James 2:14-26.
The True Work of Faith

Copyright 2009, American Journal of Biblical Theology
www.biblicaltheology.com   Scripture quotes from KJV

By the time we arrive at this point in James' letter to the church, he has been making it very clear that there is evidence of true faith in the life of every believer.  Jesus said in the "Sermon on the Mount", that "A City on a hill cannot be hidden."  As the "light of the world," Christians are characterized by their love for one another and for the lost.  Such love expresses itself as a natural fruit of the Spirit.  When there is no such fruit in the life of one who claims to be a Christian, the integrity of that testimony comes into question.  It is this same argument that James is making as he describes the relationship between faith and works.

Some theologians over the years, as great as Martin Luther, misunderstood the context of James' use of "works," arguing that James emphasis on works is contradictory to Paul's assertion of salvation by faith alone.  However, one must understand that when applied to this argument, each author is referring to a different kind of work.  Paul, when he writes about works, is referring to works of the flesh ...  tasks that people accomplish in their own strength and purpose in order to attain a goal.  Works cannot serve to bring one salvation.  James fully agrees with this.  When James is referring to works, he is writing of works of the Spirit, the natural fruit of the Spirit that are borne by a Christian without thought of self-interest, but rather inspired by a love for others.  Again, when such fruit is absent, the validity of an individual's faith is called to question.

James 2:14.  What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? 

Like a good teacher, James starts his argument with a pair of questions.  The implication of his question, a point he will continue to defend, is that faith without works is not a saving faith.  James is literally asking, "This type of faith cannot save, can it?, expecting a negative answer.

We will see in this argument the contrast between faith and belief.  One can believe in Jesus and not have faith in Him.  Many people believe that Jesus existed, and may even believe that all of the content of scripture is true, and in that belief they think themselves Christians.  However, such belief does not have the power to save, as we will soon see.  A testimony that is based solely on belief is not a saving testimony, and the fruit of the Spirit will not be evident in this individual's life.

Is James implying that works have the power to save?  Then the last clause of this verse is taken out of context and the original language is ignored, it is possible to come to this conclusion.  How do we reconcile James and Paul on this issue?[1]  Paul refers to a different type of works.  To Paul, a work is an action following the law of Moses, by those who valued themselves highly on this basis alone.  James refers to an action which is prompted by God's love in your heart.  An action which must be restrained by worldliness to be held back.  They are part of the necessary effects and fruits of sound belief in and understanding of the gospel and God who gave it to us.  Paul illustrates the insufficiency of the works of the law while James shows the genuine and necessary works that are the product of true Christian faith.

Furthermore, Paul and James were addressing opposite problems.  Paul was addressing those who felt justified by their works under the Mosaic law and did not lean on a concept of faith in the Lord Jesus at all.  James was addressing those who felt justified by an incomplete concept of faith and did not, therefore, point to works as part of it.  Where the former Jews depended upon works of the law, the latter Jews depended upon belief.  Both are dramatic errors that result only in permanent separation from God.  When Paul addresses the faith/works function that James is considering his response is in total agreement.[2]

James 2:15.  If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,

Before answering his question, James gives an illustration.  Presented is an example of one making contact with another individual who is in need.  James uses two hyperboles "naked" and "destitute" to emphasize the dire need of the individual being referred to.  This is not someone who simply needs a coat, or a meal, but someone who is in drastic need.  How would you respond to meeting such an individual?

Few people have never experienced such a contact.  One cannot travel in any of the world's cities without encountering the poor and homeless who are begging for gifts of food, money, or other needs.  In James' example, however, he adds one other feature to the situation:  the one in need is a brother or sister, one who is close in relationship and not simply a stranger on the street.  How would you respond to such an individual?      

Our answer to that question reveals something of our nature.

James 2:16.  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? 

The phrase translated, "Depart in peace" is a common idiom, hypagete en irene, or "go in peace."  It is a common Hebrew farewell.  As a common idiom, it would be easily stated without any true thought or concern.  It is much like the English idiom, "How do you do?", asked as a polite gesture with no real desire for an answer.  In some areas of the US, the idiom has been reduced to a simple "Howdy" with few people even realizing what it means.  James is referring to a similar, almost meaningless, phrase.

"Be ye warmed ..." places the responsibility on the restoration of the destitute individual on themselves.  Modern English might be something like, "I hope that you find warmth and food." Yet, even still there is no true hope. 

We have a person in close relationship and in dire need, and the response of the person who claims to have faith is simply to state a few meaningless and powerless words, with no intent of providing assistance.  What has such a response proven?  What we find is that the person claiming faith has no love.  There is no fruit of compassion.  Christians will often reject the pleas of the homeless when a street confrontation takes place because of fears of personal safety.  Even when this takes place the Christian will feel some level of disappointment as the Holy Spirit convicts.  If this person were someone close, as James' example implies, there would be no such fear, and a Christian would step in and help without a second thought.  In this instance, the needs of the destitute individual are met, love is expressed, and a blessing is received by all involved.  That is quite a contrast to the vanity of the response of James' example.

James 2:17.  Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.

In the previous chapter, James was referring to dead religion, and now he exposes how such a dead religion produces a dead faith.  Many people profess faith.  Still, if one does a survey of the United States, the majority of the people will profess faith in God.  The majority of these will profess to be Christians.  However, many of those who profess Christianity have never actually placed their faith and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  It is not until such a profession of faith in Christ takes place does the Holy Spirit of God come and reside in one's heart.  It is not until then that the individual's life is characterized by true agape love.  Without true faith, there is no love, and there is no fruit of the Spirit.  James describes such a faith as a dead faith.  Death does not mean an end, but a separation.  A dead faith is one that is separated from a relationship with God, and is not the type of faith that saves.  One who claims to be a Christian but has not turned to Christ and appropriated His power in their lives stands separated from God, alone for eternity.

Often those Christians who have not turned to Christ as Savior and Lord are the most difficult to convince of their error.  They fully believe in Jesus, so they think they are fully saved from eternal separation from God, from hell.  James will shortly show the folly of this false faith.

James 2:18.  Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works.

James contrasts the fruit (or lack thereof) of these two types of faith.  As Jesus said, "A City on a hill cannot be hidden."[3]  James states this in a different and more personal way.  "If I have the love of Christ in me, just look at me and watch what I do."  We know true Christians by their love.[4]  If one claims to have faith, but does not have love, then the Spirit of Christ is not in them.  When we see the Spirit of Christ in the life of a Christian, we can know that they own true faith. 

The primary problem being addressed by James is the same problem keeping those who call themselves Christians from actually turning to Christ in saving faith.  Our Christian churches today are filled with sincere and caring people who believe in Jesus Christ, and believe that all that they have heard of Him from scripture is true.  It is that belief that they lean on when they call themselves "Christians".  However, the scripture never states, "Believe in Jesus and you will be saved."  Scripture always refers either to the "Name of Jesus" or the "Lord Jesus."  This dramatic error is pointed out in the next verse. 

James 2:19.  Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.

A faith based upon belief alone is a faith of the devils.  Believing there is a God, or even believing all that is in the scriptures is true does not distinguish us from the devil.  Satan knows that Jesus is Lord, the Son of God, that He is the Promised Messiah who was born of a virgin, was crucified, died, and rose again to sit at the "right hand" of the Father.  If Satan believes all this to be true, and you believe all this to be true, what is the difference between you and Satan?  The tragedy is that the demons tremble in fear of an eternity in hell, separated from the love of God, and those who exhibit a false faith do not.  Thinking that their false faith will save them, such folks see no need for change, and have no fear of a hell that they think they will avoid. 

Again, James is talking to those who call themselves Christians, but cannot be separated from Satan using this argument.  If one bases their Christianity on belief alone, one is no closer to God than Satan himself.  The difference has to do with what the individual does with that belief.  Salvation is not by belief, but by faith alone. 

What is faith?  I can believe that a chair will hold my weight, but I have not expressed faith until I sit in it.  Faith is putting belief into an action that makes us dependant upon the object of our belief.  Placing faith in Jesus Christ means that, upon believing what we have seen and heard, we will trust Jesus to be our Lord and Savior.  Just as we trust the chair to hold us, we trust in Jesus Christ as Lord.  If Jesus is your Lord, then, you will seek to be obedient to Him.  Such a concept is alien to one who has not made such a profession, but is the natural and easy response to those who have. 

James 2:20-21.  But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? 21Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?

The word translated "vain" is more accurately rendered "foolish" in modern English.  James refers to the one of false faith as being foolish:  presented with the truth and the facts but rejecting them because of pride and self-serving attitudes.  How much proof does one need?  Do you need another example?

Like other New Testament writers[5] James turns to the life of Abraham as an example of a man with true faith.  We find recorded in Genesis Abraham's offering of Isaac as a sacrifice as a response to God's simple command to do so.[6]  Often people misunderstand this incident and think that God truly wanted Abraham to think that he was to kill his own son.  However, Abraham's faith was in God's promises.  One such promise was that, through Isaac, there come a mighty nation of people.  If God was true to his promise, Isaac would not be killed.  God would find a way to save Isaac.  Abraham fully believed this, and though he certainly have had doubts that brought him much anguish, like all Christians do when they analyze their faith, Abraham went so far as to build the altar, place Isaac on it, and raise the knife.  Abraham's faith was not so much rewarded, as it was proven when God provided an alternate sacrifice, a spotless ram caught in a nearby thicket.  Abraham did not appropriate saving faith by keeping of the Mosaic law:  it was written about 400 years later.  Abraham simply put his full trust in God, and followed Him in obedience.  This is saving faith:  to put our full trust in God and follow Him in obedience.  Jesus becomes our Lord.  We take ourselves off of the throne of our lives and place God there.

James 2:22-23.  Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? 23And 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.

Why did Abraham go ahead with the sacrifice?  Obedience to God was a natural and normal response for him.  We can see the faith of Abraham by his love for God as demonstrated in the things he did.  Just as he had instructed that people look at his own life to see true faith, he shows how we can look at others, like Abraham, to see the same contrast between false and true faith.  By his actions, his faith was shown to be complete.

There were many other incidences in Abraham's life where he showed his consistent love for, and obedience to, God.  The life of a true Christian will show a similar consistency of love for God as demonstrated by obedience to Him.  This is what separates the belief of Satan from the faith of a true Christian. 

James 2:24.  Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

Taken out of context, this verse might appear contradictory to Paul's insistence on salvation by faith alone.  However, we are tripped up a little by the Greek grammar used in this phrase.  James had indicated that works are the completion of true faith (verse  22), and are a natural fruit of it.  Works are the evidence of saving faith, the evidence of justification.  Paul also expressed that good works are the fruit of true faith.[7]  James is not saying that works justifies.  However, a complete and perfect faith is made evident by good works that are based on the spontaneous expression of the agape love of God.

James 2:25.  Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?

James' second example is one of self-denial.  However, the individual is not respected for a life of righteousness, but rather this example is a woman, and she may be a prostitute.  Together, she would be very low on the social ladder, as opposed to Abraham how sits at the top of the Hebrew Social Food Chain..  This shows early of evidence how faith saves those who are low in our human eyes.  Note, however, we shouldn't push the harlot issue too hard since the word rendered prostitute can also be rendered "hostess".  This latter translation fits the context wherein she was running a public house in the city wall.  Upon hearing of Israel's God she believed in His presence and acted upon it to the risk of her own peril.

James 2:26.  For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

The best of works, without faith, are dead and are profitable for nothing in regards to God's will and work, and are no indicator of an individual's eternal state.  Any good work we do in faith is done with a focus on God and our true desire to do His will because His love in us prompts us to do it: Not simply because a book of law (printed or not) says so.  A dead faith is one that is not based upon an acceptance of the Lordship of Christ, and is characterized by the lack of the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the "believer."  Belief alone does not produce living faith, but rather an acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, a decision that results in a transformation which spontaneously generates the good works that James describes.

It may be profitable at this time to examine your own state.  Do you consider yourself a Christian because you believe in Jesus Christ?  Remember, Satan believes and shall be separated from God from eternity.  Since you believe, and Satan believes, what is the difference between you and Satan?  Satan refuses to accept the Lordship of Jesus, choosing to be his own authority.  Many Christians make this same mistake, refusing to turn to God through Jesus Christ.  Or is your acceptance of Jesus as Lord a partial acceptance, giving authority to Jesus Christ in some areas of your life and not others.  If this is the case, you have not accepted Jesus as Lord, because if He is not Lord of All, He is not Lord at all.  Jesus is either your Lord, or He is not.

If you have not accepted Jesus Christ as Lord of your life, your faith is dead.  Take a moment and correct this error for eternity through a simple prayer:  Acknowledge to God that you have sinned and have been rejecting His Lordship, sincerely ask for His Holy Spirit to help you to repent (turn back) from this sin, ask for His promised forgiveness, and commit your life to God through your newly found faith in Jesus Christ who is, indeed, your Savior and Lord.

If you are a Christian who seeks to live a life of obedience, are you hiding the light of God's love?[8]  If Jesus is Lord, than you will seek to be obedient to Him by letting your light shine.  God can give you the courage to express His love in your life.  Turn back to Him and watch your faith work.

[1] Romans 3:28.

[2]Gal 5:6, 1 Thes 1:3, Titus 3:8, 1 Cor 15:58, Phil 2:17, 2 Thes 1:11, Eph 4:11-13, Eph 2:8-10, Heb 6:10.  Observe also John 17:18 and Matt 25:35.

[3] Matthew 5:14.

[4] John 13:35.

[5] Romans 4 and Galatians 3:6, for example.

[6] Genesis 22:1-14.

[7] Ephesians 2:10.

[8] Matthew 5:14.


Carter, John W. (2001)  Faith Works!  The Apparent Controversy of Paul and James, American Journal of Biblical Theology 2(1). www.biblicaltheology.com 

Burdick, Donald W. (1981).  James.  Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 12.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House.  pp. 181-186.