The epistle of James, part of the New Testament, contains a passage which has become a favourite of those who have difficulty accepting sola fide, the doctrine that salvation is by faith alone. Foremost in this regard are the twelve verses of James 2:14-26 in which it appears that James contradicts what Paul outlines frequently elsewhere by insisting on the necessity of works as well as faith for justification.
That this particular passage has become a favourite is regrettable, for those who use it to back up their rejection of sola fide invariably embarrass themselves by making a real mess of understanding what the passage actually says. Keen to draw the mind of their listeners to the words which suggest their case, they fail to employ the basic principles of Biblical exegesis and arrive at an entirely false hermeneutic. As is to be expected in such a circumstance, the case that they then build is fatally flawed.
It should suffice to state this and let the matter rest – as justification by faith is well set out in many other passages (Luke 5:20; John 3:16; John 5:24; Acts 16:31; Romans 4:5; Galatians 2:6; Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:5 etc.), and pointing out the errors of those who are already happy to ignore so many clear statements in favour of one is futile; yet, the scripture twisting of this passage continues and often does achieve its desired aim of diverting the weaker brothers amongst us from the foundations of our Christian faith. Therefore, as medicine and perhaps part immunisation, let us go into a little detail as to the meaning of the text as is most readily apparent from the text itself, and from the Biblical context.
James 2:14: What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
The section in question opens with two questions, the answers to which are first discussed and then stated. The first question asks the value of a faith without works, and the second asks if this faith without works is able to effect salvation. Take great care to note here the phrase is “if someone says he has” and not “if someone has”, for here we discuss not the nature of faith but the nature of a claim to faith. This discussion is thematically an extension of that with which the epistle opens, where we read “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2-3). In the opening, James relates the value of being tested in the faith, for it produces steadfastness. Note the order; first that there is faith, then that is tested, and that the testing produces steadfastness. First faith, then the works which proceed from faith in due course.
Here, in James 2:14 we are asked the reverse question; almost as if it were to say “What good is it if a man meets with trials of various kinds, but his faith does not produce steadfastness? Can that faith save him?” True faith, as in 1:3, responds to tests and challenges, it moves the believer to respond to God’s will. The nature of faith already being set out previously as one which responds with works, the word “faith” in the following verses is necessarily a reference to “claimed faith without works” as in James 2:14 rather than (as some have argued) a true faith without works.
James 2:15-16: If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?
As if to underline the point, we next read an example of these works. The ‘one of you’ here is also by implication a brother or sister, that is, one who claims faith; and perhaps until this point there has been no reason to doubt the professed faith of the man. Yet, in his failure to respond, he betrays the absence of a true faith. The fault here is with the faith of the person and suggests it to be a false faith. This is then the thrust of the argument in this section, that a claimed faith which does not manifest itself in works when the time for such arrives is not a true faith. This is in good agreement with the rest of scripture (e.g. Philippians 1:6,11; Romans 8:29-30).
James 2:17: So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
We come to the first contentious point of the passage, which seems to contradict so many other passages of scripture. Yet, if the context of the verse is taken into account, we should rather read “so also man who claims to have faith, but from which works do not proceed, has a dead (or a falsely claimed) faith”. As the Spirit is received by grace in faith it is impossible for there to be a true faith which is dead, but rather only an empty claim to faith apart from the life of the Spirit. Remember, these works here discussed proceed from faith, and as they proceed by the same grace as that which has first justified the believer then they necessarily and without fail follow faith. So, to suggest that a man has a true and present faith, but from his faith works do not proceed, is to attribute a fault not to the man or to his faith, but to the Spirit which indwells him, and almost to imply that God himself is guilty of the failure. No, rather, it is clear that by dead faith James means nothing more complex than the state of a man who claims to have faith but in fact has none.
James 2:18: But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
Skilfully, the question is turned around yet again, and to great effect. Having discussed the manifestation of a false claim to faith in the lack of works, the question becomes one of how one might demonstrate faith other than through works. Although the question is, in some ways, redundant, yet it serves well to emphasise the line of reasoning. The challenge is rhetorical, for a man cannot show his faith to man other than by the witness of his sanctification.
James 2:19: You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder
Here follows a qualification to faith, which is to state that faith must have its proper object; for the mere belief that God is one is insufficient. The faith which saves is faith in the person and work of Christ (e.g. I Peter 1:8-9), not merely the nature of God, and so here those who profess faith but deny the Gospel are condemned. Although it does not immediately fit the flow of the argument, yet it is essential that this point is raised, for there are many who believe, but somewhat fewer who have the Gospel as the object of that belief. It is likely that it relates directly to Deuteronomy 6:4, which was used by Jews frequently almost as a miniature creed, and almost mocks the empty repetition of the phrase which was most often quite apart from faith in God let alone in the covenant promises through Abraham.
James 2:20-23: Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God.
Here is a rather pointed and strongly worded question, but it serves its purpose well. The object is much related to what we have just read of the object of faith, and should be as we have discussed read in the context of a claimed faith. Here, declared faith, claimed faith (perhaps also today’s altar calls), are labelled useless because they do not demonstrate faith – indeed we know even the servants of Satan make such claims to faith (II Corinthians 11:14-15). Next, we read a very useful example and one which deserves very close attention. The text relates to two events in the life of Abraham, the first being Genesis 22:10, and the second being Genesis 15:6. The first refers to the works, the second to the faith; and yet that of faith here written second took place some decades before that of works here written first. This then reiterates the same point yet again, that a true faith is followed in due course by works, and so although he had already been declared justified in the sight of God in Genesis 15:6 yet it is not until Genesis 22:10 that his claim to faith is justified before man. That there should be no doubt then that the justification here is according to man, it is worthwhile also reading Romans 4:1-5 on the subject of Abraham’s justification before God.
James 2:24: You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Whilst this verse is just a summation of what precedes it, yet given the frequency with which it is taken from its context and used to support all manner of heresy, it demands a more complete discussion. The blame perhaps rests to some extent with our reformers, who used the language of ‘justification by faith’ so frequently that when we see ‘faith’ and ‘justification’ in one verse we jump to the conclusion that what is meant is declarative justification of man before God. Yet, in Greek as in English, the word ‘justified’/δικαιόω bears two meanings. Read, for example, Luke 10:29 or Luke 16:15 and you will see this other sense; the sense of a man seeking to appear justified in his actions. Many people lock the door of their house when they leave it empty, and given the risk of burglary they are justified in doing so. Yet, we do not dream to suggest that by locking your door you are declared righteous before God, no – but merely justified in your action before man. This verse itself is a direct answer to the challenge of James 2:18, for it points out what we already discussed, the futility of trying to justify (show, demonstrate, exhibit) a claimed faith without the works which proceed from faith.
James 2:25: And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Here, just as we read in Hebrews 11:31, is testimony to the faith of Rahab. Because she had faith, when that faith was tested by the spies (Joshua 2:1), it produced in her works. It is because of her works that she was justified in the eyes of the spies, and so she found favour in their eyes (Joshua 2:14). This justification then is not a declaration of the saving justification by which a man is declared righteous before God, but to the other meaning already discussed, the justification of Rahab’s claim to faith in the eyes of man.
As to the application of this passage, I find it to be very directly applicable and of great instructive value to Christians today. Although we know that only God knows the heart of a man, yet here we are given a means by which we might recognise those who falsely claim faith. In such a manner, this teaching is parallel to that of Christ in Matthew 7:16, for it is by the works which proceed from faith that a claimant to faith is justified in his claim, and conversely by the presence of bad works or the absence of works in due course (which is strictly speaking a bad work in itself) that such a claim be dismissed as unjustified.
The crucial question then arises, which is the correct course of action to be taken regarding a person who claims faith but appears defective in works. Two options present themselves; the first – to encourage the person to do good works, the second – to proclaim the Gospel to that person.
If we choose the first option, that is if we exhort those we think to be without true faith to perform works, do we not risk exhorting them into a false righteousness apart from the righteousness of God and Christ (Romans 10:3++), giving them false hope and comfort in their state of separation from God, deceiving them into thinking themselves justified before God by the performance of acts to justify themselves before man?
The second option, to proclaim to them the Word, does not seem to address the problem of a lack of works until it be realised that the lack of works points to the lack of faith and not the reverse. As scripture tells us, it is the hearing of the Gospel which leads us faith, and so not exhortation to works (Romans 10:17).
It is then clear that it is wrong to use James 2:14++ for the purpose of exhorting persons of defective works to perform more works, for such a use is to confuse law and grace in making the sanctifying work of the Spirit (received by faith through grace) into law for man to perform in order that he might somehow earn or merit faith (which again is by grace). The remedy for defective works is then not exhortation to works, for the defective lack of works is symptomatic of a lack of faith. Just as a poor doctor might treat the symptoms and not the disease, so too does the poor use of this passage treat the sign of a lack of faith and not the lack of faith itself.