James continues to discuss the importance of godliness in the behavior and attitudes of the people of God. The danger is that a faith that produces no works of righteousness is dead, that is, it not faith at all, but mere intellectual assent if that. He presents an exhortation that warns believers that the evidence of faith is good works, that is, deeds of love, mercy and kindness done for others. No believer can profess faith in Christ and do whatever he or she likes. Faith involves committing one’s whole self, one’s whole life to the service of Jesus. Therefore no believer may treat his brethren with disdain and contempt, but must treat them and all others with respect, honor, unselfishness and love. True faith shows itself by deeds of righteousness not abuse, gossip, slander or unforgiveness.
This passage is often cited by theologians, among them Martin Luther, as teaching works righteousness, that is, that faith is achieved by doing works or that salvation can be earned by what we do. Yet in the context of the letter, specifically the preceding words on the essential importance of mercy, this does not seem to be the case. Faith, salvation, is by God’s grace He grants faith by His unmerited favor apart from any of our works of any kind, but by the work of Christ on the cross. Because we have been granted mercy and love despite what sins we have done or still do, we ought to extend mercy to others with deeds of kindness done not only for our Christian brethren, but all those who are hurting and oppressed by sin and Satan. This is the true demonstration of faith.