An Exegesis of James 2:14-26

For those Christians who hold to salvation by faith alone, James 2:14-26 presents a difficulty. Does it contradict the Paul, or does it simply teach that genuine faith necessarily produces good works? We would like to suggest that both of views are mistaken and there is a third, simpler way to understand the passage.  Let’s look at the entire passage in question:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed god, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:14-26, NASB)

Can faith without works save? According to this passage, the clear answer is no. In fact, taken plainly, this passage actually teaches that works are necessary for salvation. The obvious meaning is that faith plus works saves. The argument that faith alone does save, but that genuine faith necessarily produces good works, cannot be supported by these verses, for the passage clearly says, “you see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

This text teaches salvation by works. In fact, this is not the first time in the book that James has stated as much. James 1:21-22 says, “Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” Notice in this verse that the word implanted saves one’s soul only if they prove themselves doers of it, for those who do not do (work) are deluded. They have not received the word and are not saved.

Before we declare that there is an obvious contradiction with Paul’s salvation by grace through faith without works, let us consider this very simple solution:

James is not referring to eternal salvation in these verses.

James 1:21-22, while seeming to contribute to the problem, actually offers us the solution and puts 2:14-26 in its proper context. Notice that it says the word implanted is “able to save your souls.” This word “soul” is psuche. It can mean either “soul” or “life.” In this passage, it should be rendered “life,” thus saying, “receive the word implanted, which is able to save your lives.” The word “save” here is the same word for “save” in 2:14. It is soze and means either “to save” or “to deliver.” Thus, the idea both 1:21 and 2:14 is “deliver your life [from death].” Neither of these passages refers to final, eternal salvation by grace through faith alone. What this passage is addressing is the ability of the Christian life to deliver a person from physical destruction!

Actually, this is the theme of the entire epistle of James. The book has been properly noted to be the wisdom literature of the New Testament. If one follows the advice in this book, their life will be much easier. If they ignore it, they will find themselves being destroyed.

With this idea, let’s turn our attention back to 2:14-26. James asks what good is it for a man to say he has faith, but doesn’t do anything with it. The answer is that it isn’t any good at all. Faith, by itself, doesn’t do anything. We then have the controversial phrase, “Can that faith save him?” It is important to note, however, that the word “that” (found in some translations) isn’t in the Greek. Those who prefer the King James Version will be happy to know that the rendering there is correct. The phrase should be translated, “Can faith save him?” The reason “that” is provided is that the Greek article ho immediately precedes and modifies “faith” (gk. pistis) and rarely can be translated a weak demonstrative pronoun. The article, however, has many uses, and one of the most common, which James seems to be using here, is to identify abstract nouns, such as, in this case, “faith.”

Having stated that faith cannot save a person, James then proceeds to give an example. A brother is in need, and a man in his faith says good things, but does nothing for him. What is the result? The brother will die in his need because the man did not help him. Faith alone did not save, which is exactly what James had already said in 1:21. Were the man to put his faith into action, his brother’s life could have been delivered (“saved”). Thus, James is right in that faith without works is dead. It can deliver no one from anything.

Commentators are unanimous in thinking the next few verses are James’ attempt to deal with an objection, much as Paul frequently does throughout his writings. This objector interrupts, saying, saying, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” This, of course, is not the way we normally look at this. We usually put the closing quotation and “by my works,” and we have James’ response begin at “You believe.” Still others limit the objector’s words to “You have faith and I have works.” There are two reasons for the lack of agreement on the limit of the objection. The first is that there were no quotation marks in Greek, so the reader must decide where a quotation begins and ends based only on context. The second is that each statement in the objection seems to agree with the argument James is making! Look at each statement:

You have faith and I have works.” James certainly wants this to be the case. In fact, James’ entire point is that he wants his readers to engage in more works.

Show me your faith apart from works.” This, of course, is impossible, which is exactly the point James already made in his own example above.

And I will show you my faith by my works.” Again, this is the very point James is trying to make. The only way to demonstrate your faith is through works.

You believe God is one. You do well; even the demons believe and shudder!” The phrase “God is One” is the Shema, which comes from Deuteronomy 6:4 and was the basic expression of orthodoxy among Jews. Thus, this “objector” complains that James is orthodox, but that is worthless, because even demons are orthodox, which accomplishes nothing. Yet it is obvious that this statement, again, is only reinforcing James’ point, which is that faith, or orthodoxy, apart from works, means nothing.

In light of this, we should not view this section as the words of an objector at all, but rather as a witness James is calling in to make his point in a different way. The verse begins with, “But someone may say.” The word “but” here is the Greek word alla, which is the strong disjunction in the Greek language. It can usually be translated with “on the other hand” or “nevertheless” to demonstrate its force. However, occasionally, it can be used to heighten a point by stating it in a different way. One such example of this is found in John 16:2, which the NIV renders as follows:

“They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact [alla], a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.”

Clearly, alla in this verse does not mean “on the other hand.” Rather, the word is meant to heighten and intensify the point Jesus is making. James uses the same technique here. He had just argued that faith without works is dead, since it is by itself. You could render the next phrase, “In fact, someone might even say . . .” In this view, James is restating is point in another way to show his readers that their claims to orthodoxy are useless!

Having made his case, James returns to his point, asking, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” Again, the NASB’s rendering of the word “but” here is probably off, since it implies that James is arguing against his witness. The Greek word behind this “but” is the word de, which is a weak disjunctive, and can be rendered many ways, including “now,” “and,” “but,” “still,” “yet,” etc. This should be read, “Now are you willing to recognize . . .”

By now, James’ basic point is very clear. Orthodoxy (right belief) without orthopraxy (right practice) is useless. To bolster his point, James offers a few examples from the Old Testament. First, he notes that Abraham was justified by works and not by faith alone when he offered up Isaac.

We should note here that if anyone still wants to argue that James is not talking about a works based salvation, then this verse kills that idea. Now if we take this passage to be salvation from Hell, we have a major problem, because it says that Abraham was “justified.” This doesn’t merely mean delivered. This is that judicial term that Paul uses to refer to the crediting of righteousness. One again, the traditional Reformed view simply does not take the text seriously. Either this passage denies Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, or it is teaching something else.

How, then, was Abraham justified by works? James says,

“Because his faith was working with his works, and his works perfected his faith. Therefore, the Scripture was fulfilled that Abraham believed and was justified.”

Thus, we “see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” At this point, there are two possible ways to handle the passage. First, we can point out that the word “alone” should be better rendered “only,” meaning that James actually is arguing for one justification by faith (which is what Paul talked about) which resulted in righteousness and one justification by works, which resulted in vindication of that faith, most likely before men. This view works grammatically and fits with the context.

Another way to look at the passage is to deny that James has Paul’s use of the word “justify” in mind at all. In fact, if James wrote his epistle in the early forties, then the chances are that he had never even heard Paul’s sermons, so the thought of using the word in its Roman legal context likely never crossed his mind. He probably was using it in the more common sense of “vindication.” Notice that James says Genesis 15:6 was “fulfilled.” Further, notice that James points out that Abraham was then called “a friend of God.” It appears the justification he had in mind was not at all Abraham’s being declared righteous, but instead, his having the right to be declared a friend of God and the father of the faithful. In either view, there is no reason to think that James’ doctrine at all contradicts the Pauline notion of justification by faith alone.

James then continues to press his point. In verse 25 he gives the example of Rahab. It is absolutely the perfect illustration of his point. Rahab had helped the spies out of Jericho because she had believed in their words. However, she then perfected, or matured, or vindicated her faith by helping the spies. The result was her salvation, not from Hell, but from death! Merely believing the spies’ words would not have saved her. She would have died with the rest of the city. But because her faith was working with works, she was saved. And thus, James concludes the matter for the time being with the summary statement that faith without works is dead. Works animate faith. Faith is the body. Works are the spirit, so to speak.

In conclusion, there is no reason to suppose that this passage in James at all contradicts Paul’s idea of salvation by grace through faith. It cannot be used, however, to prove the idea that real faith necessarily produces good works. James never questions whether or not his readers are really believers. On the contrary, he consistently refers to them as “brothers.” His point is that believers ought to make it a point to live out what they profess to believe if they want to experience the abundant life Jesus promised in John 10:10.

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