James 2: 14-18 ESV
October 4, 2021
Jas 2:14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
Jas 2:15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,
Jas 2:16 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?
Jas 2:17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Jas 2:18 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.
These verses are perhaps the most controversial in James' Letter. Even such a great worthy of the church as Luther thought he saw an irreconcilable conflict between James' teaching on justification by works and Paul's insistence on justification by faith. These verses are commonly misused to support the heresy that we are saved by faith plus works, In other words, we must trust the Lord Jesus as our Savior, but that is not enough. We must also add to His redemptive work our own deeds of charity and devotion.
The section might actually be entitled “Justification by Works,” because there is a sense in which we are justified by works. In fact, in order to grasp the full truth of justification, we should clearly understand that there are six aspects of justification. We are justified by grace (Rom_3:24). This simply means that we do not deserve to be justified; in fact, we deserve the very opposite. We are justified by faith (Rom_5:1). Faith is the human response to God's grace. By faith, we accept the free gift. Faith is that which appropriates what God has done for us. We are justified by blood (Rom_5:9). Here blood is the price which had to be paid in order to obtain our justification. The debt of sin was met by the precious blood of Christ, and now God can justify ungodly sinners because a righteous satisfaction has been made. We are justified by God (Rom_8:33). The truth here is that God is the Person who justifies. We are justified by power (Rom_4:25). Our justification is linked to the power that raised Christ from the dead. His resurrection proves that God is satisfied. And we are justified by works (Jas_2:24). Works are the outward proof of the reality of our faith. They give outward expression to what would otherwise be invisible. From this we see that the person is justified by grace, by faith, by blood, by God, by power, and by works. Yet there is no contradiction at all. These statements simply present different aspects of the same truth. Grace is the principle upon which God justifies; faith is the means by which man receives it; blood is the price which the Savior had to pay; God is the active Agent in justification; power is the proof; and works are the result.
2:14 James insists that a faith that does not result in good works cannot save. There are two keys which greatly help in the understanding of this verse. First of all, James does not say “What does it profit ... though a man has faith ... .” Rather he says, What does it profit ... if someone says he has faith. In other words, it is not a question of a man who truly has faith, and yet is not saved. James is describing the man who has nothing but a profession of faith. He says he has faith, but there is nothing about his life that indicates it. The second helpful key is brought out in the NASB. There, the verse closes with the question “Can that faith save him?” In other words, can that kind of faith save? If it be asked what kind of faith James is referring to, the answer is found in the first part of the verse. He is speaking about a say-so faith that is not backed up by good works. Such a faith is worthless. It is all words, and nothing else because there is no substance to back it.
2:15, 16 The ineffectiveness of words without deeds is now illustrated. We are introduced to two people. One has neither adequate daily food nor clothing. The other has both, but is not willing to share them. Professing great generosity, the latter says to his poor brother, “Go and put on some clothing, and eat a good meal.” But he doesn't raise a little finger to make this possible. What good are such words? They are positively worthless! They neither satisfy the appetite nor provide warmth for the body.
2:17 Thus also faith by itself if it does not have works, is dead. A faith without works is not real faith at all. It is only a matter of words. James is not saying that we are saved by faith plus works. To hold such a view would be to dishonor the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. If we were saved by faith plus works, then there would be two saviors—Jesus and ourselves. But the NT is very clear that Christ is the one and only Savior. What James is emphasizing is that we are not saved by a faith of words only but by that kind of faith which results in a life of good works. In other words, works are not the root of salvation but the fruit; they are not the cause but the effect. Calvin put it tersely: “We are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.”
2:18 True faith and good works are inseparable. James shows this by giving us a snatch from a debate between two men. The first man, who is genuinely saved, is the speaker. The second professes to have faith, but he does not demonstrate that faith by good works. The first is heard delivering an unanswerable challenge to the other. We might paraphrase the conversation: “Yes,” the first man may correctly and justifiably say, “you say you have faith, but you do not have works to demonstrate it. I claim that faith must be backed up by a life of works. Prove to me that you have faith without a life of good works. You cannot do it. Faith is invisible. The only way others can know you have faith is by a life that demonstrates it. I will show you my faith by my works.” The key to this verse lies in the word show: To show faith apart from works is impossible. The true measure therefore of a person’s faith is followed up by their actions. My brothers and sisters our actions as followers of Christ speak louder than works and truly demonstrate genuine faith.