“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 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? 17 So 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 apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:14-26 ESV).
Faith without works is useless and dead; it profits its professor nothing.
The context in which you read this sentence determines how you receive it, doesn’t it? If you read it in a Catholic theological treatise, you would reject it. But how about if it appeared in inspired Scripture?
And it does appear in inspired Scripture: right here in James 2:14-26! So we must deal with this passage, and not ignore it.
When we interpret this thorny passage, we must hold tightly to the doctrine of inerrancy the whole time. The fact that Scripture is entirely without error means that James does not contradict Paul, even in the tiniest statement! If you think he does, you cannot profit from this passage, as the foundation of your faith in God is rotten and in danger of collapsing.
Because Scripture is inerrant, we must interpret James in such a way so as not to contradict Paul, and we must interpret Paul in such a way so as not to contradict James. Both men’s canonical writings are entirely without error, and complement rather than contradict each other.
This passage can be divided into two halves, both of which make the same basic point. You can see this point, this obvious theme of James, in the main point of both halves: in verse 17a-b, and in verses 20 and 26.
The first main point, when balanced by its negative counterpart in 18-19, is this: "Faith cannot be proved without works; rather, faith does no good to its professor without works. The second main point, a combination of the two inferences supported by verses 21-25, is this: “Faith without works is useless and dead, because both Abraham and Rahab were justified by works along with their faith.”
In this brief post, I just want to point out two interpretational keys, and then hopefully we can have a good discussion!
First, James’s introductory question is important: If someone says he has faith, yet has no works, “can that faith save him?” This question reveals what it means for faith to be “useless” and “dead”: such faith cannot accomplish what it is meant to do—that is, “save” someone (14d). There is a kind of faith that saves, and a kind of “faith” that saves no-one. (The apostle John made use of this distinction as well: see John 8:31 and 44, where Jesus told “the Jews who had believed him,” “You are of your father the devil.”)
Secondly, verse 18 reveals the problem James is dealing with. He is not trying to rebuke people who say, “Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.” How do we know this? Because in verse 18, James’s imaginary interlocutor is saying, “Faith and works can be separated, so that someone has genuine, saving faith without works.” But James replies that saving faith is demonstrated by works. So the false belief James is combating in this entire passage is that you can have genuine faith without displaying any outward change in your actions—“works,” in other words.
And notice what James is not saying here: “You need to add works to faith in order to be saved.” No; as commentator Doug Moo points out, “His point… is that genuine biblical faith will inevitably be characterized by works” (Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2000), 120, emphasis mine).
If we miss this, we might err in thinking that James is saying that faith and works are separate requirements for salvation, as if he is saying that the salvation equation is “faith + works = salvation.” But what he is saying is that true faith cannot exist apart from works; true faith is demonstrated, shown, proved, by works. Faith and works are not separately existing realities, both of which must be present for salvation; no, works are a necessary component of faith if it is to be called “saving” faith.