(Jas. 2:14-26) Is salvation by faith or works?

CLAIM: Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, and he explains that this passage about Abraham explains faith alone (Gal. 3:6). But James quotes Genesis 15:6, and he concludes that this supports faith and works (Jas. 2:23). Roman Catholic apologists Kreeft and Tacelli write, “The Protestant doctrine of sola fide, salvation by faith alone, is not taught in Scripture. In fact, it is explicitly contradicted in Scripture. James 2:24 says that ‘a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.’”[1] To their credit, James does write, “A man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24). Does this passage contradict justification by faith alone?

RESPONSE: The Bible repeatedly refers to salvation as being by grace through faith—apart from works. Paul writes, “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28). He writes to the Galatians, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Gal. 2:21). Elsewhere he writes, “By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).

James’ statement can be harmonized when we realize that James is speaking to an entirely different situation than Paul. Douglas Moo writes, “The appearance of a conflict is created because they give two key words, ‘faith’ and ‘justify’, different meanings and because their arguments are advanced against different errors.”[2] A number of observations can be made in this regard:

First, James is speaking to licentious and greedy believers—not legalists. Throughout his epistle, James writes to licentious Christians, and he sought to emphasize good deeds for the poor and needy (Jas. 1:27; 2:15-16; 4:4; 5:1-6). Paul, on the other hand, wrote to legalistic Christians in his epistle to the Galatians (Gal. 2:16; 3:2; 5:1-4).

Second, James is writing about justification before MEN—not before GOD. James writes, “You see that faith was working with his works…” (Jas. 2:22), and later writes, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24). James is emphasizing how believers can recognize someone’s faith (“You see…”). While God knows the heart (1 Chron. 28:9; Ps. 44:21; Jer. 17:9-10; Heb. 4:13), we can’t always see if someone has faith. One of the best ways to ascertain someone’s faith is to look at their deeds, as the rest of the NT authors affirm (Titus 1:16; 3 Jn. 10). Of course, good deeds do not cause someone to be a true believer, but they can show if someone is a true believer.

While both Paul and James use the term “justified” (dikaioō), James uses it to demonstrate our righteous standing and Paul uses it for declaring our righteous standing. Jesus used “justify” (dikaioō) in this sense when he said, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Lk. 7:35; cf. Mt. 11:19; Lk. 16:15). While this is not the usual meaning,[3] it surely fits with the context of James 2.

Third, James focuses on the “use” of their faith (v.14, 16, 20). This doesn’t refer to salvation from hell, but sanctification and ministry on Earth. If they don’t combine faith with action, their faith will atrophy and die. Moreover, their faith will not have any impact on others. The term “use” in 2:14 is literally “profit” (ophelos; cf. Mt. 16:26; 1 Cor. 15:32). Moo comments, “Not only do the empty words of this ‘believer’ do no good for these others; they bring no spiritual ‘profit’ to himself either.”[4]

Fourth, James is confronting a lifeless or “dead” faith (v.17, 26). James doesn’t say that the believer is dead, but rather, that his faith is dead. If they refuse to act on their faith, their spiritual growth will come to a halt. This is similar to the burden of the letter, where James urges his readers to be “doers of the word” (Jas. 1:22).

Fifth, James was not reacting to Paul’s teaching, but those who were distorting Paul’s teaching. Paul affirmed the importance of good works in the life of the believer just as much as James (Eph. 2:10; Rom. 13:12; Eph. 5:11; Titus 1:16; 2:7, 14; 3:8). However, Paul’s opponents apparently twisted his teaching to argue that he was promoting sin and licentiousness (Rom. 3:8; 6:1-2), and James may have been writing to clear up this distortion—just as Paul himself did on many occasions. Of course, Paul agreed that faith should result in love for others: “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Therefore, James wasn’t arguing with Paul, but instead with those who were distorting Paul’s message.

Sixth, James’ reference to Abraham argues against the idea that we are justified by works. Abraham was originally justified by faith alone in Genesis 15:6 (“[Abraham] believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness”). However, some 20 years later, his faith was tested on Mount Moriah (Gen. 22:1). This wasn’t to justify Abraham, but to test and bless Abraham. In the context, the angel of the Lord told him, “Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you” (Gen. 22:16-17). Here, Abraham’s blessing was at stake—not his justification.

We can summarize the key differences in this way:

Is it Faith or Works?[5]

Paul’s Passage (Gal. 3:6-18)

James’ Passage (Jas. 2:14-26)

Justification before God

Justification before humans
The root of justification

The fruit of justification

Declaration of our righteousness in Christ

Demonstration of our righteousness in Christ
Justification by faith

Justification for works

Written to legalists

Written to licentious
Written to answer the question of how a believer is justified before God

Written to answer the question of how a believer can demonstrate or show his justification

Works are done to earn acceptance

Works are done as a result of acceptance

 

Exegesis of James 2:14-26

The focus of James 2 is the licentious believer who refuses to love others in practical ways. These licentious believers claimed to have a radical faith, but they were refusing to love others through good works. This is why James focuses on (1) the “uselessness” of their faith for others and (2) the “death” that this will cause for their spiritual growth.

(2:14) The Greek syntax demands a negative response: “Can that faith save him? No, it can’t!”[6]

What does James mean by “saved”? The term “save” (sōzō) has a broad semantic range. This list is not exhaustive, but it shows the different ways the term “save” (sōzō) is used in the NT:

“Saved” from spiritual death (Mt. 1:21; 19:25; Lk. 8:12; 13:23; 19:10; Jn. 3:17; Acts 2:21, 2:47; Acts 4:12; Acts 16:30-31; Rom. 5:9; 10:9; Eph. 2:8).

“Saved” from physical death (Mt. 8:25; 14:30; 24:22; 27:40; Mk. 3:4; Lk. 6:9; Acts 27:20, 31; Jude 5).

“Saved” from illness (Mt. 9:21; Mk. 5:23; 6:56; 10:52; Lk. 7:50; Acts 4:9; Jas. 5:15).

“Saved” from demon possession (Lk. 8:36).

“Saved” through the work of evangelism (1 Cor. 7:16; 9:22).

“Saved” referring to sanctification (1 Tim. 4:16).

Interpreters cannot merely assume that James has salvation from hell in mind in this passage. Rather, they need to make their case as to why they hold this view. James uses the term sōzō several times in his letter:

(Jas. 1:21) Putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.

(Jas. 2:14) What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?

(Jas. 4:12) There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?

(Jas. 5:15) The prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.

(Jas. 5:20) Let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

The last two usages of “save” (sōzō) surely refer to physical death. God is able to shorten a believer’s life due to sin like hypocrisy (Acts 5:5, 10), pride (Acts 12:22-23), or overall licentious living (1 Cor. 12:30).

The first use of “save” (sōzō) may also refer to physical life as well (Jas. 1:21). Hodges writes, “The Greek phrase found here (sōsai tas psychas hymōn) was in common use in the sense of ‘to save the life.’ It is used in both the Greek OT as well as in the NT in exactly that sense (see Gen 19:17; 32:30; 1 Sam 19:11; Jer 48:6; Mark 3:4//Luke 6:9).”[7] Hodges goes so far as to say that this phrase is never used of salvation from hell in the entire NT or the Septuagint. This would be a similar usage in James 5:20 (“He who turns a sinner from the error of his ways will save his soul [physical life] from death”). Remember, the context of James 1 is the “wisdom” of God (1:5). This concept fits with the wisdom literature of the Proverbs:

(Prov. 10:27) The fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be shortened.

(Prov. 11:19) He who is steadfast in righteousness will attain to life, and he who pursues evil will bring about his own death.

(Prov. 13:14) The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, to turn aside from the snares of death.

(Prov. 19:16) He who keeps the commandment keeps his soul, but he who is careless of conduct will die.

Hodges contends that James is addressing the subject of being saved from the physical consequences of sin (i.e. a shortened life). However, while that might be one connotation of the word, we feel that this is simply too restrictive. We see sanctification in view in this passage. The licentious believer’s faith has no “use” for himself or others, and it will eventually become “dead” if it isn’t already.

Is James referring to a certain kind of faith? Some interpreters argue that James has a certain kind of faith in mind (“Can that faith save him?”). However, the Greek text doesn’t make this distinction. While James uses the article before faith, he also uses the article consistently throughout the whole passage (2:17, 18, 20, 22, 26). In fact, James uses the same construction to refer to Abraham’s saving faith (v.22).

(2:15-16) James makes a comparison between the believer’s “useless” faith for his own life (“What use is it?” v.14), and the believer’s “useless” faith for someone else’s life (“What use is that?” v.16). Note the fact that the comparison between verse 14 and verse 16 is physical health—not spiritual health. That is, if verse 14 refers to eternal life, then why does James appeal to an example that deals with physical life in verse 16?

(2:17) Why does James use the term “dead” to describe faith? And what sort of death does he have in mind? The term “dead” does not modify the believer, but rather his faith. In our estimation, James is urging his readers to bolster their faith—not questioning whether they are true believers.

Some commentators argue that James is referring to physical death. Hodges writes, “Just as the idle words of some ungenerous believer cannot save his brother from death in the absence of life’s necessities, no more can a non-working faith save our lives from the death-dealing consequences of sin.”[8] If James is thinking purely in terms of wisdom literature (like the Proverbs), then this may very well be true.

However, we would argue that James is showing that this lifeless faith is “dead” in the sense that it doesn’t have a life-giving effect on the believer or anyone else. The key to James’ argument is to see him as admonishing the believers toward good works, rather than questioning their salvation. According to James, a faith without action will lead to a dead faith. This is similar to the argument he already made in James 1:22-25. Our faith will not be bolstered if we don’t put it into practice.

The objector (vv.18-19)

NT authors sometimes introduce a “literary foil” or objector to help make their point. Paul does this frequently throughout the book of Romans. Hodges writes, “Such alleged objectors were a common stock-in-trade for writers on morals in James’s day.”[9]

(2:18-19) Hodges takes verses 18-19 as entirely the words of James’ objector.[10] He offers several reasons why:

(1) The punctuation marks of our English translations are not in the Greek manuscript, but are the inferences of translators.

(2) Different translations end the quotations marks at different places. NASB contains all of verse 18 as the quote of the objector, while most other translations (e.g. ESV, NIV, NRSV, NLT, NKJV, NET) only take the first sentence to be the quote of the objector.

(3) There is a unity of thought in verses 18-19 that is best explained by a single voice from the objector.

(4) James’ interjection in verse 20 seems to be the most natural ending to the objector, because he is directly replying to him (“But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow?”). We see a similar use of this diatribe format in Romans 9:19-20, 1 Cor. 15:35-36, and the non-biblical book of 4 Maccabees 2:24-3:1.

If this entire section is from the perspective of an objector, then what is the objector’s objection? If all of verses 18-19 are from the objector, then this person is arguing that it is impossible to demonstrate one’s faith to another person—even through works.[11] To argue his point, the objector points to the examples of demons. They believe that there is one God (as do believers), but the result of good works does not follow from this. The objector is arguing that we cannot view works as a way to demonstrate our faith. This is really the tack that many licentious Christians take when being challenged to love others sacrificially. They frequently say, “I do have a strong faith! How can you see my heart? Who are you to judge me?”

James’ reply to the objection

Of course, James denies this objection. From verses 20-23, James uses the singular pronoun to address his objector (“you”). Only in verse 24 does he return to the plural pronoun to address all of his readers again (“you [people]”). So how does James refute the objection of verses 18-19?

(2:20) James calls this objection “foolish.” He argues that we can see someone’s faith through their works. He opens by asking if the objector is willing to recognize that a faith without works is “useless” (argos). This Greek term relates to “power.” It means “unemployed, idle” or “unwilling to work” or “unproductive, useless, worthless” (BDAG).

The subject of this discussion is not God’s justification of humans, but our ability to see if people are justified. How does James demonstrate how we can see if people are justified from a human perspective?

Example #1: Abraham

(2:21) James argues that we can show if our faith is genuine by appealing to works. He cites Abraham as a key example.

Similarly, Paul agrees that Abraham could be “justified” before men through his works. He writes, “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (Rom. 4:2). Paul doesn’t deny that Abraham could be justified before men, even if he does deny that Abraham could be justified before God. In fact, Paul uses the first-class conditional clause to assume the first premise in his argument.[12]

Abraham’s “trial” or “testing” by God justified him to humans. Similarly, the message of James is that believers are also under a “trial” or “testing” by God (Jas. 1:2-3).

(2:22) Faith and works complement one another. Our works (i.e. being a “doer of the word,” Jas. 1:22) leads to a “perfected” faith. This term “perfected” (eteleiōthē) is the same root word used earlier to refer to a believer who had passed a trial: “perfect and complete” (Jas. 1:4; teleios). Abraham’s faith was matured or grown through this trial—just as James promised for his readers (cf. Rom. 4:19-21; Heb. 11:17-19).

(2:23) “Fulfilled” (eplērōthē) carries the meaning of being “filled full.” Abraham’s original justification of Genesis 15:6 was later “filled full” to perfection at this event. Abraham’s success at this trial vindicated or justified his faith, showing that his earlier justification was real.

Abraham was shown to be God’s friend at this event. This language of being a “friend” of God is later picked up in James 4:4 (“Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God?”).

(2:24) Again, the justification James has in mind does not refer to being justified before God, but before men.

Example #2: Rahab

(2:25) If we take this passage to refer to justification before God, then this would exclude faith altogether! James makes no mention of faith here at all.

What did Rahab do to be justified before men? She saved their lives. This is the very issue James is addressing throughout the letter (Jas. 1:21; 2:14; 5:19-20). Moreover, Rahab’s physical life was saved because of this act of faith (Heb. 11:31).

Conclusion

(2:26) If we don’t have works, our faith will atrophy and become “useless.” This fits with the overall theme of James that we should be “doers of the word” (Jas. 1:22) in order to build and mature our faith (Jas. 1:4).

[1] Kreeft, Peter, and Ronald K. Tacelli. Handbook of Catholic Apologetics: Reasoned Answers to Questions of Faith. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2009. 453.

[2] Moo, D. J. (1985). James: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 16, p. 103). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[3] Moo doesn’t hold to this interpretation because of the dominant use of dikaioō in the NT and LXX referring to a legal verdict. Moo, D. J. (1985). James: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 16, p. 113). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[4] Moo, D. J. (1985). James: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 16, pp. 106–107). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[5] This chart was adapted from Geisler, Norman L., and Thomas A. Howe. When Critics Ask: a Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1992. 528.

[6] Hodges, Z. C., Farstad, A. L., & Wilkin, R. N. (1994). The Epistle of James: proven character through testing (p. 60). Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society.

[7] Hodges, Z. C., Farstad, A. L., & Wilkin, R. N. (1994). The Epistle of James: proven character through testing (p. 41). Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society.

[8] Hodges, Z. C., Farstad, A. L., & Wilkin, R. N. (1994). The Epistle of James: proven character through testing (p. 62). Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society.

[9] Hodges, Z. C., Farstad, A. L., & Wilkin, R. N. (1994). The Epistle of James: proven character through testing (p. 64). Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society.

[10] Hodges, Z. C., Farstad, A. L., & Wilkin, R. N. (1994). The Epistle of James: proven character through testing (pp. 64–65). Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society.

[11] Hodges, Z. C., Farstad, A. L., & Wilkin, R. N. (1994). The Epistle of James: proven character through testing (p. 66). Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society.

[12] We recognize first-class conditional clauses by the helping word “if” (Greek ei) followed by a main verb in the indicative mood (in any tense).