Wednesday, March 22, 2023

James Chapter 2:14-26 - What is Dead Faith?

Does a Person With Dead Faith Still Go to Heaven?


Salvation is by faith. If the New Testament teaches anything, it teaches that. Jesus taught that Peter taught that. James taught that and Paul taught that. Salvation [Justification] is by faith and not by works. No one has to work to get to heaven. In fact, no one can work to get to heaven. When Jesus was crucified, two thieves were crucified with Him. One of them said to Him, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). That indicates that he had faith, so Jesus said, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). The thief on the cross did not do any good works; he didn’t have time! Yet, he went to heaven. Salvation is by faith apart from any works.
If that is the case, why not just trust Christ and do nothing? Why not just sit in a comfortable pew, soak up the spiritual blessings and do nothing? Why work? A number of answers from the New Testament could be given to that question. James gives one possible answer in James 2:14-26. His answer has provoked confusion and controversy.
The Principle
The Faith
James asks, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” (James 2:14). James is asking if faith without works can profit and save. In the Greek text, the second question indicates a negative answer is expected. Some commentators claim that the faith spoken of in verse 14 is not genuine faith that produces eternal life. They point out that the person “says” he has faith and they contend he is only a professor and not a possessor. Thus, according to them, when James asks, “Can faith save him?” he means can that kind of faith, which is later revealed as one without works, save him? For example, Moo argues that the presence of the definite article (“the”) in the Greek text means James is asking, “Can that faith save?” Hodges, a Greek professor for twenty-seven years, says that the Greek does not support that type of translation; it is an “evasion of the text.” He points out that the definite article appears in James 2:17,
James 2:18, James 2:20, James 2:22, James 2:26 and “in none of these places are the words ‘such’ or ‘that’ proposed as natural translations.”
Granted, James says, “Someone says he has faith” (James 2:14), but James does not mean to imply that this person’s faith is not genuine. James addresses this passage to “my brethren” (James 2:14 see also James 2:1, James 2:15), that is, people who have exercised saving faith. The issue in this passage is not true faith versus false faith. It is faith that is alone, meaning without works (James 2:17), versus faith with works. Faith without works is dead, indicating it was once alive! (Hodges, who also quotes Nicol, Plummer, and Dibelius, who come to the same conclusion).
The Salvation
If the faith in James 2:14 is genuine faith that produces eternal life, what does James mean when he says, “Can faith save him?” The word “saved” occurs five times in the book of James (James 1:21;
James 2:14; James 4:12; James 5:15; James 5:20). Each time it refers to the saving of temporal life, not the saving of the eternal soul. For example, “soul” in James 1:21 means “life.” James 5:15 says, “The prayer of faith will save the sick.” Thus, James is not talking about going to heaven. He is simply asking, “Can faith without works save a person’s life from something?” The question is, “From what?” The answer is, “Save your life from being wasted and possibly save it from [physical] death.” James 2:14 must be kept in context. James 1:15 mentioned physical death. James 1:21 spoke of the saving of one’s life from the defilement, destruction, and death of sin. The Word is able to save your life (Hodges).
James 2:13 discusses the Judgment Seat of Christ. Now, in James 2:14, James asks, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith and does not have works?” In other words, what profit will believers have, now and at the Judgment Seat of Christ, if they do not produce works? James further asks, “Can faith save him?” That is, “Can faith without works save believers from wasting their lives now, possibly even dying, and being judged without mercy at the Judgment Seat of Christ?” Without works, life is wasted and not rewarded. The issue is profit. Will a believer’s life be profitable now so that he or she can be rewarded at the Judgment Seat of Christ, or will it be unprofitable? A believer’s life is unprofitable without love (1 Cor 13:1-3) and without works (James 2:14).
The Works
James illustrates the kind of works he has in mind. He says, “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 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?” (
James 2:15-16). A believer (see “my brethren” in James 2:14) comes upon a “brother or sister” (James 2:15), that is, a fellow believer, who is naked and destitute of daily food. This person lacks the very necessities of life, sufficient clothes and food. The Greek word rendered “naked” means “without an outer garment.”
Instead of providing for these physical needs, the believer says, “Depart in peace,” which was the normal Jewish greeting of the day. It would be something like a believer today saying, “God bless you,” or “Have a good day.” The believer goes on to say, “Be warmed and be filled,” but does nothing to help. In other words, the works James has in mind are labors of love (James 1:27, James 2:12) and acts of mercy (James 2:13).
In a Peanuts cartoon, Charlie Brown and Linus were looking at Snoopy, who was shivering in a snowstorm. Charlie Brown said to Linus, “Snoopy looks kind of cold, doesn’t he?” Charlie replied, “I’d say he does. Maybe we’d better go over and comfort him.” So they went over and said, “Be of good cheer, Snoopy.” That’s all they did. They did nothing to warm and feed him. Words are not much comfort when you are cold. The tragedy is that cartoon is a slice of real life.
James concludes his illustration with a question, “What does it profit?” (James 2:16). This is not a reference to the profit to the needy. James is asking, “What profit is there for the believer who saw the need?” He began (James 2:14) with that question. Moo observes, “Not only do the empty words of the ‘believer’ do no good for these others; they bring no spiritual ‘profit’ to himself either.” If believers feed and clothe the needy, that is, have good works, they would profit now and at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
The Conclusion
James concludes, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (
James 2:17). Faith without works is dead. Dead faith is still faith. A dead battery is still a battery. If it is dead, it was once alive. Dead faith is faith without works. It is a faith that is not working; it is “ineffectual, unproductive” (Hodges). Dead faith is a faith that has no life, that is, no ability to profit, no ability to save from a wasted life and no ability to be rewarded at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Something can be alive and yet described as dead (Luke 15:24, Luke 15:32; Romans 4:19; Romans 7:8 and Romans 5:13; Rev 3:1). In English, to say that an idea is “dead” simply means that it is not working (Hodges).
The great theological question posed by this passage is, can a dead faith (a genuine faith without works) get one to heaven? The emphatic answer of the New Testament is yes! Paul says, “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). In 1Corinthians 3:11-15, Paul teaches that it is possible for all of a person’s works to be burned at the Judgment Seat of Christ. He will suffer a loss of reward, but, in the words of the apostle Paul, “He himself will be saved yet so as through fire” (1Corinthians 3:15). James would call that man’s faith a dead faith; it was faith without works. So faith without works is able to get you to heaven—Romans 4:5 and 1Corinthians 3:15 prove that—faith without works is dead; it is not able to get you rewarded. The point is, faith without works is unprofitable.
The Protester
The Objector 

At this point in the passage, James introduces an objector. “But someone will say” (James 2:18). This person has been called an ally (Moo), but it is clear that he is no ally of James because James calls him a foolish man (
James 2:20). Furthermore, the formula “someone will say” was used in classical Greek and in the New Testament to introduce an opposing opinion (1 Cor. 15:35; see Mayor for examples in classical Greek). Apparently, this was a standard literary format for an author who wished to present and refute an opponent’s point of view (Romans 9:19-20).
The Objection
What is the objection of the objector? He says, “You have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). There is a manuscript problem in this verse. Although a few manuscripts do contain the word “without,” the vast majority of Greek manuscripts contain a Greek word (ek) which is translated “out of.” That change, however, produces a problem because it makes the objector sound like he is saying the same thing twice instead of two different things (“Show me your faith out of your works, and I will show you my faith by my works”). What is his objection?
Granted, that following the correction mentioned above, there is no apparent difference in the two statements in English, but in the Greek text, there is. In Greek, the objector changes the order of words. In one, he starts with faith. In the other, he starts with works. In other words, the objector seems to be saying, “You start with faith and show me works. I’ll start with works and show you faith.” What he is really saying is, “I don’t believe either one of us can do it because I don’t think there is any relationship between faith and works.”
Hodges explains it like this, “The underlying assumption is, of course, that neither of these things can be done. The argument is virtually a reductio ad absurdum [reduction to absurdity], in the eyes of James’ interlocutor. After all, who could ever take a set of deeds, however noble they might be, and show from them his creed? One must say he has faith (compare with James 2:14) even when his works are lacking. Yet, impossible though it would seem to be, to ‘act out’ one’s faith by any conceivable set of deeds, the objector (in irony) offers to do it provided James, starting with some statement of his faith, can show how such faith is reflected in works. But though it is the easier of the two tasks, James cannot even do this much. His opponent is quite sure” (Hodges, “Light on James Two from Textual Criticism,” Bibliotheca Sacra, p. 348). According to this interpretation, the objector is saying that there is no connection between faith and works (Hodges). That explanation seems to fit James’ answer to the objector in verse 20, where he contends that faith was “working together” with Abraham’s works.
The Objector’s Proof
The objector continues in verse 19 (Mayor; Hodges). That is obvious from the fact that James does not begin his response until verse 20. The objector says, “You believe there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (James 2:19). “Do well” does not mean, “I congratulate you.” It means you do good works (see 3 Jn. 6 where this exact phrase occurs, except it is in the future tense instead of the present). In other words, the protester is saying, “You [James] believe that there is one God and you do that which is good.” He continues, “Let me show you that there is not necessarily any relationship between faith and works. The devils also believe, but they don’t do good works; they just tremble. So, you see, there is no relationship between faith and works.” What the objector is saying would be like someone saying today, “Two people joined our church. Both of them had faith, yet one of them really went to work and the other one did nothing at all except get emotional now and then. Therefore, I don’t think there is any relationship between faith and works.”
The Proof
The Objector
James answers the objector in James 2:20-23. He begins his answer by saying, “But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” (James 2:20). Note that the word “man” is in the singular, as is the word “you” in verse 22 (Moo), but the word “you” in verse 24 is in the plural, indicating that James has turned his attention again to his readers and is addressing them (Hodges). James calls the objector a foolish man. The Greek word translated “foolish” means “empty, vain, fruitless.” This has been paraphrased as “What a senseless argument!” (Hodges). Epictetus uses the word of a guest at dinner, who is actually somewhat ignorant but makes a great effort to impress his fellow guests with his supposed knowledge (Mitton). So it may be that James suggests that the opponent addressed here is not so much a genuine seeker after truth, but one who is seeking to impress others with his subtle cleverness. At any rate, James reminds this empty-headed objector that faith without works is dead (James 2:20). What follows is his proof of that.
The Proof
The next verse contains the phrase “justified by works,” which has caused a great deal of confusion. Did James believe in justification by works? And if not, why did he talk about a justification by works? This thorny problem caused Luther to call the book of James “a right strawy epistle.” Unfortunately, Luther did not realize what a friend he had in James.
There is no question that James believed in justification by faith, just as did his friend, the apostle Paul. James clearly says, “And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness’” (James 2:23). That is a quote from Genesis 15:6, the same verse, incidentally, which Paul uses to prove that justification is by faith (Gal. 3:6; Rom. 4:3).
With that in mind, consider what James says to the objector: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?” (James 2:21). That is a reference to Genesis 22:9, Genesis 22:12. The offering of Isaac on the altar took place years after Abraham was justified by faith. In Genesis 15, Abraham was justified by faith. In Genesis 22, he offered Isaac on the altar. The question is, “Why did he call the offering of Isaac justification by works?” The answer is that justification by works is before people. Paul says, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something of which to boast, but not before God” (Rom. 4:2, italics added). Justification by faith is before God. Justification by works is before people (Hodges). So, James is saying there is a relationship between faith and works. When you add works to faith, people can see you have faith.
I once went to a church to conduct an evangelistic meeting. During the week, I led a man named Tom to Christ. Sometime later, I returned to the church and asked the pastor, “Did Tom really get saved?” In response to my question, the pastor immediately started telling me about Tom’s works. Why? A person is saved by faith, not by works. True, but the pastor knew that the man’s works for the Lord demonstrated that he knew the Lord.
The Point
Now James insists, “Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?” (James 2:22). James says faith was working together with works. That is his point to the objector. There is a relationship between faith and works. The two work together (Hodges). James not only claims that there is a relationship between faith and works, but he also spells out the relationship: “And by works faith was made perfect.” The Greek word translated “perfect” does not mean “without fault or flawless.” It means “full-grown, mature.” As Abraham worked, in his case as he offered Isaac on the altar, his faith grew and matured. It was “nourished and strengthened” (Hodges).
Thus, by Abraham’s work of obeying God and offering his son Isaac on the altar, he demonstrated that he really believed God and he also demonstrated that he was a friend of God. James adds, “And he was called the friend of God” (James 2:23). Abraham is not called the friend of God in the book of Genesis, but he is called that in Isaiah 41:8 and 2Chronicles 20:7. There is a difference between being a believer in God and a friend of God. Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do whatever I command you” (Jn. 15:14). So by the offering of Isaac, Abraham demonstrated he was not only a believer but a friend.
James has finished his reply to the objector. He has demonstrated that there is a relationship between faith and works. Works mature faith and, thus, they are profitable to the believer. Having established that with the objector, James now turns his attention to the readers (see the plural “you” in verse 24; see Moo).
The Principle
The Principle
Turning his attention to his readers, James says, “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). As has been explained, he means that faith is demonstrated before people by works and not just by saying, “I have faith.” Notice he says, “You see,” that is, you the readers, you people see, not God. To say the same thing another way, there are two kinds of justification. Justification before God is by faith, and justification before people is by works (Calvin, who calls it the “the double meaning” of justification; Darby; Hodges).
The Illustrations
James gives his readers two illustrations. The first is Rahab, the harlot. He says, “Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?” (James 2:25). Rahab (James 2:25) and Abraham (James 2:21) are used as illustrations and are in contrast to each other in several ways. Abraham was a man; Rahab was a woman. Abraham was a Jew; Rahab was a Gentile. Abraham was a patriarch; Rahab was a prostitute. Although Abraham and Rahab are in stark contrast to each other, the point James is making from each of their lives is the same. How does anyone know that Rahab had faith? The answer is by what she did. When she had faith, she was justified before God, but when she received the messengers and sent them out another way, she was justified before people (see Josh. 6 for the story of Rahab). Note also, her physical life was saved by her works (Hodges).
The second illustration that James uses is, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26). To think of the body as an illustration of works and the breath inside as faith is to get this illustration backward. Instead, the way James is using this illustration, the body represents faith. How does anyone know that a body is alive? The answer is that it has spirit. It breathes. Its breathing demonstrates that the body is alive. Likewise, works demonstrate that faith is alive.
The Conclusion
James concludes with the statement that he started with and has repeated throughout the passage, namely, faith without works is dead. As Romans 4:5 and 1 Corinthians 3:15 so vividly demonstrate, a dead faith, that is, a faith that has no works, is able to get one to heaven, but as James contends, that kind of faith is not able to profit now or at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Nor does that kind of faith mature or allow others to perceive its presence.
Summary: Faith needs works to be profitable, to be perfected, and to be perceived by others. God sees faith and says, “He is righteous.” People see works and say, “He is righteous.”
Suppose a man and a woman got married. After several years, they develop some problems and come to see me for counseling. He says, “She does not love me anymore. Before we were married, we agreed we would share the housework and would always tell each other when we were going to be late coming home from work. Now, she doesn’t do any of the housework and she stays late at work and never calls to tell me.” In that situation, I might ask her, “Do you love him?” And let’s suppose, for the sake of an illustration, that she says, “Yes, I love my husband very much.” If so, I might say to her, “Love without works is dead. It has no life, no ability to be profitable to him or to be mature, but most importantly, it has no ability to demonstrate to him that you love him. Ma’am, love with labor has life. You need justification by labor, that is, your husband needs to see your labor so he can know your love. Get to work. Do your share of the housework and call him when you are late. That will be profitable. It will develop and mature your love and it will enable him to see that you love him.”

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