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James teaches us that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20).
The message from Nehemiah 13 is that ‘works without faith is doomed’.
That is, we cannot keep up godly living, unless we have a living faith to sustain is.
If someone says that they have faith, but there is no evidence of godly living in their life, then James 2:20 tells us that that faith is useless, ineffective, dead. There are many people who claim to be Christians, people who claim to have trusted in Jesus for forgiveness at some time in the past, but who show no practical difference in their daily lives. While only the Lord truly knows the heart of each person, James tells us that as a generalisation we cannot have any confidence that someone who is living in this way is actually a Christian. As the saying goes; if you were in court accused of being a Christian, would there be any evidence to convict you? If there is no good evidence, then the only conclusion is that such a person isn’t really a believer after all, despite their experiences or claims.
But the last chapter of Nehemiah teaches the same thing in a different way. The exiles had returned, and the city of Jerusalem had had its Temple and walls rebuilt. However, no matter how many reforms Nehemiah had instutited, or how blessed the people were through the restoration of Jerusalem, they could not keep it up without faith. After Nehemiah came back from working away from Jerusalem, he found that standards had slipped, sin had taken hold, and the people were not living as they ought to have before God. The lesson is that, after returning from exile, just like before it, the Israelites would inevitably slip down into sin, no matter how much they were encouraged or commanded to obey the Lord. Commands to go good works will fail, unless mixed with faith.
Since this chapter of Nehemiah describes the last state of Jerusalem and the Israelites, chronologically in the Old Testament, we can conclude that the Old Covenant had failed, and a better covenant was needed. This was no surprise to God, as he was preparing the New Covenant already. People can only please God when they have faith in Jesus Christ and walk by the Spirit (Romans 8:5-8). Nehemiah 13 highlights the failure of the Israelites trying to live without faith, although some exceptions like Nehemiah nevertheless were living by faith even during the Old Covenant (like Abraham and others too, as described in Romans 4).
Faith without works is dead, but so too works without faith is dead.