Exposition of James 2:14-26
A multitude of texts establish that salvation must manifest itself in good works.
Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
2 Corinthians 5:17
A genuine convert becomes a new creature, willing and able to do the good works that God appointed for him before the foundation of the world. Moreover, he does them how? Zealously. He does them with an eager heart, without coercion, and he draws pleasure from doing them well.
The book of James is harsh and uncompromising in its estimate of any nominal believer whose life is devoid of good works.
But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
Let us study the whole context of this verse, beginning with verse 14 preceding.
The searching question
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
Here, James raises the possibility that a man who claims to have faith may not be saved.
The emptiness of mere sentiment or belief
15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
An unsaved man who claims to have faith may be entirely honest in his profession. He may really believe in the God of the Bible. But intellectual assent to certain doctrines does not mean that he is saved.
The vanity of faith without 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 Book of James from the Bible. But in this verse James is not disputing 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.
The faith of Abraham
Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
James is not teaching that salvation is by works. Rather, he is saying that Abraham could not be justified without the kind of faith that produced obedience to God.
Faith made perfect
Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
"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.
Justification by faith alone
And the Scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.
Here, James forthrightly concurs that faith is the only prerequisite for justification.
24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?
26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
But he 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 generates works is easily twisted into the heretical teaching that salvation depends partly on man's own efforts. The corrective is Paul's assertion,
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.
10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
Four questions are answered in these verses.
- What does not save us? We are not saved by "works."
- 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.
Reply to Zane Hodges
The boldest easy-believist attack on the traditional interpretation of James 2:14-26 has been launched by Zane Hodges in his book The Gospel under Siege.
In his exposition of verses 14-16 of this passage, Hodges takes the teaching of James at face value and admits that the answer demanded by the rhetorical question in verse 14 is, no. Faith without works cannot save a man. But he denies that "save" means "save from eternal condemnation." Rather, in his view, it means "save from a premature physical death" (1).
Further, in regard to verse 17, Hodges admits that faith without works is dead. But dead in what sense? He argues again that, in James's mind, the peril in faith without works is premature physical death (2). The proof, supposedly, is that elsewhere he gives death as a consequence of sin (James 1:15; 5:20) and he sees forgiveness of sins as the cure for those who are sick (James 5:14-15) (3). Hodges's adventurous reinterpretation of the teaching of James is, of course, nothing but dangerous folly. In James 1:15 and James 5:20, the author is referring to spiritual death, as are the texts in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament that depict sin as the way of death (Prov. 11:19, for instance). James sees a workless faith not as something that might hasten future death, but as something presently dead. Faith without works is dead. To construe James 2:14-26 as advice for prolonging temporal life is absurd in light of the author's pensive warning,
. . . For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.
Hodges's treatment of James 2:18-19 is especially peculiar. In verse 18, the KJV as well as modern translations depart from the Received and Majority Texts, which say,
. . . Show me thy faith from thy works, and I will show thee from my works my faith.
Hodges assigns both verses to the objector whose words follow the introductory phrase, "A man may say." What point is the objector trying to make? According to Hodges, the objector, defensive about his own lack of works, wishes to argue that faith and works have nothing to do with each other, and so he says: "I have works and somebody else has faith. Just as it is impossible for the other person to show me his works by his faith, so it is impossible for me to show my faith by my works. Faith may or may not (as in the case of demons) be accompanied by works" (4).
This reading is full of self-contradictions.
- Why does the objector assign works to himself and faith to another? The objector is presumably among those who lack works to complement faith.
- The latter part of verse 19 does not ask the other person ("thou") to show works by his faith. It asks him to show faith "from" his works.
- If the objector wishes to excuse deficiencies in his life, he presumably wants us to believe that high-quality faith can exist apart from works. Why, then, does he choose demons to illustrate a workless faith?
- If verse 19 belongs to the objector, why does James bother to include the words, "Thou doest well"? Is he taking pains to show the objector as gracious in his treatment of other people? No, the words are clearly the expression of his own pastoral solicitude for anyone who might be in the position of the person called "thou."
In summary, Hodges's interpretation of these verses is ridiculous. The words of the objector are confined to, "Thou hast faith, and I have works." The objector is a third party seeking to mediate between James and the complacent Christian to whom James is writing. The third party says, "One of you ['thou,' the complacent Christian] has faith and the other ['I,' James himself] has works. Don't argue between yourselves. You each have a strength that the church needs." James's reply is to exhort one and all, himself included, to seek a living faith, a faith manifest in works. He goes on to say that a faith devoid of works is like the purely intellectual belief in God which even the demons possess.
By assigning verse 19 to the objector, Hodges, in effect, throws this verse—the verse saying that demons tremble—out of the compass of inspired truth. Is not this procedure a giveaway that Hodges is letting himself be misled by demonic influence?
In his discussion of verses 21-25, Hodges does not deny that Abraham and Rahab were justified by works. But he contends, on the basis of legerdemain in his handling of the Greek, that there are two kinds of justification. Supposedly, James is speaking here not of justification before God, but of justification before man—he is saying only that the good works of Abraham and Rahab earned them repute as the friends of God (5). Two replies are sufficient.
- The case for two kinds of justification is a tissue of arbitrary readings that do not merit consideration.
- Hodges's treatment of the whole passage including these verses replaces one lofty theme—what must I do to be saved?—with two themes that, in comparison, can only be described as inane: namely, what must I do to add a few years to my life, and what must I do to earn the admiration of men?
Not only in his discussion of James 2:14-26, but also throughout The Gospel under Siege, Grace in Eclipse, and other works, Hodges is wrong both in his methods and in his conclusions. Wherever he dislikes the plain meaning of Scripture, he finds a way of either setting the text aside or radically reinterpreting it. Often, he removes the question beyond the judgment of the reader by appealing to nuances in the Greek—nuances generally held by scholars to be insignificant or nonexistent.
- Hodges trivializes and falsifies a number of texts (James 1:21-22; 5:19-20; Rom. 8:13; Prov. 11:19; 13:14; 19:16; incredibly, even Heb. 10:38-39) by claiming that they promise the righteous a longer earthly life rather than life hereafter (6). Thus, he reduces the Bible to the level of a somewhat unreliable medical handbook.
- He denies definitely and persistently that works are either a grounds for assurance of salvation or an evidence of salvation (7).
- On the basis of an arbitrary repunctuation of Romans 8:16-17, he finds two kinds of believers—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. He says that the former receive the common inheritance of all who believe, whereas the latter receive a special inheritance reserved for those who have shared Christ's sufferings (8).
- He denies that the Wedding Supper of the Lamb will be a literal event (9). In his exposition of the Parable of the Wedding Supper (Matt. 22:2-14), he denies that the place of outer darkness, where "there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth," is hell. He says rather that it is merely a place of temporary exclusion from the joys of heaven (10). This sort of fanciful exegesis goes on and on.
The soteriology promoted by Zane Hodges deserves to be called heresy. By denying that works are the inevitable outcome of faith, he does threefold harm to the cause of Christ.
- He sets a stumbling block before all those professing Christians who are unfruitful and ungodly. He gives them a false security and hinders them from discovering that they are not truly saved.
- He makes Christianity more attractive to the frivolous and rebellious, with the result that churches become crowded with the unregenerate.
- He removes from true believers—especially from the "carnal"—an incentive to live righteously according to Scripture.