Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What Can I Make the Bible Say? James 2:17

#5: “Thus also faith by itself, if does not have works, is dead,” James 2:17.

At last we will consider perhaps the largest argument works salvationists can bring to bear when doctrinally pleading their case. Granted, there are other verses in the New Testament that can be lifted out of context and isolated to preach works and conditional security, but this is not the point of our study. Rather, our study is to contemplate the topic of works salvation in general, and some of the advocating verses in particular, to determine if this is really what the Bible teaches. James 2:14-26 is one of the strongest passages in Scripture for the misuse of works salvation, but is that what James is teaching?

We find a parallel passage that actually compliments what we will presently consider in James in Romans chapter 4. They are, one could say, two sides of the same coin. Only in Romans chapter 4 Paul’s focus is on a believer’s justification before God; James is writing about a saving faith that is demonstrated through works that can be verified by the witness of men. To begin with so the case can be laid out entirely, both passages will be quoted.

What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness,” (quoted from Genesis 15:6). Now to him who works the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work, but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin (quoted from Psalm 32:1-2),” Romans 4:1-8.

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says that 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 does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! 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 (quoted from Genesis 15:6).” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also 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,” James 2:14-26.

We find the apostle John writing on much the same topic in his first epistle when we read: “But whoever has this world’s goods, and see his brother in need and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart and knows all things,” 1st John 3:17-20. Recall that one of the major points was to refute contrary doctrine invading the church, 1st John 2:18-23. As our Lord taught that a tree shall be known by its fruit John was contrasting this new “Christian” teaching with the commands of Christ and how the Lord defined love. Faith in Christ manifested in a love for Him that became visible when the saint loved his fellow Christian. These teachers taught another form of love that was “mere words” so to speak. Clearly such teachers also denied the unique person and ministry of Christ, apparently even denying His deity. John is impressing upon us that a man’s works have a definite impact as to the presence (or absence) of the faith we confess.

Romans chapter 4 prefaces the train of thought that will define the context with Paul writing that Abraham, despite his works, was not justified before God by these things. He quotes for authority to validate this teaching Genesis 15:6, which clearly states that Abraham’s justification came not from his act of sacrificing Isaac (an act that would occur decades after this incident) but from his faith. A contrast and compare naturally emerges at this point. Faith and works are contrasted against one another; this passage alone is strong evidence that the two are not conjoined. They do not aid one another or work in unison to purchase salvation in fact they are opposites, or else Paul’s inspired writing is presently pointless. An even more tacit contrast between grace and works arises in Romans 11:6 where Paul writes: “And if by grace (how election/salvation occurs according to verse 5) 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.”

The apostle again quotes from the Old Testament to demonstrate the validity of his thinking, and how the OT carried in embryo what the NT explodes with vivid force. David speaks of forgiveness of sin, of justification from God solely by God’s gracious mercy and not his own effort or works. God does not need to see a saint’s works or fruit for He knows whether or not we have truly believed in Christ to the saving of the soul. Romans as a whole expounds on the concept that God’s sovereignty and grace are the source of salvation which we receive through faith in Him, Romans 10:8-10.

In James there is an entirely differing focus of perspective. Again read the passage from 1st John already quoted as we read James 2:14-16. The emphasis is the demonstration of works (loving in deed and truth according to John) revealing the reality of the salvation we’ve received from Christ. In verse 14 the word “profit” in the Greek means “to heap up; to accumulate, benefit or gain.” In other words what does it benefit you, or what do you gain by confessing a faith that does not demonstrate itself in everyday living? The apostle quickly follows with the same example John cited of the fellow saint being naked and starving, and someone professing Christ telling them to be well but doing nothing for them. Such selfish behavior or such uncaring behavior is not a hallmark of one of Jesus’ disciples. Verse 16 concludes with the same Greek word, again inquiring, how does that benefit or what do you gain from it? In other words the confessor in verse 14 says he has faith but gives no outward indication of internal transformation. The state of one’s soul (saved or unsaved) is entirely between the believer and God; but the unbelieving world demands evidence for one’s supposed rebirth. The source of our new life ought to arouse change that can be easily detected and conducts itself anywhere we are, no matter what we are doing. Jesus said such a thing would be the convicting evidence to the ungodly world that Christians are truly disciples of the Lord, John 13:35.

We clearly see the focus of James’ message in verse in verse 18. He states that faith can only be shown to men by works and that we are justified before men (in our confession of faith) by the demonstration of works; otherwise our faith is, as far as they are concerned, dead. Verse 19 tells us that such sterile faith is similar to the kind the demons possess; hardly a comforting comparison for someone who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Verse 21 another such verse that often confuses or is misquoted, tells us that Abraham was justified by works. Now this is a clear contradiction to what Paul writes in Romans 4:2-3…unless we understand that James is still referring to justification before the witness of men. James, like Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 that “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” How was Abraham justified before God? He trusted God and His word, Genesis 15:6. How was he justified before men? He offered up Isaac on the altar, Genesis 22. Justification with God came before his works proving the reality of his faith. Thus what James writes is absolutely true: “Faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect,” James 2:22.

A simple example could be given in the person of Daniel. In Daniel chapter 6 Darius gives a rash decree about worship that Daniel opts to ignore, knowing the consequences. Daniel’s faith became visible to all when he refused to yield to the decree, choosing rather to suffer ignominious death in the lion’s den. Those works served to strengthen Daniel’s faith for God indeed delivered His servant and demonstrated to Darius the power of Daniel’s God and the reason Daniel remained faithful; God is the Savior, and He saved Daniel from peril. This act of faith was perhaps a witness that brought Darius to a saving faith in the God of the Hebrews. Speaking of, Hebrews chapter 11, the “heroes of the faith” is replete with the faithful, whose faith was tested and made visible in works aplenty. Each one was justified before men that theirs was a genuine faith whether they were putting to flight armies or being put to death like meek lambs because of their trust in Jehovah. James 2:22 summarizes Hebrews 11, but it by no means teaches, or rightly can be used to teach, that we earn our salvation by works. This denigrates the very works performed by such saints, and truly dishonors Christ our Lord whose great work was the only one God the Father found acceptable payment for sin.


  1. Amen Ian. Actions demonstrate faith. a person can believe a chair will support them but unless the act on that faith to sit down, it doesn't benefit them. on the other hand, if they don't trust the chair to support them, they will never be able to relax and let the chair do it's job, even if they sit down.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Donald; I do enjoy the comparison of the chair.

    I just wanted to add the great commandment Jesus gave us in Matthew 22:37-39. tHe first command, to love God with all our faculties, is like the faith that justifies us before God; it is something only God knows and sees. The second command, to love our neighbor like ourselves is like the works James speaks of; it brings our confession of God's love into daily, practical observation, the faith that justifies us before men, the faith that James says is perfected by works.


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