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A study in the second chapter of James

Without works your faith is dead!


Without faith you have no works!

One of the main biblical errors and a common denominator of cults is to teach that something other than Faith alone, is needed for salvation. This distortion takes the form of faith PLUS some activity or effort on the individuals part to have salvation.  What God has provided in Christ Jesus is complete and sufficient in and of itself so this teaching is a challenge to the Gospel.

The favorite passage that cults make a beeline to, which they believe supports the concept of grace plus” works”  is James 2:14-26   “..faith without works is dead.”  

Those who believe in works for salvation add one or more of these listed below…

(you fill in the blank with a. to m. from the list below)      

a. baptized for salvation  

b. become a disciple by giving up everything    

c. going door to door  

d. feed and help the poor

e. live by the laws of the church     

f. live by the 10 commandments – the Sabbath

g. baptized in the correct manner

h. live without sinning 

i. tithing 10%

j. must have miracles occur  

k. speak in another tongue

l. join their exclusive church or organization

m. drive without getting a ticket (only kidding).

There is their proof, that one needs to _______ .

Something else is always needed to have or to keep salvation. This concept can easily be refuted by dozens of clear passages that state just the opposite, but the challenge always is from James’ letter. So we need to go to the immediate context of James 2:14-26.

Before we do, a good rule in reading is to ask who, what, where, why, when (the 5 W's). This should clear up things that may be unclear and bring into focus the context of the writing.

When we read our Bible, have a paper and pen to take notes. Spend some time in the text instead of only reading it through. Think over what is being said (biblical meditation), be in prayer for the truth to be revealed. Your intention is to rightly divide the word and this takes time. Look at ALL the letter of James first to be familiar with the theme, then go to specific passages. Let it say what it means in its immediate context (and then compare it to other similar passages). Words need to be read carefully to come to the correct conclusion.

WHO is the AUTHOR? What do know about him from his letter? Is he mentioned elsewhere in scripture. What is his background from other letters. Is he an apostle or someone who knew an apostle?

WHAT is his reason or purpose for writing? What is he talking about? What is his theme, the major subject, or teaching. Every letter has an overall theme.

WHO are the recipients of the letter? What is he saying about them from this Epistle? Is it a church or a single person?

WHY is he saying this to these particular people? What are they thinking or doing or believing that that has prompted this letter to be written to them? Is there any biblical error in doctrine or practice that he wants to correct? Is he following up on a former letter? Is there new knowledge to be revealed to them? Is he speaking figuratively or literally?

WHEN was it written? What was taking place just before, or at the time the epistle was being written?  Where was the Author located when this was written? Was he there at one time? Or did he hear about the recipients from another, does he plan to return to them? Does he include himself with the people he is writing to, or is he not at all involved. Is he giving them new information or reminding them of what he formerly said (such as Paul in 2 Thessalonians). The difference can be important in determining what is taking place or what will occur in the future.

Are there key words or phrases? What words are used most often?  HOW does he use them and define them in the letter and in the passage? (the words Faith, Works and Dead) how is he applying it to their situation. Is it a contrast or a comparison?

Define what is the major point of the passage is first? What does he want them and YOU to know about his point and teaching? What is the Spirit of the text. Then after you understand the main point you can go into specific words.

It is a good habit to gather all the scriptures pertaining to this subject to help you arrive at your conclusion. Is there any other biblical support from other books for your interpretation of the passage. Do they arrive at the same conclusions? If not then you must go with the majority of evidence written on this particular subject.

Keep honest to the text and keep it in its immediate context. These are a few of the basic rules of Biblical interpretation (Hermeneutics).

Why do two people who can do the same study in the same scriptures come to different conclusions?  They do not follow the correct route of biblical interpretation to arrive at its conclusion. Because it may upset their already preconceived notion they have been taught they insert their own theological construct. Instead of yielding to the text and its plain literal meaning when they see it, they look for a way out of what it actually says.

Now lets look at the complete text in James before we concentrate on the area that is misinterpreted. We will find it to mean is nothing like the meaning the cults arrive at.

James 2:1-4 “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. 2. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, 3. and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” 4. have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

The immediate context of James is him addressing the practical Christian life. James is trying to correct the Church addressing how they act on their faith. They were being hypocrites showing partiality to the rich. The Church in Jerusalem was a very poor and persecuted church, those who converted to follow the Messiah often lost everything. This is the historical background for this epistle (1 Cor.16:1). So they gave preference to the rich men over the poor.

James 2:5-7 “Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? 7 Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?”

James is addressing their hypocrisy reminding them of who is making trouble for them

James 2:8-12 “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; 9. but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. 11. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.12. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.”

They did not keep the New Testament command of love (to god and man) but became transgressors of it. They have violated all the law vs.10 by not loving their neighbor as themselves.

Jesus taught,” 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' “This is the first and great commandment. “And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Mt. 22:37-40).

This is the royal law- Love God, love people.

Paul in Rom. 13:9-10 uses a similar construct as James -- For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

He ends with the same intent as Jesus, love fulfills the law.

Paul to the Galatian church instructs “through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:13-14).

Love is not just a feeling but an action toward another, it does have favorites.

To go back to James 2:8-9 “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

This is what is expected by believers, anything other than this has them acting sinfully.

James 2:13: “For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

They will receive no mercy because they show no mercy to those who are in need.

James 2:14: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?”

James gives us the key to the interpretation throughout. Can this kind of faith save him? What faith: the faith that does produce works when it is necessary to show love. As he later states the body without the spirit is dead, meaning it does not live, activity is missing.

Faith (their belief) does not help anyone if they do not act on it. You can't neglect your brethren around you and say you follow Christ (1 Jn.2:9-11; I Jn 3:17-18 “But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart 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 in truth”)

James is describing someone who only professes to have faith, nothing in his life is showing it is alive. They break the command to love your neighbor as yourself (continually). This is not the faith that saves.

James 2:15-16 “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16. and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?

Here James gives an example of their neglect for their brethren in the practical needs, saying bless you is not faith but hypocrisy. It profits neither the hearer or the one saying it.

This is putting into action Jesus' command recorded by John 13:34-35 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” This love that was to be moved to action was not. They saw their brother in need, and shut up their heart from him, not as a individual but as a church. Once we understand the problem we can make sense of James’ statements about faith and works.

Now we get to the controversial passage

James 2:17-18: “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.18. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

Faith that is not accompanied by works when the opportunity to show the love of Christ is not living faith. It is sterile. “if it keep on not having works”(from Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament). Its not that one fails to react right once, but continually.

It is not an either or of having faith or works. James challenges them to show him their faith without works. It's impossible because only God can see the heart, so he challenges them by giving himself as an example. “I will show you my faith by my works.” James is not asking to do something for their salvation but to show their faith for the brethren that is suffering.

Going back to the first part of James 2:17 The literal translation “So indeed-faith, if it has no works, dead is itself.” Vincent (1, p.744) “In itself.” Expositors Greek testament: ( IV, p.444) “ In its very essence, dead.” A.T. Robertson: (VI, p. 35) “In and of itself inwardly and outwardly dead.”

James is explaining what kind of faith results from salvation. If it is true faith it is alive. All works are acts of faith which one must possess beforehand. This is clearly understood,”God does not need to see the works because he has already justified us by our faith in Christ (Rom.8:33).” (New Commentary on the whole Bible Jamieson, Fausset and Brown on James 2:14-18)

He's not saying we're saved by or kept by faith plus works. This would make ones works a savior WITH Christ who died for our sin. There is only one savior, that is the person of Christ and His work was done by the crucifixion. James is pointing out what kind of faith is actually saving faith. If they possess it, they should show it.

V.19 “you believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that – and tremble with fear.”

God exists. (there is one God) is known even by those who oppose him but they do not have a living belief or trust in God.

He goes on in vs.21: “Was not Abraham, our father, justified by works when he offered Isaac, his son, on the altar?”

James quotes Gen.15:6 to continue in proving his point that Abraham had works with his faith. The evidence of possessing faith is works but these works are not the grounds for or the cause of our justification.

This is the same passage Paul quotes in Rom. 4:3 to show that Abraham's faith preceded his circumcision and was the basis of his justification. Both James and Paul are right, each illustrate a different point.

James 2:21:”They use the same words, but they are talking of different acts. James points to the offering anenengkas (NT:393) second aorist-with first aorist ending-active participle of anaferoo (NT:393) of Isaac on the altar (Gen 22:16 f) as proof of the faith that Abraham already had. Paul discusses Abraham's faith as the basis of his justification, that and not his circumcision. There is no contradiction at all between James and Paul” (from Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament).

In what sense was he justified, since he was already pronounced right before God years prior to this? James is saying, in contrast to Paul, that God was able to see that Abraham was righteous, he already he imputed it to him. But until Abraham lifted his knife over Isaac in obedience, he demonstrated physically his trust in God.

Paul states in Rom. 4:2 “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say?” This is a good question, let’s look at the answer. Rom.4:3-5: “Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”

The bible does not conflict itself on such a crucial teaching. So whatever wrong conclusion those have come to by this one passage in James must be explained elsewhere: and it is.

If we go to Gen. 4:10, we find that Abraham was justified before he obeyed God and was circumcised. This all occurred before his son Isaac was born, so he had the righteousness imputed from God by faith only. So the justification, his “justified by works when he offered Isaac, his son, on the altar?” has to be a different justification, not for salvation. The answer is in v.22 “by works faith was made perfect?”

Perfect – Gr- teleioo-1) to make perfect, to complete; to carry through completely, to accomplish, to finish, to bring to an end 2) to complete (perfect).

“Was made perfect eteleioothee (NT:4993). First aorist passive indicative of teleiooo (NT:4993), to carry to the end, to complete like love in 1 John 4:18” (from Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament)

In other words by being able to obey this ultimate command to bring his only son to be the sacrifice he proved how mature his faith had become. He carried out the command by his faith.

Then James poses the question James 2:22: “Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?

His work proved what he had possessed all along. You need to have faith first to have any works approved by God. This is what James is concerned with in the church. Show your faith by your works.

If James meant that Abraham was justified by his works he would have a conflict with Paul who extensibly writes on this subject through Romans, Ephesians, Galatians and mentions it elsewhere numerous times. That we are completely justified and sanctified by faith alone in Christ.

James is not suggesting that we are saved by works or else he would be contradicting dozens of other passages in the Bible which unequivocally states the opposite. “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight” (Rom. 3:20).

James 2:23-24: And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.”

Paul and James are discussing two different concerns. Looking more carefully this so-called conflict is resolved. Paul is discussing theologically how a sinner is considered righteous before God. James is concerned with what kind of faith results in salvation, since he is addressing a particular problem that has arisen in the Jerusalem church. Paul speaks of a person being justified before God, James speaks of our faith being proved. James is saying - show me what you believe by what you do. If they (the Church in Jerusalem) was not moved to do good, to show compassion when necessary, then whether they were living out the life of Christ that was suppose to be instilled in them was in question. One’s works of love declares life, they are an outward manifestation of the reality of faith, which is not visible to men, because it resides inside. Spiritually speaking, faith is alive first, then proceeds the good works in Christ, showing what is invisible on the inside in an outward fashion.

James 2:25-26: “Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”

Works demonstrate what is ALIVE ON THE INSIDE. Ones works declare and manifest outwardly the reality of faith which is not visible. Only God can see inside to the heart, man can only see the outside. The fruit that a tree bears shows that it is alive, healthy and productive. The fruit of a tree is not what makes the tree alive, but its the inner nature. Faith is alive first for the good works to proceed, showing what is invisible on the inside outwardly to all.

The Bible does not condemn faith alone, but a faith that is dead, an empty profession. Good works and obedience demonstrate our faith to the people around us. Biblical faith is active alive, vital, possessive not passive, objective not subjective. While it is faith alone that saves it is always accompanied by works proving it is a living faith.

Our faith is alive before any other work, it does not become more alive later. Faith is the active principle in every aspect of the Christian life.

Other Biblical support

Now if we go to find other biblical support, other clear passages that prove James is not saying works save.

Eph. 2:8-10 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,  not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”  

If works are what saves then we are doing good works to be created in Christ Jesus. This is the very opposite of what the text states. We have already been created in Him (through faith) to do the good works.

This is the point that James is trying to emphasize, we show our faith by our deeds to our fellow man. This is true faith. Just as Jesus said to do your works before man that they may glorify your father in heaven.

We are saved by faith alone but it is not alone - it is accompanied by works. Our works have no merit before God for salvation, however, we are created in Christ to do good works. We are doing good works because we are already “in Christ.” We are new creations, so what follows is the fruit of the Spirit occurring sometime in a Christian’s life. Naturally speaking, some trees take longer to produce fruit than other trees, but a good tree will always yield some good fruit (30/60/100 fold).

Titus 3:5” Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us.”

Over and over the Bible makes the point there is nothing in man or anything man can do to inherit salvation. Its origin is found in God who saved us.

Again Rom.4:4 “Now to him that works the wages are not counted as grace, but as debt. 5: But to him that works not, but believes on him that justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”

Paul further states in Rom.11:6 “And if by grace then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. but if it is by works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.”

It is either one or the other it can't be both.

Rom.3:24: “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:

Rom 5:1: “Therefore having been justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”This is in the past tense.

Rom.5:9: “We are justified by his blood.” Not our works.

Gal.5:4 “ You who would be justified by the law (obedience and works) you have fallen away from grace.”

Phil. 3:9: “ And be found in him, not having my own righteousness, which is of the law (by works), but that through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.”

Gal. 3:22: “that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” Not to those who work but have faith.

The Savior is a person; it is His work that one must believe in order to be justified (legally declared righteous before God, which results in receiving the Spirit of life).

We are NOT justified before God from the works WE DO, God requires faith.

 Rom. 5:1-3: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”


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