not obey His commandments are cast out, because their profession is false. Thus, our beliefs and verbal affirmations taken by themselves avail us nothing. It is by the fruit we bear that our true character is known.
In the New Testament, how many evil spirits confessed that Jesus was the Son of God? How many of them were saved? How many times did Jesus say, “Because you call me the Son of God, I can see that you are a Christian spirit. I will not cast you out” ?
If you confess that Jesus is the Son of God, there ought to be a way to distinguish you from the evil spirits who confess the same thing.
We are saved by faith made manifest in deeds
Faith is not just believing or giving lip service, it is trusting. Trust begets action. If you trust your road map, you will follow it. If you trust a bridge, you will drive over it. If you trust your burglar alarm, you will sleep easily at night. If you trust your boss, you will do the work you are assigned. If you trust Jesus, you will obey His commandments.
But most of us do not live ideal lives, so here is a more realistic example of faith in action—the type of faith that most of us have:
If your wife is the constant butt of your often sarcastic wit and you never tell her that you love her, but you always remember every special occasion and every day in some way she is moved by your thoughtful touches, then she will get all choked up as she tells her friends, “He has trouble expressing himself, and sometimes he really throws me for a loop, but he is very loving and thoughtful, and I love him very dearly.” As Jesus says, the son who says he won’t do what his father commands, but goes out and actually does it despite what he said, truly loves his father and is counted as obedient. It is by our relationship of trust that we are saved.
It isn’t the deeds of faith that save us, but faith made manifest in deeds.
We are saved not by a spiritual transaction, nor by mouthing magic incantations, nor by doing magic deeds. No deed, oral, mental, or physical, has the power to save us.
We are saved because we have a loving, trusting relationship with God. Like all relationships, there is room for us to gripe and doubt. Jeremiah griped and Thomas doubted, and yet they were saved. If we love God and recognize Him as God, we will strive to obey His will and we will love the things that He loves. Just as a small child emulates the adults he loves, we will emulate Him. If we claim a loving, trusting relationship on the basis of oral professions without any practical consequence in our lives, then we are liars. If we copy the outward appearance of a Christian life without the inner reality, then we are deluded.
Neither perfect affirmation nor perfect obedience is required for salvation. What is required is a dynamic relationship founded on dedication, love, and trust and manifest in deeds. Then Jesus has a vehicle to forgive us for our little unorthodoxies and our sins.
Do not squint your eyes and say, “I believe, I believe, I really, really believe.” Instead, open your eyes and live your faith.