Faith Without Works is Dead:
A Study on James 2:14-26
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My brothers, what [is] the gain if anyone says he has faith, but he does not have works? Is the faith able to save him? But if a brother or a sister is naked and may be lacking in daily food, and any one of you say to them, Go in peace, be warmed and filled, but does not give them the things the body needs, what gain [is it]? So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself. 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 out of my works. You believe that God is One. You do well; even the demons believe and shudder. But are you willing to know, O vain man, that faith apart from works is dead? Was not our father Abraham justified by works offering up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith worked with his works; and out of the works the faith was perfected. And the Scripture was fulfilled, saying, "And Abraham believed God, and it was counted for righteousness to him;" and he was called, Friend of God. You see, then, that a man is justified out of works, and not out of faith only. But in the same way Rahab the harlot was also justified out of works, having received the messengers, and sending them out by another way. For as the body is dead apart from the spirit, so also faith is dead apart from works.
James 2:14-26 has been a controversial passage down through the ages and continues to be controversial in some circles today. Some would say that this passage proves that the book of James is not inspired. Others say that this is the so-called "Arminian side" of Christianity that needs to balance out the so-called "Calvinist side." Some Arminians say that this disproves salvation by grace alone. None of these are true. This passage in James is a vital part of the inerrant, inspired Word of God, and it puts forth essential Christian doctrine. And it would not be controversial if people would understand the relationship between faith and works. Let us go through this passage step-by-step.
James 2:14. My brothers, what [is] the gain if anyone says he has faith, but he does not have works? Is the faith able to save him?
This verse is made up of two rhetorical questions. It is saying that there is no gain if anyone says he has faith but does not have good works. This professed faith is not the true faith that all believers possess. James is combating the heretics who were saying that one can believe the gospel and yet not have any good works to manifest that faith. It is a form of antinomianism. It is the "carnal Christian" heresy. Those who espouse this view are the ones who say that believers can live just like the immoral, irreligious world, but as long as they believe, they are saved, even though their works are evil. The Holy Spirit through James says that this is impossible. Someone who says he believes the gospel, even the true gospel of salvation conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone, but who has no accompanying good works, is not regenerate. God even says in Romans 6 that believers do not live in sin (v. 2), do not serve sin (v. 6), are slaves of obedience to righteousness (vv. 16, 18), and have their fruit unto sanctification (v. 22).
James 2:15-16. But if a brother or a sister is naked and may be lacking in daily food, and any one of you say to them, Go in peace, be warmed and filled, but does not give them the things the body needs, what gain [is it]?
James gives an illustration of someone who is in need of food and clothing and someone who has the means to help that person. The person who has the means to help is saying to the person who is in need, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled." What good have those words done the person who is in need? If one meets a person who is dying of thirst and tells him, "May you be blessed with a drink," what good has it done that person who is dying of thirst? These are nothing but empty words. The person with means has done nothing to help the person in need.
James 2:17. So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself.
James shows how faith without works is like the person who says "be warmed and filled" but does not give the person any food and clothing. Just as the words are empty words, this supposed faith is an empty faith. It has no substance. If someone says he believes the gospel (and can even articulate the true gospel and his agreement with it) but lives in immorality or manifests a disregard for God's commands or is not striving after obedience, his profession is an empty profession. This is the same with someone who says that he believes the gospel but who does not love the people of God; he really does not believe the gospel, as we see in 1 John:
The [one] claiming to be in the light, and hating his brother, is in the darkness until now. The [one] loving his brother rests in the light, and no offense is in him. But the [one] hating his brother is in the darkness, and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness blinded his eyes. (1 John 2:9-11)
Here is one who says he is in the light, who says he has faith, but who hates his brother. God says that this person who claims to be a believer is actually unregenerate. His professed faith, with no accompanying love for the brothers, is dead.
We know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brothers. The [one] not loving the brother remains in death. (1 John 3:14)
Love of the brothers is an inevitable fruit of regeneration. It is evidence of a believing heart.
Whoever has the means of life of the world, and sees his brother having need, and shuts up his heart of compassion 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 truth. (1 John 3:16-17)
Here is another rhetorical question. The one who has the means and knows his brother is in need, yet he does not love his brother by giving to him, does not have the love of God abiding in him. Love is not in word but in works.
If anyone says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar. For the one not loving his brother whom he has seen, how is he able to love God whom he has not seen? (1 John 4:20)
Again, here is one professing to have faith but who hates his brother. God calls this person a liar. His profession of faith is a lie. It is a dead faith.
The book of 1 John shows us that love of the brothers is one of the primary evidences of a true faith. How is love of the brothers manifested? We love the same things our brothers love. We hate the same things our brothers hate. We love our Lord Jesus Christ and the gospel of salvation conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone. We hate all false gospels that condition salvation in any way, to any degree, on the sinner. We speak peace to each other based on our common salvation. We do not speak peace to our brothers' enemies. We desire to fellowship with each other. We rejoice together in Christ and defend each other against the attacks of our enemies. We help each other in times of need.
Those who do not love the people of God show that they are not of God. For example, if a professing believer says that some who believe in universal atonement are his brothers in Christ, then he is speaking peace to the enemies of the people of God. This shows that he actually hates the people of God and that his professed faith is a lie.
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 out of my works.
Here James refutes those who say that works and faith can be ripped apart such that one person can have faith with no works and another person can have works with or without faith. He is saying,"Go ahead and try to show me your faith apart from your works." Remember that he is talking about one who claims to have faith but who has no accompanying works. Thus, James is saying that it is impossible for this man to show true faith when his works are evil, such as not loving the brothers. James counters by saying that he will show you his faith from his works. He is saying that his works are evidences of his faith. A faith with no evidences is not true faith.
James 2:19. You believe that God is One. You do well; even the demons believe and shudder.
James continues to speak to the person who professes to have faith but has no works to evidence his faith. He says that this person professes to believe in one God, not in many gods. In other words, this person professes to be a monotheist, not a polytheistic idolater. James then says, "Well, good for you - even the demons believe this, to the point of being afraid of God." He is saying that this person's profession of believing in one God is no more than what the demons believe. It is another way of saying, "Big deal!" or "So what!" Are we to be impressed when we see a person say, "I first want to thank God," or even "I believe in the one true and living God"? Are we to get all excited and say, "He's a believer!"? No. So what if a person says this. Millions of people say things like this who are on their way to hell. They do not mean a thing. If we were in this person's presence, we could start asking questions, but these statements in and of themselves are no evidence of a person's spiritual state.
Some people use this verse to say that orthodoxy is not important. They say, "You can have all the doctrine right, but that doesn't mean you're saved. Even the demons are orthodox. They have all the right doctrine." It is true that people can profess to believe all the right gospel doctrine and still be lost; but if they believe all the right gospel doctrine, then they are obviously saved. There is no such monstrosity as a person who believes all the right gospel doctrine who is unsaved. This might lead some to accuse us of holding to the faith without works heresy. However, they miss an important point: If a person believes right gospel doctrine, then he will automatically bring forth good works. There is no such thing as truly believing right gospel doctrine and not having good works.
What about the so-called "orthodox demons"? This passage is not saying that the demons are orthodox. It is saying that they believe in one God and shudder. It is saying that the demons are monotheists. It is not saying that they believe right doctrine about salvation. They shudder because they only know the wrath of God. They do not know the mercy of God. Hebrews 11:6 says that "the one drawing near to God should believe that He is, and [that] He becomes a rewarder to the ones seeking Him out." Believing that there is one God is certainly part of the equation, but there is much more to it than that. A believer not only knows that there is one God, but he knows who God is and what God has done in salvation. Romans 10:3 says that the one who is ignorant of the righteousness of God is lost. That means that one who does not know how God is just to justify the ungodly based solely on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ is lost (Romans 3:21-26). Those who have no knowledge of God as a just God and a Savior are praying to a god who cannot save (Isaiah 45:20-21).
James 2:20. But are you willing to know, O vain man, that faith apart from works is dead?
James calls the one who claims to believe in God but has no accompanying works an empty man. His words are empty, his profession is empty, and he is empty. James then reiterates to this vain man that his so-called faith is dead, as evidenced by the fact that it is not accompanied by works.
James 2:21. Was not our father Abraham justified by works offering up his son Isaac on the altar?
James now goes into an example of faith evidenced by works. Abraham, out of obedience to God, offered up Isaac on the altar. The rhetorical question that James puts forth states clearly that, in this act of offering up his son, Abraham was justified by works. Now the controversy starts spinning more rapidly. How could James say that Abraham was justified by works, when Paul said in Romans 3:28, "Then we conclude a man to be justified by faith without works of Law" and said in Romans 4:2,"For if Abraham was justified by works, he has a boast, but not with God"? Are Paul and James contradicting each other here? Not to those who believe the Bible. It is God the Holy Spirit through Paul and James who wrote these things. The same Holy Spirit wrote through James as wrote through Paul. God never contradicts Himself. God is One. He is in perfect unity with Himself. He is only truth. That is why none of the Scripture contradicts itself.
How are these verses reconciled? It is not difficult. James is talking about a different kind of justification than Paul is talking about. Paul is talking about justification as being declared righteous before God. James is talking about justification as proving that one's faith is real. 1 John 2:3-6 says this:
And by this we know that we have known Him, if we keep His commands. The [one] saying, I have known Him, and not keeping His commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that one. But whoever keeps His Word, truly in this one the love of God has been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him. The [one] claiming to rest in Him ought so to walk himself as that [One] walked.
Our works are what prove our faith to be real. In this sense, we are justified by works. So Abraham, by faith, offered up Isaac, showing that he believed God's promise.
James 2:22. You see that faith worked with his works; and out of the works the faith was perfected.
The first part of this verse says that Abraham's faith worked with his works, and, by extension, our faith works with our works. Our works spring from our faith. Our works are fruits - results - of our faith. What does James mean when he says, "out of the works the faith was perfected?" Does it mean that the faith got better? Does it mean that Abraham believed the gospel more because of his works? No. It means that faith is shown to be complete by works. It is just another way of saying that faith by itself is not a true, living faith. It is only a true faith if it is a faith that produces works. Faith accompanied by works is the only true, complete faith.
James 2:23. And the Scripture was fulfilled, saying, And Abraham believed God, and it was counted for righteousness to him; and he was called, Friend of God.
James quotes Genesis 15:6, just as Paul quotes it in Romans 4:3. James and Paul are in agreement. James then quotes Isaiah 41:8, where Abraham is called a friend of God. How did Abraham show that he was a friend of God? By his works of obedience. And his works of obedience sprang from his belief of God's promise.
James 2:24. You see, then, that a man is justified out of works, and not out of faith only.
This is the conclusion that James reaches from the Scriptures he quoted. A man is justified out of works, and not out of faith only. Does that sound heretical to you? If it does, then you are saying that God sounds heretical to you. The Literal Version (LITV) uses the phrase "out of" rather than "by." This is not only easier to understand but is a better translation. The Greek word translated "out of" is also translated "out of" in passages like Mark 15:46 that says that the tomb was cut out of rock, and in John 10:28, Jesus says, "not anyone shall pluck them out of my hand." There are many more biblical examples. The word can also be translated "by," "from," or "of," but even in most of these instances, "out of" makes sense. (If the LITV were consistent, it would have translated verse 21 to say that Abraham was justified out of works.) Again, God is saying through James that our works are evidence of our faith. Our faith is proven by our works.
James 2:25. But in the same way Rahab the harlot was also justified out of works, having received the messengers, and sending them out by another way.
Rahab is given as an example of justification out of works. Her works showed that her belief in the God of Israel was real. Hebrews 11:3 says, "By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those disobeying, having received the spies with peace." In Joshua 3:11, Rahab told the spies, "For Jehovah your God, He is God in the heavens above, and in the earth below." She showed her faith by helping Israel.
(As an aside, some use the passages on Rahab to say that lying is permitted and even necessary for Christians in some circumstances when there is a "greater good." They say that the Bible commends Rahab's lying - that her lying was one of the works that evidenced her faith. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nowhere does the Bible say that Rahab's lying was included in her acts of faith, because the Bible never contradicts itself. The Bible is clear that lying, in every instance, is sin. It is sin even when it is committed by a woman of faith whose other works during the same time frame were evidences of her faith. These verses do not say or even imply the horrendous notion that lying is considered a great act of faith.)
James 2:26. For as the body is dead apart from the spirit, so also faith is dead apart from works.
James compares the body-spirit connection to the faith-works connection. If you did not have a spirit inside you, what would your body be doing right now? It would be just lying there - it would be dead. All living human beings have spirits in them. Upon death, the spirit departs from the body. If there is no spirit, there is no life. The same goes for faith and works; if there are no works, there is no faith. If there is faith but no works, it is like a body with no spirit. It is dead. A body with no spirit is really not a person anymore. Faith with no works is really not true faith.
Do you see how important good works are? They are not an option. They are not something that some Christians have and other Christians do not have. They are inevitable and essential fruits of true faith.
Whenever we believers talk of things that are impossible for any believer to do (things that are necessarily indicative of lostness) or things that all believers without exception do (inevitable and essential fruits), the antinomians and false peace-speakers will invariably say that we are conditioning salvation on the believer's doing or abstaining from doing certain things. This shows that they are ignorant of the vital distinction between conditions and fruits. What part do good works play when it comes to gaining salvation, maintaining salvation, or making one fit for heaven? ABSOLUTELY NO PART. Our works do not secure salvation in any way to any degree. Our works do not help us to maintain our salvation in any way to any degree. Our works do not make us fit for heaven or deserving of heaven in any way to any degree. The atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ is the only ground of salvation, from regeneration to final glory. Our good works flow from a heart that has been given faith, and our good works are the response of a heart that loves the God who has saved us based on the work of Christ alone.
All God's people do have good works, no exceptions. It is not because the works form any part of the basis of our salvation, but it is because we are God's "workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God before prepared that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). A heart that has been created to love God will do good works from that love. Let us who love God be diligent to show that love and to evidence our faith by our works. Amen.