“Faith without works is dead.”
So spoke James in the second chapter of his epistle. His statement has
been appealed to many times to support the idea that works are
necessary for eternal salvation.
Sometimes the claim is made that unless faith is
followed by good works, the believer loses eternal life. At other
times, a more subtle approach is taken. If a professing Christian does
not manifest good works, he was never a true believer to begin with.
Whatever James is saying, however, it can be neither of these ideas.
Dead Faith Is Like A Corpse:
It Was Once Alive
The second view, just mentioned, is so forced and
artificial that if it were not maintained by obviously sincere men, it
might be called dishonest. According to this view, a dead faith cannot
save. Therefore, if a man lacks the crucial evidence of good works, it
shows that this is all he has ever possessed - a dead faith.
This flies directly into the face of the text. In James 2:26 the writer affirms:
For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
No one who encountered a dead body, whose life-giving
spirit had departed, would ever conclude that the body had never been
alive. Quite the contrary. The presence of a corpse is the clearest
proof of a loss of life. If we allow this illustration to speak for
itself, then the presence of a dead faith shows that this faith was
Nor is there anything at all in the entire passage to
support some other conclusion. As elsewhere in the epistle, it is
Christian brothers who are addressed (2:14; cf. 1:2, 16, 19; 2:1, 5;
3:1, 10, 12; etc.). There is absolutely nothing to suggest James
believed that if a man’s faith is pronounced dead, it must therefore
always have been dead. The assumption that a dead
faith has always been dead cannot be extracted from James’s text. It is
nothing more than a theological idea read into the passage.1 It is also a desperate expedient intended to salvage some form of harmony between James and the doctrine of Paul.
But by distorting the true meaning of the text, this
idea has given rise to immense confusion. This confusion has had a
harmful impact on men’s comprehension of the Gospel of God’s saving
James Believed in the Free Gift of Life
We should carefully observe that James, like all the
inspired writers, believed eternal life was the gracious gift of God.
This is made plain in a splendid passage in his first chapter:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above,
and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no
variation or shadow of turning. Of His own will He brought us forth by
the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His
creatures (James 1:17, 18).
Anyone who is familiar with the words of Jesus, as
James certainly was, can surely hear an echo of our Lord in a statement
like this. New birth is a sovereign act of God. It is one
of His good and perfect gifts which comes down from above.
In fact, in the expression “from above,” James employs
exactly the same word that Jesus used when He told Nicodemus, “You must
be born again” (John 3:7). The Greek adverb is anothen and means both
“again” and “from above.” No doubt our Lord deliberately selected it
for His discourse with Nicodemus. The supernatural birth which He was
describing is both a rebirth and a birth from above. The play on words
which this involves is an effective one.
In James’s statement about our rebirth there is also a
strong emphasis on the sovereign will of God. “Of His own will He
brought us forth. . .” James insists. This perspective recalls Paul’s
statement found in 2 Corinthians 4:6:
For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of
darkness who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge
of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Here, too, the sovereign act of God is stressed.
Neither Paul nor James intends to deny the necessity of
faith. But faith, as we see it in the simple, direct statements of the
Bible about salvation, is nothing more than a response to a divine
initiative. It is the means by which eternal life is received.
Since this is so, it is proper that God Himself should
be viewed as the sovereign Actor at the moment of conversion. It is He
who wills to regenerate. It is His Word that penetrates our darkness.
Salvation, we may say, occurs when the sufficiency of Christ for my
eternal need dawns on my darkened heart. At this moment of believing
illumination, I become a Christian.
So there is no reason to doubt that James and Paul were
in harmony about the way eternal life is received. For both of them it
is the gift of God, graciously and sovereignly bestowed. Only when we
take this unity for granted can we really begin to understand the
meaning of James’s instruction about works.
Exposition of James 2:14-26
(1) Works and Grace Cannot Be Mixed
The place to start is where James starts. In James 2:14 his famous discussion is opened with the words:
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Faith cannot save him, can it? (Greek.)
The translation just given is based on the original
Greek and is crucial to a correct interpretation. The form of the
question which James asks in the last part of the verse is one which
expects a negative response. The expected answer, from James’s point of
view, would be: “No, faith cannot save him.”
Anyone who holds that faith and works are both
conditions for reaching heaven will find no problem with a question
like this. In that case the question simply means that faith by itself
is not enough. In fact, this is precisely what James says in verse 17:
“Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
But the problem comes when we try to harmonize this
idea with the Apostle Paul’s clear denial that works are a condition
For Paul, the inclusion of works would be a denial of grace. He is emphatic on this point:
And if by grace, then it is no longer of works;
otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no
longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work (Rom. 11:6).
It is hard to quarrel with this point of view! In fact
it is impossible to do so. Paul’s point is that once works are made a
condition for attaining some goal, that goal can no longer be said to
be attained by grace.
But in James 2, James plainly makes works a condition
for salvation. The failure to admit this is the chief source of the
problems supposedly arising from this passage for most evangelicals. We
ought to start by admitting it. And we ought then to admit that James
cannot be talking about salvation BY GRACE!
But instead of admitting these points, many
interpreters dodge them. This is frequently done by trying to translate
the question, “Can faith save him?” (2:14), by “Can that [or, such]
faith save him?” But the introduction of words like “that” or “such” as
qualifiers for “faith” is really an evasion of the text. The Greek does not at all verify this sort of translation.2
Support for the renderings “such faith” or “that faith”
is usually said to be found in the presence of the Greek definite
article with the word “faith.” But in this very passage, the definite
article also occurs with “faith” in verses 17, 18, 20, 22 and 26. (In
verse 22, the reference is to Abraham’s faith!) In none of these places
are the words “such” or “that” proposed as natural translations.
As is well known, the Greek language often employed the
definite article with abstract nouns (like faith, love, hope, etc.)
where English cannot do so. In such cases we leave the Greek article
The attempt to single out 2:14 for specialized
treatment carries its own refutation on its face. It must be classed as
a truly desperate effort to support an insupportable interpretation.
James’s point is really quite plain: faith alone cannot save!3
(2) Salvation for the Believer’s Life
But what are we left with? A contradiction between James and Paul? This is what many have candidly thought, and it is easy to see why.4 If James and Paul are talking about the same thing, they do contradict each other.
But are they talking about the same thing?
In the opening chapter of the epistle, shortly after
declaring his readers to be the offspring of God’s regenerating
activity (1:18), James writes:
Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of
wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able
to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only,
deceiving yourselves (Jam. 1:21, 22).
That this passage is analogous to 2:14 is easy to see.
Here, too, James is affirming the necessity of doing something, and he
clearly means that only if his readers do God’s Word will it be able to
“save their souls.”
At first glance, this seems only to repeat the problem
already encountered. But in fact it offers us the solution. The reason
we do not see it immediately is due to the fact that we are English
speakers with a long history of theological indoctrination. To us, the
expression “save your souls” can scarcely mean anything else than “to
be delivered from hell.”
But this is the meaning least likely to occur to a
Greek reader of the same text. In fact the expression “to save the
soul” represents a Greek phrase whose most common meaning in English
would be “to save the life.” In the New Testament it occurs in this
sense in parallel passages Mark 3:4 and Luke 6:9 (see also Luke 9:56).
Among the numerous places where it is used with this meaning in the
Greek translation of the Old Testament, the following references would
be especially clear to the English reader: Genesis 19:17 and 32:30; 1
Samuel 19:11; and Jeremiah 48:6. Perhaps even more to the point, the
phrase occurs again in James 5:20, and here the words “from death” are
By contrast, the expression is never found in any New Testament text which describes the conversion experience!
The natural sense of the Greek phrase (“to save your
lives”) fits perfectly into the larger context of James 1. Earlier,
James was discussing the consequences of sin. He has said, “Then, when
desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is
full-grown, brings forth death” (1:15). Sin, states James, has its
final outcome in physical death. But obedience to God can defer death
and “save” or “preserve” the life. This truth is echoed also by Paul
(see Rom. 8:13).
This understanding of James 1:21 agrees completely with 5:19, 20, where James says to his fellow Christians:
Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth,
and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner
from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a
multitude of sins.
On this attractive note of mutual spiritual concern among the brethren, James closes his letter. But in doing so, he manages to emphasize once again that sin can lead to death.5
It has been observed that the Epistle of James is the
New Testament writing which most clearly reflects the wisdom literature
of the Old Testament. The theme of death as the consequence of sin is
an extremely frequent one in the book of Proverbs. A few illustrative
texts can be mentioned:
The fear of the Lord prolongs days,
But the years of the wicked will be shortened (Prov. 10:27).
As righteousness leads to life,
So he who pursues evil pursues it to his own death (Prov. 11:19).
In the way of righteousness is life,
And in its pathway there is no death (Prov. 12:28).
The law of the wise is a fountain of life,
To turn one away from the snares of death (Prov. 13:14).
He who keeps the commandment keeps his own soul [i.e., his life!],
But he who is careless of his ways will die (Prov. 19:16).
It is clear that this is the Old Testament concept
which furnishes the background for James’s thought. A recognition of
this fact clarifies a great deal. “To save the soul” (=“life”) is to
preserve the physical life from an untimely death due to sin.
(3) The Development of James’s Thought in 1:21-2:26
It is best to regard James 1:21-2:26 as a single large
section in the development of the epistle. James 1:21 sets the theme.
The readers, who are born-again Christians (1:18), need to lay
wickedness aside and receive the Word of God as the agent capable of
saving their lives. But they must understand (1:22-25) that this will
only occur if they are doers of the Word and not mere hearers. To be a
mere hearer is to commit the folly of looking into the divine mirror of
truth and forgetting what it tells us about ourselves. Only the man who
is a “doer of work” (1:25, Greek) can expect God’s blessing on his life.
There follows in 1:26-2:13 some specific information
about what a “doer of work” actually does. He controls his tongue, is
charitable to the needy, and keeps himself pure from worldly defilement
(1:26-27). Moreover, he rejects the spirit of partiality and favoritism
which is so common in the world (2:1-13). That spirit is wholly
inconsistent with his faith in the Lord of glory (2:1).
Instead of partiality, therefore, there should be true
obedience to “the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love
your neighbor as yourself’” (2:8). In fact, love and its handmaiden,
mercy, are standards by which the lives of believers will be assessed
at the Judgment Seat of Christ (2:13). They should therefore “so speak
and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty” (2:12).
The reference back to 1:25 is obvious in the phrase “law of liberty.”
In referring to judgment, of course, James does not
contradict the declaration of John 5:24 that the believer does not come
into judgment. There is no judgment for the regenerate person if by
that term is meant a weighing of his merits in terms of heaven or hell.
There is not even any charge that can be brought against the redeemed
believer. He is justified before the bar of eternal justice, as Paul so
plainly states (Rom. 8:33, 34). Thus there cannot be any trial at all
to determine the believer’s eternal destiny. God declares that a
settled matter when He justifies.
But the New Testament does teach an assessment of the
believer’s earthly experience in connection with rewards, or the loss
of these. (See 1 Cor. 3:12-15; 2 Cor. 5:10.) More will be said of this
in a later chapter.
James 2:14-26 is the final subsection of the larger
unit, 1:21-2:26. At 2:14 James returns to the thought expressed in 1:21
about “saving the life.” Since he has insisted that “saving the life”
is only possible when one is actually a “doer of work”[!], he wishes
now (2:14) to oppose the idea that faith can substitute for obedience
and accomplish the same saving result he had mentioned earlier (1:21).
(4) “Dead” Faith Cannot Keep A Christian Alive (2:14-17)
Keeping in mind the concept of “saving the life
by obedience,” we can now look more closely at James 2:14-17. James
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he
has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or
sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to
them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled”, but you do not give them
the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus
also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (Jam. 2:14-17).
Can the fact that a man holds correct beliefs and is
orthodox “save” him from the deadly consequences of sin? Of course not!
The very thought is absurd. That is like giving your best wishes to a
destitute brother or sister when what they really need is food and
clothing (2:15-16). It is utterly fruitless!
As a matter of fact, this kind of callous conduct on
the part of one Christian toward another is precisely what James has
been warning against (see 1:27; 2:2-6)! It superbly illustrates his
point. Such idle words are as “dead” (ineffectual) as a non-working
faith! So James says, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have
works, is dead” (2:17).
It needs to be carefully considered why James chose the
term “dead” to describe a faith that is not working. But the moment we
relate this term to the controlling theme of “saving the life,”
everything becomes plain. The issue that concerns James is an issue of
life or death. (He is not discussing salvation from hell!) The truth
which he has in mind is that of Proverbs: “As righteousness leads to
life, so he who pursues evil pursues it to his own death” (Prov. 11:19).
Can a dead faith save the Christian from death?
The question answers itself. The choice of the adjective “dead” is
perfectly suited to James’s argument. Just as the idle words of some
ungenerous believer cannot save his brother from death in the absence
of life’s necessities, no more can a non-working faith save our lives
from the deadly consequences of sin.
(5) An Objector Speaks (2:18,19)
In 2:18-19 James introduces the words of an imagined objector.6 The entirety of these verses belong to the objector. The response of James only begins in verse 20. This is shown by the words, “But do you want to know, O foolish man . . . ”7
The literary format James uses here was familiar in
ancient times from the Greek diatribe. The diatribe was a learned and
argumentative form of communication. The two phrases (“But someone will
say” [verse 18], and “But do you want to know, O foolish man” [verse
20]) clearly show that the diatribe format is being employed. These two
phrases bracket the words of the objector in verses 18, 19. Elsewhere in the New Testament, this same format appears in 1 Corinthians 15:35, 36.8
Since the statements in verse 19 about the belief of
men and demons are the words of the objector - not of James! - their
use by commentators to make a theological point is totally misguided.
But what does the objection mean? Since most Greek manuscripts read the word “by” in place of the familiar word “without” in verse 18,9 the objector’s statement may be given as follows:
But someone will say:
“You have faith and I have
works. Show me your faith from your works, and I will show you, from my
works, my faith. You believe that there is one God; you do well. The
demons also believe, and tremble” (Jam. 2:18, 19, Greek).
The argument which these words express appears to be a reductio ad absurdum (a reduction to absurdity). It is heavy with irony. 10
“It is absurd,” says the objector, “to see a close
connection between faith and works. For the sake of argument, let’s say
you have faith and I have works. Let’s start there. You can no more
start with what you believe and show it to me in your works, than I can
start with my works and demonstrate what it is that I believe.” The
objector is confident that both tasks are impossible.
The impossibility of showing one’s faith from one’s
works is now demonstrated (so the objector thinks) by this
illustration: “Men and demons both believe the same truth (that there
is one God), but their faith does not produce the same response. Although this article of faith may move a man to ‘do well,’ it never moves the demons to ‘do well.’11
All they can do is tremble. Faith and works, therefore, have no
built-in connection at all. The same creed may produce entirely
different kinds of conduct. Faith cannot be made visible in works!”
No doubt James and his readers had heard this argument
before. It was precisely the kind of defensive approach a man might
take when his orthodoxy was not supported by good deeds. “Faith and
works are not really related to each other in the way you say they are,
James. So don’t criticize the vitality of my faith because I don’t do
such and such a thing.”
James’s reply (2:20) may be paraphrased: “What a
senseless argument! How foolish you are to make it! I still say that
without works your faith is dead. Would you like to know why?”
Verses 21-23 are James’s direct rebuttal of the
objection. This is made clear in the Greek text by the singular form of
“do you see” in verse 22. This shows he is addressing the objector.
Only with the “you see” of verse 24 does James return to the plural and
to his readers as a whole.
(6) Justification By Works (2:20-24)
In refuting the objection he has cited, James selects
the most prestigious name in Jewish history, the patriarch Abraham. He
selects also his most honored act of obedience to God, the offering of
his own son Isaac. Since in Christian circles it was well known that
Abraham was justified by faith, James now adds a highly original touch.
He was also justified by works!
But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith
without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works
when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was
working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?
And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and
it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the
friend of God (Jam. 2:20-23).
Earlier in this discussion we said that we can best
understand James’s point of view by recognizing his harmony with Paul.
That is extremely relevant here. James does not wish to deny that
Abraham, or anyone else, could be justified by faith alone. He merely
wishes to insist that there is also another justification, and it is by
Of course there is no such thing as a single
justification by faith plus works. Nothing James says suggests that
idea. Rather, there are two kinds of justification.
This point is confirmed by a careful reading of the
Greek text of verse 24. When he returns to his readers generally, James
says, “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not only
[justified] by faith.” The key to this understanding is the Greek
adverb “only,” which does not simply qualify the word “faith” but the
whole idea of the second clause. James is saying: Justification by
faith is not the only kind of justification there is. There is also the kind which is by works.12
Somewhat surprisingly, to most people, the Apostle Paul
agrees with this. Writing at what was no doubt a later time than James,
Paul states in Romans 4:2, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he
has something of which to boast, but not before God.” The form of this
statement does not deny the truth of the point under consideration. The
phrase, “but not before God,” strongly suggests that the Apostle can
conceive of a sense in which men are justified by works. But, he
insists, that is not the way men are justified before God. That is, it does not establish their legal standing before Him.13
In responding, therefore, to the kind of person who
tried to divorce faith and works in Christian experience, James takes a
skillful approach. “Wait a moment, you foolish man,” he is saying, “you
make much of justification by faith, but can’t you see how Abraham was
also justified by works when he offered his son Isaac to God?” (2:21).
“Is it not obvious how his faith was cooperating with his works and, in
fact, by works his faith was made mature?” (2:22). “In this way, too,
the full significance of the Scripture about his justification by faith
was brought to light, for now he could be called the friend of God”
The content of this passage is rich indeed. It is a
pity that it has been so widely misunderstood. The faith which
justifies - James never denies that it does justify! - can have an
active and vital role in the life of the obedient believer. As with
Abraham, it can be the dynamic for great acts of obedience. In the
process, faith itself can be “perfected.” The Greek word suggests development and maturation. Faith is thus nourished and strengthened by works.14
It would hardly be possible to find a better
illustration of James’s point anywhere in the Bible. The faith by which
Abraham was justified was basically faith in a God of resurrection.
Referring to the occasion when that faith was first exercised, Paul
And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his
own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and
the deadness of Sarah’s womb. He did not waver at the promise of God
through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God,
and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to
perform (Rom. 4:19-21).
Abraham had confidence that the God he believed in
could overcome the “deadness” of his own body and of Sarah’s womb. But
it was only through the testing with Isaac that this faith becomes a
specific conviction that God could literally raise a person from the
dead to fulfill His oath. Accordingly, the author of Hebrews declares:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up his
only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be
called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the
dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense (Heb.
Thus the faith of Abraham was strengthened and matured
by works! From a conviction that God could overcome a “deadness” in his
own body (=inability to beget children), he moved to the assurance that
God could actually resurrect his son’s body from literal, physical
death. In the process of carrying out the divine command to sacrifice
his beloved boy, his faith grew and reached new heights of confidence
In this way, too, the Scripture that spoke of his
original justification “was fulfilled.” That statement (Gen. 15:6) was
not a prophecy, of course. But its implications were richly developed
and exposed by the subsequent record of Abraham’s obedience. Abraham’s
works “filled it full” of meaning, so to speak, by showing the extent
to which that faith could develop and undergird a life of obedience. Simple
and uncomplicated though it was at first, Abraham’s justifying faith
had potential ramifications which only his works, built on it, could
And now he could be called the “friend of God,” not
only by God Himself, but also by men (cf. Isa. 41:8; 2 Chr. 20:7). This
is in fact the name by which Abraham has been known down through the
centuries in many lands and by at least three religions (Christianity,
Judaism, Islam). Had Abraham not obeyed God in the greatest test of his
life, he would still have been justified by the faith he exercised in
Genesis 15:6. But by allowing that faith to be alive in his works, he
attained an enviable title among men. In this way he was also justified
When a man is justified by faith he finds an
unqualified acceptance before God. As Paul puts it, such a man is one
“to whom God imputes righteousness without works” (Rom. 4:6). But only
God can see this spiritual transaction. When, however, a man is
justified by works he achieves an intimacy with God that is manifest to
men. He can then be called “the friend of God,” even as Jesus said, “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you” (John 15:14).16
(7) James's Concluding Words (2:24-26)
Leaving the imagined objector behind, James returns in
verses 24-26 to address the readership directly. Rahab furnishes him
with his final Biblical example of justification by works. James says:
You see then that a man is justified by works, and not
by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot justified by works
when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as
the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead
also (Jam. 2:24-26).
It should be carefully observed that he does not say,
“Was not Rahab justified by faith and works”! As already mentioned,
such an idea is foreign to James. He is talking about exactly
what he says he is talking about: justification by works!
Rahab, however, is superbly suited to tie his thoughts
together. The passage had begun, as we have seen, with a reference to
his theme of “saving the life” (2:14; 1:21). Not surprisingly, Rahab is
selected as a striking example of a person whose physical life was
“saved” precisely because she had works.
With James’s words the statement of the writer of Hebrews can be profitably compared. In 11:31, that author writes of her:
By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace.
Notice that the author of Hebrews points to her faith
and lays the stress on the fact that she “received” the spies. James,
on the other hand, points also to the fact that “she sent them out
another way.” This has considerable significance for James’s argument.
Although Rahab’s faith began to operate the moment she
“received the messengers,” she could not really be justified by works
until she had “sent them out another way.” The reason for this is
obvious when the story in Joshua 2 is carefully considered. Up until
the last moment, she could still have betrayed the spies. Had she so
desired, she could have sent their pursuers after them.
That the spies had lingering doubts about her loyalty
is suggested by their words in Joshua 2:20, “And if you tell this
business of ours, then we will be free from your oath ...” But the
spies’ successful escape demonstrated that Rahab was truly a “friend of
God” because she was also their friend. In this way, Rahab was justified by works.17
And in the process, she saved her own life and her
family’s! Her faith, therefore, was very much alive because it was an
active, working faith. Though she was a harlot - and both inspired
writers remind us that she was - her living faith triumphed over the
natural consequences of her sin. While all the inhabitants of Jericho
perished under the divine judgment which Israel executed, she lived
because her faith lived!
James therefore wishes his readers to know that works
are in fact the vitalizing “spirit” which keeps one’s faith alive in
the same way that the human spirit keeps the human body alive (2:26).
Whenever a Christian ceases to act on his faith, that faith atrophies
and becomes little more than a creedal corpse. “Dead orthodoxy” is a danger that has always confronted Christian people and they do well to take heed to this danger.18
But the antidote is a simple one: faith remains vital and alive as long
as it is being translated into real works of living obedience.
Does James contradict Paul’s doctrine of free grace, or
John’s insistence on faith as the single condition of eternal life? Far
from it. But neither does he offer support to the widespread notion
that a “dead faith” cannot exist in the life of a Christian.
Ironically, that is exactly what he is warning against. Thus,
a misunderstanding of his words has not only promoted confusion about
the terms for eternal life, but it has also deprived the Church of a
The dangers of a dead faith are real. But these dangers do not include hell.20
Nothing James writes suggests this. Nevertheless, sin remains a deadly
enemy to Christian experience which can prematurely end our physical
lives. The wisdom of the Old Testament and James are agreed about this.
So, if Christians are to be “saved” from that result, they will need
more than faith.
AB The Anchor Bible BGD A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other
Early Christian Literature, 2nd edition Revised and Augmented by F.
Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker from Walter Bauer's Fifth
Edition, 1958 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).
BNTC Black's New Testament Commentaries BSC Bible Study Commentary CGNT Cambridge Greek New Testament Comm. Stands exclusively for the commentaries of John Calvin
which are always quoted from the series Calvin's Commentaries, ed.
David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
Herm Hermeneia - A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. HNTC Harper's New Testament Commentaries ICC International Critical Commentary Institutes John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion,
always quoted from the 2 vol. translation by John Allen (Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1935).
MNTC Moffatt New Testament Commentary NIC New International Commentary NIGNTC New International Greek New Testament Commentary TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentaries WBC Word Biblical Commentaries WC Westminster Commentaries
229) seeks to counter this point when he writes: “James 2:26 makes the
point of the passage perfectly clear. All that James says is that, just
as you cannot have a man without a body and spirit together, so you
cannot have a Christian without works and faith together.”
But what impartial reader would ever get this idea out of James’s text?
In no way does James say that one does not “have a man” simply because
his spirit has left his body. What we have in fact is a dead man -
which is exactly James’s point. A dead man is produced by the departure
of his spirit from his physical body. Just so, a person’s faith dies
(becomes like a ‘dead man’) when it ceases to be invigorated by good
Surely Gerstner would admit that if a
physical body is dead, it was clearly once alive. But he wishes not to
draw any theological comparison with faith at this point because that
would contradict his theological premises. My point still stands: The
idea that a dead faith can never have been alive cannot be extracted
from the text of 2:26 or of 2:14-26 as a whole. It is pure and simple
theology, unsupported by evidence. In view of 2:26, the text might
indeed be read just as I read it.
T. Robertson, Studies in the Epistle of James (Nashville: Broadman,
n.d.), p. 94 n. 2, assigns to the article “almost the original
demonstrative force.” But this is extremely unlikely here when it is
not even true later in the passage where the article appears with faith
at 2:17, 20, 22(twice), and 26. Any student of the original language
can examine James’s text and see for himself that the article occurs
with faith only when faith is a subject or has a possessive word
qualifying it (as in verse 18). Otherwise there is no article. There is
no subtle significance to the article in 2:14! Quite rightly Dibelius
rejects the special stress on the article: “Here Jas uses the article
before ‘faith’. . ., but this is not to be read ‘this faith’, as many
interpreters from Bede to Mayor have argued. Jas is not speaking of any
particular brand of faith. . . The only attributive which is expressed.
. . is this: faith which ‘has’ no works. But this is still the
Christian faith and not an ‘alleged, false faith.’ ” So much for
building theology on an undetectable grammatical nuance! See Martin
Dibelius, James, rev. Heinrich Greeven, trans. Michael A. Williams, ed.
Helmut Koester, Herm (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, Eng. ed. 1976), p.
writes: “The original Greek makes it clear . . . that the rhetorical
question calls for a negative answer: No! Faith without works cannot
save! Works are necessary for salvation.” Thorwald Lorenzen, “Faith
without Works does not count before God! James 2:14-16,” Expository
4Lorenzen, p. 234, holds that Paul and James cannot be reconciled. He is not alone in this view.
point is also made by Ropes, who writes of 5:20: “Note how here, as in
1:15, death is the result of sin.” See James Hardy Ropes, A Critical
and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of St. James, ICC (Edinburgh:
T. & T. Clark, 1916), p. 315.
importance of a correct view of these verses is hard to overstate.
Sanguine indeed is the opinion of Cantinat that, though verses 18-19
are very difficult - perhaps the most difficult in the New Testament -
these difficulties do not greatly affect our comprehension of the text!
The exact opposite is the case: these difficulties, if left unresolved,
significantly block our understanding. Jean Cantinat, Les Epitres de
Saint Jacques et de Saint Jude (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1973), p. 10.
evident unity of verses 18-19 as constituting the words of a single
speaker is strongly attested in the literature on this passage. Many of
those who have accepted this unity, however, have regarded the speaker
not as an objector but as a pious ally who takes James’s point of view.
But this explanation is rightly dismissed by Davids because “no one has
yet been able to find a case where this common stylistic introduction
did not introduce an opposing or disagreeing voice.” Peter H. Davids,
The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGNTC (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), p. 124. Among those treating the two verses as
a unity are: Robert Johnstone, Lectures Exegetical and Practical on the
Epistle of James, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson, and Ferrier,
c1888), pp. 188-190; R. W. Dale, The Epistle of James and Other
Discourses (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1895), pp. 70, 71; so
apparently R. J. Knowling, The Epistle of St. James, WC (London:
Methuen, 1904), pp. 56-59; Joseph B. Mayor, The Epistle of James, 3rd
ed. (London: MacMillan, 1910; reprint ed.., Minneapolis: Klock and
Klock, 1977), p. 101; and Christiaan E. Donker, “Der Verfasser des Jak
und sein Gegner: Zum Problem des Einwandes in Jak 2 18-19,” Zeitschrift
fur die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 72(1981):227-240; and Francois
Vouga, L’Epitre de Saint Jacques (Geneve: Labor et Fides, 1984), p. 87.
this same format also in Romans 9:19, 20: (Objector) “You will say to
me then, ‘Why does. . . ?’ ” (Response): “But indeed. O man, who are
you to reply against God? Will the thing formed . . . ?” The use of
such structural markers as “but someone will say” and sharp-toned
epithets directed at a senseless or ungodly interlocutor are well-known
features of the diatribe style so prevalent in James’s and Paul’s day.
For references see Mayor, pp. 99 and 102; Ropes, pp. 208 and 216;
Davids, pp. 123 and 126 (bibliographic data in nn.5 and 7).
also the author’s “Light on James Two from Textual Criticism,”
Bibliotheca Sacra 120(1963):341-350. As can be seen from nn. 7 and 8
above, the decision to treat verses 18, 19 as the words of a single
speaker is not based on whether “by” or “without” is to be read in
use of the challenge to “show me” in an ironical sense is well
documented by Dibelius, pp. 154-155 n. 29. Especially parallel to James
is a passage from Ad Autolycus 1.2, in which the apologist Theophilus
writes: “But even if you should say, ‘Show me your God’, I too might
say to you, ‘Show me your Man and I also will show you my God.’ ” But
this same ironic and unfulfillable demand is frequent in Epictetus, for
example in the scorn of Discourses 3.22.99: “Who in the world are you?
The bull of the herd or the queen of the beehive? Show me the symbols
of your rulership!” For additional examples see Dibelius.
Greek phrase (kalos poieis) is taken by us in the sense of “do good,”
“do right,” which seems the most appropriate sense in Matthew 5:44;
12:12; Luke 6:27. It is also viable in Acts 10:33 (“you did the right
thing to come”) and even in James 2:8 (“If you keep the royal law . . .
you are doing what’s right”). Attention should be given also to the
secular examples cited by Mayor, p. 101. In Hellenistic Greek one would
be unwise to insist pedantically on the good/well differentiation so
dear to strict English grammarians!
word “alone,” or “only,” in Greek is adverbial in form and ought not to
be taken as a modifier of “faith” in the sense of “by faith alone.”
This point is often ignored by writers. However, Lange grants that the
Greek word for “alone” might be connected with the word “justified” in
the sense, “ ‘not only by faith but by works a man is justified’,” but
he argues that in fact it ought to be joined “adjectively” with the
word “faith.” But in the New Testament, when the word monos (“alone”)
modifies a noun it normally has formal concord with the noun. The
adverbial use is the only natural one here, i.e., “You see then that a
man is justified by works, and not only (justified) by faith.” See J.
P. Lange, The Epistle General of James in his A Commentary on the Holy
Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and Homiletical, with Special Reference
to Ministers and Students (New York: Charles Scribner, 1869). p. 87.
have indeed sought a reconciliation between James and Paul in terms of
differing concepts of works. Some time ago Lenski expressed a
distinction that has often been asserted in one form or another. He
states: “Paul and James deal with different kinds of works. Paul deals
with law-works, which have nothing to do with true Gospel-faith . . .
James deals with Gospel-works, which ever evidence the presence of
Gospel-faith . . . ” R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle
to the Hebrews and of the Epistle of James (Columbus, OH: Lutheran Book
Concern, 1938), p. 587. But this distinction is without foundation and
has been effectively criticized by Douglas J. Moo in “ ‘Law’, ‘Works of
the Law’ and Legalism in Paul,” Westminster Theological Journal
45(1983) :73-100. As we have already seen (chapter 1 n.2) Calvin
encountered this same argument from the “sophists” and rejects it
the statement in verse 22 (“by works faith was made perfect”), Adamson
aptly observes: “The force of the statement seems to be that faith is
fulfilled, strengthened, and matured by exercise.” James B. Adamson,
The Epistle of James, NIC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), p. 130.
explains “the Scripture was fulfilled” (verse 23) as follows: “The
Divine word spoken is conceived of as receiving a completion so to
speak in acts or events which are done or come to pass in accordance
with it. The idea of filling, or giving fullness to, is always
contained in the biblical use of fulfilling, though not always in the
same sense.” See Fenton John Anthony Hort, Expository and Exegetical
Studies: Compendium of Works Formerly Published Separately: The Epistle
of James (reprint ed., Minneapolis: Klock and Klock, 1980), p. 64. See
also the stimulating discussion of Adamson, pp. 130-132.
must note Darby’s comment on this passage: “James, remark, never says
that works justify us before God [italics his]; for God can see the
faith without its works. He knows that life is there. It is in exercise
with regard to Him, towards Him, by trust in His word, in Himself, by
receiving His testimony in spite of everything within and without. This
God sees and knows. But when our fellow creatures are in question, when
it must be said ‘shew,’ then faith, life, shows itself in works.” J. N.
Darby, Synopsis of the Books of the Bible: Colossians - Revelation, new
ed. rev. (reprint ed., New York: Loizeaux, 1942), p. 361. This also is
essentially the view of Calvin (see n.21 in this chapter).
indirect testimony to the depth of Rahab’s vindication before men is to
be found in the significant role Rahab played in Jewish legend. For
specifics, see Sophie Laws, A Commentary on the Epistle of James HNTC
(New York: Harper and Row, 1980), p. 137. Thanks to James, her name
lives on in Christianity as a challenging role-model for every
born-again believer who, though already justified by faith, also
aspires to be justified by works.
view that James is talking about a false, spurious faith has nothing to
commend it. Even though he holds that final salvation is in view in
James 2, Nicol is absolutely correct when he writes: “James’s point is
not that faith without works is not faith; as faith he does not
criticize it, but merely stresses that faith does not fulfill its
purpose when it is not accompanied by works.” See W. Nicol, “Faith and
Works in the Letter of James,” in Essays on the General Epistles of the
New Testament, Neotestamentica 9 (Pretoria: The New Testament Society
of South Africa, c1975), p. 16. See his whole discussion here,
especially the statement (pp. 16, 17): “Our conclusion is that in this
pericope James is not discussing different kinds of faith - as the
Reformed scholars we have cited assert; he emphasize that those who
believe must do good works.”
See also Plummer,
who writes: “But St. James nowhere throws doubt on the truth of the
unprofitable believer’s professions, or on the possibility of believing
much and doing nothing.” Alfred Plummer, The General Epistles of St.
James and St. Jude (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1905), p. 137.
on target are the remarks of Dibelius (p. 178) who writes: “But in all
of the instances [in James] which have been examined thusfar what is
involved is the faith which the Christian has, never the faith of the
sinner which first brings him to God . . . The faith which is mentioned
in this section can be presupposed in every Christian . . . [James’s]
intention is not dogmatically oriented, but practically oriented: he
wishes to admonish the Christians to practice their faith, i.e., their
Christianity, by works” (italics his). As far as it goes a better
statement cannot be found in the literature on James.
2:14-26 is also treated as unrelated to the question of eternal destiny
by R. T. Kendall, Once Saved, Always Saved (Chicago: Moody Press,
1985), pp. 170-172, 207-217. Although Kendall relates 2:14 to the
saving of the destitute poor person described in verses 15, 16, his
perspective on the passage is not very dissimilar to the view I have
word should be said about John Calvin’s own treatment of James 2:14-26.
To the surprise of some, perhaps, we do not find in Calvin anything
that reflects the theological tangle into which Reformed theology has
fallen, In two critical points, Calvin agrees with the present writer
against Reformed theology. The two points are these: (1) justification
by works does not refer to our justification before God, but rather
before men; (2) our good works are not the basis of our assurance of
Calvin says these things plainly: “So
when the sophists set James against Paul, they are deceived by the
double meaning of the term ‘justification’. When Paul says we are
justified by faith, he means precisely that we have won a verdict of
righteousness in the sight of God. James has quite another intention,
that the man who professes himself to be faithful should demonstrate
the truth of his fidelity by works. James did not mean to teach us
where the confidence of our salvation should rest - which is the very
point on which Paul does insist. So let us avoid the false reasoning
which has trapped the sophists, by taking note of the double meaning:
To Paul, the word denotes our free imputation of righteousness before
the judgment seat of God, to James, the demonstration of righteousness
from its effects, before men; which we may deduce from the preceding
words, Shew me thy faith, etc. [italics in the text]. In the latter
sense, we may admit without controversy that man is justified by works,
just as you might say a man is enriched by the purchase of a large and
costly estate, since his wealth, which beforehand he kept out of sight
in a strongbox, has become well-known” (italics added except in the
case specified). Calvin, Comm. James 2.21.
Neither does Calvin fall into the hopeless quagmire of talking about a
“spurious” faith which simulates the real thing so that true faith can
only be recognized by works (see quotation from Dabney in chapter 2 n.
1.) Calvin will not give the name of faith to those whom he considers
James to be attacking. He writes, for example: “He [James] is speaking
of false profession, and his words make this certain. He does not
start, ‘If a man has faith’, but ‘If a man says he has faith . . . ’
Plainly he implies that there are hypocrites who make an empty boast of
the word, when they have no real claim on it.” A few sentences later,
he says. “Just remember, he is not speaking out of his own
understanding of the word when he calls it ‘faith’, but is disputing
with those who pretend insincerely to faith, but are entirely without
it” (on 2:14; italics added).
Although I might
quarrel with Calvin’s exegesis here, at least he is consistent with the
fundamental premises of his own theology. Since, for Calvin, assurance
was of the essence of saving faith, he does not ascribe this “false
profession” to any who have found that assurance, but describes those
without works as insincere pretenders who make a false claim to faith.
Thus he will also ascribe to such people only “an indifferent and
formal understanding of God” (on 2:14) or “a certain uninformed opinion
of God” (on 2:19) or “a bare and empty awareness of God” (on 2:23).
This is a far cry from his own definition of faith as “a steady and
certain knowledge of the divine benevolence toward us” which is
“founded on the truth of the gratuitous promise in Christ” (Institutes
III.ii.7; quoted in full in chapter 2 n.5). Calvin does not hold that
faith must be subjectively verified to ourselves by works, but
objectively verified before men.
To be sure, Calvin expected good works to be produced in the life of the justified, but so do I.