Faith and Works
The basic issue
In the closing portion of chapter two, James continues with his attack on empty religion. As throughout his epistle, he is firm and uncompromising in his estimate of any nominal believer whose life is devoid of good works. He says bluntly, "But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?" (v. 20).
To comprehend the full force of this question, let us examine the whole passage verse-by-verse.
James begins with a searching rhetorical question, clearly demanding a "no" answer. Faith without works cannot save a man. Therefore, right at the outset James raises the possibility that a man who claims to have faith may not be saved.
He then shows a kind of faith that is unprofitable. He imagines a scene where two believers meet. One is a brother or sister living in a poverty so severe that he lacks basic necessities. He is "naked," a term that might describe someone wearing only an undergarment, or having only rags to cover an undergarment. The poor brother is also hungry. The phrase "destitute of daily food" means that on the day the rich brother finds him, the poor brother has eaten nothing and has nothing to eat.
The rich brother is full of pompous compassion, effusive in showing concern, but heartless in withholding assistance. In a charade of Christian piety, he intones a blessing on his brother, wishing him peace when he really needs food, and commanding him to depart when he really needs to stay and receive help. And the rich brother covers up his callousness with a sweet voice such as he might use in inviting the poor brother to dinner. Someone nearby who caught his voice but not his meaning would never imagine that he was telling his poor brother to get lost. And to make his phony religion even more disgusting, he says, as if he were raising a prayer to God, that he hopes the poor brother’s needs will be met. In other words, he pretends to be a man of faith, confident that God will provide. It is as though he says, "I’m praying for you, brother." But he is merely making excuses. What help comes from good wishes? And what help comes from prayers rising out of a stingy heart? While posing as a good man, the rich brother does nothing at all to lift his poor brother from the trash heap of society. James is not impressed. He says the man’s faith is worthless.
Even worse, his faith is dead. The Greek word rendered "dead" means nothing else but dead. If the man has no living faith, then he has no faith at all. Therefore, he is not saved, for faith is the prerequisite for salvation.
Now James considers an objection. Someone says, "Thou hast faith, and I have works." In James’s mind, this objector is a third party seeking to mediate between James and the person who professes faith but lacks works (v. 14). James treats this person, the second party, as one of his readers. He is "one of you" (v. 16), so James calls him "thou." "I" is James himself. To clarify the third party's objection, we may therefore expand it as follows: "One of you (the man without works) has faith and the other (James) has works. Don’t argue between yourselves. You each have a strength—a form of spiritual excellence—that is good for the church. The church needs both a man of works and a man of faith." James’s reply, addressing the man whose life is devoid of works, is to challenge his claim to possess faith. Prove it, James says. The only way is to begin acting like a Christian. James continues by denying that he has works only. Far from it. He also has the only kind of real faith—a living faith manifest in works. By implication, he exhorts us all to acquire and demonstrate his kind of faith.
As he seeks to reach the hearts of hypocrites, James senses how they might dodge the cutting edge of the story about the rich brother who refuses to help a poor brother—the story James has just used to illustrate dead faith. The reader might protest that the rich brother was simply a hypocrite, mouthing words he did not believe. The reader might say, "That’s not me. My faith is not dead. I really believe in God and in God’s Word." Therefore, James continues by showing that a purely intellectual belief in God has no value. Even the devil and his angels, the demons, do not doubt God’s existence. Yet they are not saved. No man is saved just because he knows there is a God in heaven. A man whose belief is limited to intellectual assent may be entirely honest in his belief. But his belief is not saving faith.
Next follows James’s classic summation of the true relationship between faith and works. "But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?" The debate between Luther and the Catholic church at the time of the Reformation centered on whether salvation and justification are by faith or by works. Luther correctly taught that justification is by faith alone (sola fides). But he carried this principle so far that he could not comprehend such verses as James 2:20. He even proposed to remove the Epistle of James from the Bible. But in this verse James is not questioning that faith alone is the prerequisite for eternal life. He is merely giving us a definition of saving faith. It is a faith productive of works.
We see a parallel in marriage. Its foundation is love, but the love produces a changed life involving an ever faithful relationship between the spouses. If a man goes out two weeks after gaining one woman's assent to marriage and proposes to another, how would we describe his love for the first? It is dead, not the real thing. Just as love without faithfulness is dead, so faith without works is dead.
As an example of saving faith, James points to the faith of Abraham, which enabled him to obey God even at the price of sacrificing his own son. James is not teaching that Abraham was saved by works. Rather, he is saying that Abraham could not be justified without the kind of faith that produced obedience to God.
To clarify what kind of faith he means, James says, "Faith wrought with his works." That is, works are the outward manifestation and evidence of faith. "By works was faith made perfect." That is, works bring faith to perfection, or completion.
What does all this mean? A man is saved at the very instant when God puts genuine faith into his heart and he accepts Christ, even though observers cannot yet see any outward evidence of faith. The change is first inside him. But his new faith is not complete until he acts upon it. Suppose my friend says that he is coming to visit me. Perhaps he fully intends to do so. But his promise is not made complete and perfect until he actually comes. Likewise, faith is not made complete and perfect until it produces works. If it never produces works, it is dead.
Lest we misunderstand him and twist his words into the false teaching of works salvation, James hastens to affirm that justification is by faith alone. Abraham was justified not because he offered Isaac, but because he believed God. In particular, he believed God’s promise of an innumerable seed. From that step of belief came all the benefits of a relationship with God: first, imputed righteousness; then, to be reckoned as God’s friend. Without righteousness, no man can dwell with God. The righteousness Abraham received was not his own, but Christ’s, imputed to him as a free gift in response to his faith.
James’s main point in this passage is so important that he uses the device of repetition to make it as strong as possible. In this verse we find the fifth statement of the same principle (also in vv. 14, 17, 20, and 22). It will appear again in verse 26. In using more repetition than we find elsewhere in Scripture, with a few exceptions, James seems to be warning the church down through the ages not to tamper with his message. He presents it in six ways so there is no chance he will be misunderstood and no chance the awkward truth might be cast aside.
James gives yet another example of profitable faith, of the kind that leads to good works. He recalls Rahab’s protection of the two spies. The motive leading her to shelter them at great risk to herself was faith. She had decided to place her faith in the God of Israel. But her faith did not remain a hidden loyalty, without peril. Rather, at first opportunity, she expressed her faith by allying herself with the people of God. Thus, as James says, she was justified by works, in the sense that without her works she could not be regarded as having a real faith.
As his final observation on the crucial issue of how we gain salvation, James says again that faith must be properly defined. He reminds us that faith is not a true, living faith unless it is accompanied by works.
We must now insert a caution. The orthodox teaching that faith involves works is easily twisted into the heretical teaching that salvation depends partly on man’s own efforts. The corrective is Paul’s assertion in Ephesians 2:8-10. Four questions are answered in these verses.
- What does not save us? "Works" means works based on our own ability and motivation apart from divine grace.
- What does save us? The answer is etched plain. "We are saved by grace through faith."
- What accompanies faith? Paul agrees with James that true faith gives rise to works.
- Where do these works come from? The works issuing from salvation come from God. They are different from the self-generated works that many trust in for their salvation. In fact, a man cannot begin to perform truly good works until he is saved.