Faith vs. works. This passage is often cited as an example of contradictions found in the Bible. In other passages, we hear that we are justified by faith alone but in this passage we’re told that faith without works is dead. The problem, of course, lies in the extremes. We cannot place so much emphasis our actions that we come to believe we deserve to go to heaven because of them. On the other hand, simply stating a belief in God is no better than the demons that also believe in God. Rather, justification comes through our faith, which is displayed through our actions. [As an aside, justification is essentially being declared not guilty. In other words, justified is "just as if I’d" never sinned.]
In this sense, faith is very much like a muscle. Muscles and faith alike grow through use and/or testing. If we want to grow strong muscles, we submit to a disciplined regime of exercises that continually work and test the muscles. Likewise, if we wish to grow our faith, we must be disciplined in our approach to those actions that continually work and test it.
James bears this out as he describes Abraham’s faith in verse 22: You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. Just as Abraham’s faith grew to completion based on his actions, so will our faith grow as we act upon it. In much the same way that weights are increased as muscles grow, as our faith grows, we will be capable of acting in greater ways of obeying God’s commands and callings. Of course, this in turn strengthens our faith even more.
The good news is that our faith can be displayed and used for God’s glory no matter how strong or young it is. We don’t need to be "muscle-men" but we don’t need to be 90 pound weaklings, either.
May God strengthen our faith even as He provides the grace to step out in it…