Read the Passage: James 2:14-26
James’ use of the phrase “my brethren” (Jas. 2:14) indicates he is beginning a new section of his letter (cf. Jas. 1:2; 2:1, 14; 3:1, 10, 12; 5:12, 19). In this present passage James begins by asking two rhetorical questions, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can [that] faith save him?” In Jas. 2:14–17 James’ answer to both of these questions is that an undemonstrable faith cannot save anyone, for it is no faith at all. Note the following observations about this passage. First, in this text James is not implying that works are a prerequisite for salvation. Rather, he is teaching that works are the necessary result of salvation. Recall that earlier James had taught, “Of God’s own will He brought us forth by the Word of truth” (Jas. 1:18). Second, keep in mind that when James, or any other biblical author, speaks of faith, he is not referring to sincere irrationality, but to an active and educated belief—that is, to trusting in God’s revealed grace (cf. Heb. 11:1).
In Jas. 2:15–17 James illustrates the kind of works in which followers of Christ ought to be engaged. James writes, “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? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Jas. 2:15–17). Note that in the previous chapter James explains true religion in terms of “visiting orphans and widows in their trouble” (Jas. 1:27). In the Gospels, Jesus taught the same general truth in Matt. 25:31–40. It is interesting to note that while Scripture repeatedly defines a working faith in terms of good works—like helping the poor, needy, and socially marginalized—many contemporary Christians define working faith in terms of personal holiness and one’s own spiritual habits.
In James 2:18–20 James anticipates an objection that some of his readers were likely to raise concerning his teaching that faith without works is dead. This objection, simply put, is that some will say that works and faith are both acceptable—that is, either one can be emphasized, possessed apart from the other, and a means of salvation. By way of response, James challenges his opponents to demonstrate their faith apart from their works. Of course, this cannot be done; nor can authentic religious works—as James has defined true religion (cf. Jas. 1:27; 2:16)—be engaged in without faith. James’ key point here is that faith and works are not independent, but rather they are inter-dependent, for “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7). True faith, then, is always accompanied by authentic works and vice-versa. Note Paul’s later teaching, “For not the hearers of the law are justified in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13; 3:28).
In Jas. 2:21–26 James gives several illustrations related to his teaching that faith without works is dead. James’ first illustration relates to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, as is recorded in Gen. 22:1–19. James writes, “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 was made perfect?” (Jas. 2:21–22). The term “perfect” used here means “to make full,” “to validate,” or “to complete.” James’ point, then, is that God declared Abraham righteous by faith (cf. Gen. 15:6) and the reality of this faith was demonstrated by the patriarch’s willingness to sacrifice his only son Isaac at God’s command (cf. Heb. 11:17–19). Note that Paul would later cite Gen. 15:6 to argue the truth that Abraham was saved by faith, not by his works isolated from faith (cf. Rom. 4:1–5; Gal. 3:6).
In Jas. 2:25–26 James gives two brief concluding illustrations about the connection between faith and works. First, James cites the Old Testament example of Rahab as he writes, “Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” (Jas. 2:25; cf. Josh 2:11; Heb. 11:31). James’ point is that the authenticity of Rahab’s faith is evidenced by her willingness to protect the Jewish spies, even at the risk of her own life. James’ final illustration is the body. This example could apply to the human person or to the church, which is the Body of Christ. Either way, the principle is the same—that is, a body (which represents works) needs a spirit (which represents faith) in order to function. A body without a spirit is dead, and a spirit without a body is unclothed (cf. 2 Cor. 5:4). Similarly, faith and works together constitutes a living body.
- Why do you think this passage—specifically James 2:14–17—has caused so much misunderstanding and debate throughout church history?
- What kind of works are evidence of saving faith? How does the gospel relate to or shape the type of good works in which Christians ought to engage?
- How do the twin teachings that works without faith are dead (cf. Isa. 64:6), and faith without works is dead (cf. Jas. 2:17), relate to one another?
- How does Jesus’ parable of the soils (cf. Luke 8:4–15) relate to James’ teaching here? Which of Jesus’ four categories of soils represents redeemed individuals?
- How can James’ teaching on the connection between faith and works be used to comfort someone struggling with assurance of their salvation?