James says it this way: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27 ESV). There are two signs of a true believer: You love the people God loves, and you are busy rooting sin out of your life.
You may say, “Well, doesn’t the Bible teach that salvation is by faith alone, through grace alone? Isn’t saying it is determined by how we respond to those poor brothers and sisters a contradiction?”
No, it’s not. What Jesus is showing us is that real faith—the kind of faith that saves you—is more than just intellectual assent and church attendance. Saving faith transforms you from the inside out, and then you demonstrate that transformation by engaging in the mission of God.
James, Jesus’ half-brother, said it this way: “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). In other words, intellectual beliefs without a change of heart that results in good works is like a body with no breath in it. We are saved by faith, not works; but saving faith will always work.
This is where it helps to reflect on the fact that the ones Jesus specifically identifies with are Christians—particularly Christians who are suffering because of their commitment to the gospel.
He is saying that if you believe this message at all, of course you are going to be moved to action by the stories of those who are suffering for their commitment to this message.
In Matthew 10, Jesus sends out his disciples on their first mission as his representatives to preach what he preached and heal like he healed. He told them they were going to be dependent on the hospitality of the villagers wherever they ministered: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:42 NIV).
In the ancient world, taking someone into your home was a sign of friendship, intimacy and support for what the person stood for. So, Jesus equated the welcome of his representatives with acceptance of their message.
Jesus is not saying that we will be saved by our giving to the poor (or any other good deed). He’s saying that there is no way we can be saved if we do not give to the poor. If we are really saved, we will show that by our kindness and generosity to others, especially those who represent Jesus himself. As the Apostle John put it, it’s simply not possible to love God and hate others (1 John 4:20).
You see, there are two ways to tell what you believe: what your mouth says, and what your life says. And one of them never lies.
If what your life says you believe differs from what your mouth says you believe, God’s not fooled: He always accepts the candid testimony of your life.
This article about the spiritual difference between sheep and goats originally appeared here.