In his letter, James challenges the idea that faith in God is sufficient: “What good is it to profess faith without practicing it? Such faith has no power to save one, has it… So it is with the faith that does nothing in practice. It is thoroughly lifeless” (Jas 2:14, 17).
St. Thomas Aquinas explains that faith must be expressed in actions: “The truth of faith includes not only inward belief, but also outward profession, which is expressed not only by words, whereby one confesses the faith, but also by deeds, whereby a person shows that he has faith” (2a2ae. 124, 5).
Thomas recalls the words of James: “Show me your faith without works, and I will show you the faith underlies my works!” (Jas 2:18). The Letter to Titus similarly remarks: “They profess that they know God but in their works they deny Him” (Titus 1:16).
According to Thomas, every virtuous deed can be an expression of faith: “Thus all virtuous deeds, inasmuch as they are referred to God, are professions of the faith whereby we come to know that God requires these works of us, and rewards us for them…” (2a2ae. 124, 5). Thomas observes that the Church honors as martyrs not only those who die for the faith itself but those who die for virtuous deeds.
For Thomas, a Christian must act in accord with Christ’s Spirit: “A Christian is one who is Christ’s. Now a person is said to be Christ’s, not only through having faith in Christ, but also because he is actuated to virtuous deeds by the Spirit of Christ…” (2a2ae. 124, 5, ad 1)
A person who does not live according to his or her faith does not have a “living faith,” as Thomas notes: “Faith without works is said to be dead, as regards the believer, who lives not, by faith, with the life of grace” (2a2ae. 178, 2, ad 2).
James clearly considers works of charity as the works that should flow from faith. He gives the example of wishing food and warmth to those who have nothing to eat or to wear and asks, “What good is that?” (Jas 2:18).
While Thomas upholds the primary importance of sharing spiritual goods, he recognizes that there are situations when physical help is more necessary: “A man who is hungry is to be fed rather than instructed” (2a2ae. 32, 3). He recalls that even Aristotle had said that for a needy man “money is better than philosophy” (Topics, 3, 2).
Thomas affirms that it is not enough to want good for our neighbor without doing something to help: “The love of our neighbors requires that not only that we be our neighbor’s well-wishers, but also his well-doers, according to the First Letter of John: ‘Let us not love in word, nor in tongue, but in deed, and in truth’ (1 Jn 3:18). And in order to be a person’s well-wisher and well-doer, we ought to succor his needs” (2a2ae. 32, 5).
According to Thomas, not only must faith express itself in works of love, but faith itself must be rooted in charity, which is primarily love for God which overflows in love for neighbor. St. Paul said, “I may have faith enough to move mountains, but if I have not love, I am nothing” ( 1 Cor 13:2). Even the works of charity themselves must be rooted in the interior virtue of charity: “I may give away everything I have and even give up my body to be burned – but if I have no love, this does me no good” (1 Cor 13:3).
For Thomas, faith is lifeless if it is not grounded in love, just as the body is without life if it is not animated by the soul:
Works are said to be dead because they lack spiritual life, which is founded on charity, whereby the soul is united to God, the result being that it is quickened as the body by the soul: in which sense too, faith, if it lack charity, is said to be dead, according to James 2:20: ‘Faith without works is dead.’ In this way also, all works that are generically good, are said to be dead, if they be done without charity, inasmuch as they fail to proceed from the principle of life… Accordingly, the difference of life and death in works is in relation to the principle from which they proceed (3a. 89, 6).
Thomas compares charity to the soul which acts as the “form” or life-giving principle of the body: “Each thing works through its form. Now faith works through charity. Therefore the love of charity is the form of faith” (2a2ae. 4, 3). Charity is the proper effect of faith: “Faith works by love, not instrumentally, as a master by his servant, but as by its proper form” (2a2ae. 4, 3 ad 2).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. If the passage is found in a response to an objection that Thomas has introduced in the first part of the article, the Latin word “ad,” meaning “to,” is added with the number of the objection. This particular reference is to the second section of the second part of the Summa, the one hundred and twenty fourth question and the fifth article.