Back in December of last year I did a five-part study on Berean Distinctives. I taught these topics in what I believe are their order of importance. The first study was on Free Grace. When I say Free Grace, I am indicating opposition to the teaching of Lordship Salvation. Those who hold to Lordship theology believe that if a person is truly a Christian, he MUST live a righteous, obedient life. Good works are necessary for salvation. And without this practical righteousness, there is no reason for a person to consider himself to be a Christian. No fruit, no root.
The Free Grace view teaches that a person becomes a Christian when he understands and believes the Gospel of Yeshua the Christ. At that moment, he is placed into the body of Christ, given Christ's righteousness, and indwelt by God. He is as sure of heaven as if he were already there. He is "in Christ."
Every time I teach the Free Grace position or attempt to talk to someone about the fact that "good works" are not necessary for salvation and that people are saved by what they believe (in other words, it is by faith alone and not by what they do), James 2 always comes up. "What about James?" (2:14). Let’s look at it.
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Faith cannot save him, can it? (Greek.) James 2:14
This translation is based on the original Greek and is crucial to a correct interpretation. The form of the question which James asks in the last part of the verse is one which expects a negative response. The expected answer, from James's point of view, would be "No, faith cannot save him."
This verse has been appealed to over the centuries to support the idea that works are necessary for eternal life. This could very well be one of the most difficult verses in the Bible. It is surrounded by much confusion and multiple interpretations.
This verse caused Martin Luther to call the book of James "The epistle of straw" and even to question its inclusion in the cannon of Scripture.
James seems to be contradicting the biblical teaching of salvation by faith alone. He seems to be contradicting the Reformation principle of "sola fide" — faith alone! Look at what James says:
- Can that faith save him? James 2:14 ESV
- So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:17 ESV
- aith apart from works is useless. James 2:20 ESV
- So also faith apart from works is dead. James 2:26 ESV
Without a doubt, James declares that "works are necessary for salvation." That is clearly what he says here.
Do you hold to the verbal inspiration of Scripture? Do you believe that the Bible is the Word of God? If you do, then you must admit that something is wrong here. Either Scripture contradicts itself, or we're interpreting something wrong. Which one of those two approaches are you more comfortable with? Do you know what the primary rule of Hermeneutics is? It is called The Analogy of Faith. This means that Scripture interprets Scripture. No part of Scripture can be interpreted in such a way as to render it in conflict with what is clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture. Therefore, because Scripture does not contradict itself, we must be wrong in our interpretation.
James is not discussing a doctrine of salvation which is based only on faith. James insists that works are necessary for salvation. Many interpreters have seen James as standing in opposition to the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith alone. I'm sure you can understand that. Let's look at what Paul says about justification.
and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Yeshua, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Yeshua. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Romans 3:24-28 ESV
Paul says that a man is justified by faith apart from any works.
And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, Romans 4:5 ESV
Does that sound like it contradicts James 2:14? James says that faith alone cannot save, but Paul says it does. Paul says it is all of faith and works play no part.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Yeshua the Christ. Romans 5:1 ESV
Again, Paul says that justification is by faith alone.
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. Romans 11:6 ESV
Paul is saying here that grace and works are mutually exclusive. If salvation is by grace, then works play no part. Can you understand why people have a problem reconciling James and Paul? James says, "Faith alone cannot save," and Paul says, "Faith alone saves."
Martin Luther, using Romans, began the reformation on the principle of "Sola fide" — faith alone. No wonder he called James a "strawy epistle." James clearly states that works are necessary for salvation.
Many expositors have tried to harmonize James and Paul, but all harmonizations attempted under the biblical doctrine of "sola fide" are awkward and forced. Guthrie wrote, "It may well be that James is correcting a misunderstanding of Paul or vice versa, but it cannot be said that James and Paul are contradicting each other." What is the difference? What he is saying is that one of these guys is wrong and the other is straightening him out. What about inspiration? How can an inspired writer of God's Word be wrong? The Bible, all of it, is God's inspired, inerrant Word.
S. Zodhiates wrote that "Paul and James do not stand face to face fighting against each other, but back-to-back fighting different foes." If you are fighting opposite foes, aren't you fighting each other? If James is fighting the doctrine of salvation by faith alone and Paul is teaching the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, then James is fighting Paul!
Albert Barnes, commenting on James 2:14, writes,
He doubtless had in his eye those who abused the doctrine of justification by faith, by holding that good works are unnecessary to salvation, provided they maintain an orthodox belief. As this abuse probably existed in the time of the apostles, and as the Holy Ghost saw that there would be danger that in later times the great and glorious doctrine of justification by faith would be thus abused, it was important that the error, should be rebuked, and that the doctrine should be distinctly laid down that good works are necessary to salvation [emphasis mine, DBC]. The apostles, therefore, in the question before us, implicitly assert that faith would not 'profit' at all unless accompanied with a holy life, and this doctrine he proceeds to illustrate in the following verses. (Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament, James — Jude, page 42.)
So, according to Barnes, we are saved by faith plus works. In other words, we must "earn" our way into heaven by our good works. Barnes’ statement that "faith would not 'profit' at all unless accompanied with a holy life" is probably held by most folks in the church today.
Contrary to this, Johnstone writes, "That faith can save a man, and that nothing else can, is written throughout the scriptures as with a pencil of light." I agree whole heartedly! The Scriptures clearly teach that salvation is by faith alone.
Because of the seeming conflict between James and Paul, a desperate effort has been made to avoid the impact of James 2:14 by translating it as "that faith" (ESV) or "such faith" (NIV), thereby indicating that there is a "kind" of faith that does not save.
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? James 2:14 NIV
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? James 2:14 ESV
Translating it this way is an unjustified exaggeration of the "article of previous reference" in the Greek and has nothing to commend it here. The article of previous reference says that since there is a definite article with faith, "the faith" (ten piston), we can substitute words such as "that faith" or "such faith." With abstract nouns like "faith" or "love," the article is perfectly normal when the noun is used as the subject. The construction of James 2:14 is identical to that found in 1:4.
And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:4 ESV
But no one attempts to translate this as "but let 'that' steadfastness, or 'such steadfastness ' have its full effect." The same construction is found in 1 Corinthians 13.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 1 Corinthians 13:4 ESV
We don't translate this as "that" love or "such" love is patient.
In James 2, the definite article also occurs with "faith" in verses 17, 18, 20, 22, and 26. The attempt to single out 2:14 for specialized treatment carries its own refutation. Why do these interpreters try to change what James is saying by declaring that he is teaching that it is a certain kind of faith that saves? In other words, James’ point is clear: faith alone cannot save.
Did James really disagree with Paul that salvation is by grace through faith alone? Notice what he wrote in chapter 1.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures. James 1:17-18 ESV
Good gifts come from God and salvation is one of those good gifts. God, by a sovereign act of His own will, gives us grace and faith to believe His Word. James sees the new birth as a sovereign act of God.
James and Paul were in fundamental harmony about the way eternal life is received. For both of them, it is a gift of God, graciously and sovereignly bestowed.
THE PROBLEM'S SOLUTION
What then does James mean in 2:14? We need to apply here another rule of hermeneutics: "determine carefully the meaning of words." The Greek verb sozo used in 2:14 for "save" has a wide range of possible meanings. It can mean "physical healing, rescue from danger, spiritual deliverance of various kinds and preservation from final judgment." We must determine its meaning from its context. To help us understand how James uses it, look at how he closes this letter.
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. James 5:19-20 ESV
"Soul" here is the Greek word "psuche" and should be translated as "life." And when you do that the meaning of the verb "sozo" is clear. It refers to preservation of the physical life from death. The Greek expression "sozin ten psuche" is a standard and normal way of saying "to save the life." There is no text in the Greek Bible where it can be shown to have the meaning "to save the soul from eternal damnation."
The theme of the book of James is found in the first chapter.
Therefore, put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. James 1:21 ESV
Again, "soul" here is the Greek word "psuche" and should be translated as "life." James is talking to Christians, telling them that they can save their lives (they're already born again) from the damage that sin brings if they will walk in holiness. He has already warned them of the death dealing consequences of sin.
Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God," for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. James 1:13-15 ESV
Again, he is writing to believers. In verse 21, he suggests that the antidote to the kind of consequence spoken of in 1:15, is the life-saving capacity of God's Word. This theme is repeated frequently in the Proverbs.
Whoever is steadfast in righteousness will live, but he who pursues evil will die. Proverbs 11:19 ESV
In 1:21-25, James says that his readers will be "saved" from the destruction that sin brings if they are doers, rather than just hearers, of God's Word. And in 2:14-26, he is saying that they will be saved in the same sense, not by what they believe (faith), but by what they do about what they believe (works).
The reason that James 2:14 seems to be contradicting the doctrine of justification by faith alone is because many have missed James’ theme. James is not talking about eternal life and how to obtain it. He is writing about preserving temporal life and the damage that sin brings to the life of a believer.
So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? James 2:12-14 ESV
James is asking: "Does the fact that you are a believer save you from the temporal judgment of God if you live in sin?" His question demands a negative answer. The idea of temporal judgment in the life of a believer is also taught in the parable in Matthew 18 on forgiveness.
Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Matthew 18:32 ESV
The master is God, and the forgiveness speaks of redemption.
And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ Matthew 18:33 ESV
Compassion is a work that this believer was not doing.
And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. Matthew 18:34 ESV
This is a picture of temporal judgment because of sin. Notice the next verse.
So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." Matthew 18:35 ESV
God will bring temporal judgment on those believers who do not live out the principles of their faith. If your faith doesn't work — live out the teachings of Christ, — you will suffer temporal judgment because of it.
The solution to the problem of James 2:14 is simple. We must understand the correct subject. No text can be read correctly when the writer's theme is not perceived. James' purpose is to teach the truths of deliverance from temporal judgment (physical preservation) and not the doctrine of eternal redemption. He has already made it perfectly clear that eternal life is a gift of God's sovereign choice.
Do some of you wonder how it is possible that the church has missed the true meaning of this passage throughout many centuries of Christian teaching? The answer is easy. You do consider yourself a Protestant, don't you? Would you have discouraged Martin Luther or John Calvin in their attempt to reform the church?
Emperor Charles V said of Luther at the Diet of Worms: "A single friar who goes counter to all Christianity for 1,000 years must be wrong." The greatest conviction of the Reformation was the supremacy of an appeal to Scripture over the tradition of the church. We must stand in the fundamental principle of the Reformation—"sola Scruptura" (the Scriptures alone)!
The way I see it, we only have two options: (1) James is opposing Paul and denying "sola fide," or (2) James is dealing with a different subject. Again, every time I talk to someone about the fact that salvation is by grace alone, his first response is "What about James?" It is not an overstatement to contend that the misreading of James 2:14-26 is one of the most tragic interpretive blunders in the history of the church. It is the misreading of this text that has caused believers to encourage people to find assurance in their good works. People are told that "If you don't live a holy life, you must not be saved."
If good works are really a condition of or an essential fruit of salvation, how can you or I be truly assured of our eternal salvation? How can we know that we won't quit working some day? An insistence on the necessity of works undermines assurance and postpones it, logically until death. When an end cannot be achieved apart from certain things being done, those things necessarily become conditions for the end in view. To add works to faith is to make works essential to salvation.
I know a person who was very active in the Christian faith. I studied with him and prayed with him. For years he lived in fellowship with God and then he turned away. He gave up on Christ and began to live a life of sin. Many would say he must not have really been saved. If that is the case, how do you know that you are really saved? Is your assurance based on works or on the grace of God?
Please notice clearly what John says about salvation.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. John 3:14-18 ESV
What did the children of Israel have to do to be delivered from the snake bite? All they had to do was to look to the serpent. The same is true of salvation. You are saved by looking to Christ for your redemption. Do you see anything about works in this passage? No. It is all about faith.
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. John 5:24 ESV
Then they said to him, "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?" Yeshua answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." John 6:28-29 ESV
The work of God is the faith that He works in you. If you believe, it is a work of God because you cannot believe apart from God's sovereign working in your life.
I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am [he] you will die in your sins." John 8:24 ESV
Do you see any works in that verse?
Yeshua said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?" John 11:25-26 ESV
but these are written so that you may believe that Yeshua is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. John 20:31 ESV
This is why John wrote the epistle: "that you may believe" and that through faith have life, eternal life. The Scriptures are CLEAR: eternal life is free to all those who believe, and on the authority of Yeshua, the believer can know he has eternal life at the very moment he believes in God for it.
The church has adopted the theory of "individual psychology" taught by Dr. Alfred Adle and the "trust only in movement." He says: "We are not what we say but we are what we do." Is this approach scriptural? Some say that it's biblical to judge a person by his works?" But is it?
"Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, you will recognize them by their fruits. Matthew 7:13-20 ESV
Isn't this passage teaching that we can tell a believer by his works? Are fruits equal to what people do? No! Their fruits are what they say through their words. Look at Matthew 12.
"Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Matthew 12:33-34 ESV
Fruit is not what they do, but what they say. If you want to know a false prophet, listen to what he says.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Yeshua the Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Yeshua is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 1 John 4:1-3 ESV
You spot a false prophet by what he says. Out of his heart his mouth speaks. They may live very morally, as the Mormons claim to do, and yet be false prophets.
But what if someone says he is a Christian but he is living immorally? First, go over the gospel with him. There are many people who think they're Christians who have no clue about what the gospel is. Once you have gone over the gospel and are sure that he does, in fact, understand and believe it, then hold him accountable for his sin and even bring him under discipline, if necessary.
WHAT EXACTLY IS FAITH?
How does a person know if he really believes the gospel? One result of misreading James 2:14-26 has often been to render the concept of saving faith so mystifying that a person cannot know with certainly whether he, in fact, really believes. The additions in the NIV "such faith" and ESV "that faith" have given people the idea that they may have the wrong kind of faith.
Biblically defined, FAITH IS UNDERSTANDING OF AND ASSENT TO THE PROPOSITIONS OF THE GOSPEL. If you were to ask me, "Where is my money?" and I said to you, "The check is in the mail," you are either going to trust in what I said and believe me (faith), or you are not.
No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Romans 4:20-21 ESV
Abraham believed what God told him. That is faith. No matter what the subject, whether it be God or botany, the psychology or linguistics of belief is identical in all cases. Believing that 2+2=4 is arithmetic. Believing that asparagus belongs to the lily family is botany. Botany is not mathematics, but the psychology or linguistics of believing is identical. Christ's promises of salvation are vastly different from the propositions of botany. But believing is always thinking a proposition is true.
Is faith purely an intellectual exercise? Yes! Could someone believe with his head but not with his heart. NO! There is no such distinction! The heart in Scripture refers to the thinking process. You think with your heart.
"Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. Deuteronomy 9:4 ESV
for he is like one who is inwardly calculating. "Eat and drink!" he says to you, but his heart is not with you. Proverbs 23:7 ESV
do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate, declares the LORD." Zechariah 8:17 ESV
The difference between various beliefs lies in the objects or propositions believed and not in the nature of belief. Faith must begin with knowledge. You can't believe what you don't know or understand. I understand the teaching of evolution, but I do not assent to it. Belief is the act of assenting to something understood. But understanding alone is not belief in what is understood. I understand Dispensational theology, but I do not believe it.
There are not different faiths but there are different "objects" of faith. Non-saving faith would be faith in the wrong propositions. For example, the Catholic faith is not a saving faith. It is non-saving because it counts on the efficacy of works to save. The Mormon faith is a non-saving faith because its denies the Deity of the Lord Yeshua Christ and it also counts on the efficacy of works. Non-saving faith would be believing the wrong things.
Belief in the truth, nothing more and nothing less, is what separates the saved from the damned. Saving faith is understanding and giving assent to the proposition of the gospel. It is believing that Christ died to pay the sin debt of all who will put their trust only and completely in Him.
If I have trusted Christ as my Savior, I can know that I have trusted Hm just as surely as I can know whether or not I believe there is a China or that sun circles the earth.
WHAT THEN IS DEAD FAITH?
James 2:14-26 is the only New Testament passage which speaks of a dead faith. Please notice that the distinction in James is between dead faith and living faith, not between false faith and true faith. Let's look at James' climax to this book.
For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. James 2:26 ESV
James draws an analogy between dead faith and a dead body. If you were to find a dead body, you would assume that it had died which would, of course, mean It was once alive. James can conceive of a "dead faith" as having once been alive. A person's faith, like his body, can die. James compares faith to the body and works to the spirit. Does that seem strange to you? Would you put faith with the spirt and works with the body?
James' point is that works are actually the key to the vitality of faith. James' analogy shows that he is writing about the necessity of having works if our faith is to stay alive. Remember James is writing to Christians. Unless we act on our faith and live it out, our faith rapidly decays into dead orthodoxy. Good works are the spirit which animates the entire body. Without such works, our faith dies. But this does not affect our eternal destiny but rather our temporal life and the preserving of it from judgment.
James is clearly teaching that works are necessary for salvation — physical preservation. He states his argument in verse 14.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? James 2:14 ESV
Then he illustrates his argument in verses 15-16.
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 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? James 2:15-16 ESV
The fact that the preserving of life lies at the heart of this illustration is apparent. Can the fact that a man holds correct beliefs and is orthodox save him from the deadly consequences of sin? Of course not! That is like giving your best wishes to a destitute brother or sister when what they really need is food and clothing. It is utterly fruitless. Neither will your faith do your physical well-being any good if you live in sin.
To the Jew, almsgiving was of paramount importance. Bin Sirach said, "Water will quench a flaming fire and alms maketh atonement for sin." Tobit says, "I will behold thy face by almsgiving." The Jews of old, much like many today, made works a means of salvation. It is easy to see how this passage can be misinterpreted.
So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:17 ESV
What are works? I think if we examine the context of chapter 2, we will see that the works that James is talking about are bound up in the command to love.
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing well. James 2:8 ESV
Paul says that faith works by love.
For in Christ Yeshua neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. Galatians 5:6 ESV
If your faith doesn't produce love, it is a dead faith and in danger of temporal judgment. The moral dynamic of faith is love. Since faith is invisible, a persons' possession of faith is dependent upon his verbal testimony alone. How can you tell if a person has faith? Is it because he doesn't smoke or drink and lives a very moral lifestyle? Is it because he witnesses to others of his faith, gives money to the church, studies his Bible, and is a sacrificial and giving person? Is that how you spot faith? I have just described a Mormon who does not believe in the deity of Christ or in salvation by grace alone and will spend eternity separated from God because of his unbelief.
Faith is static but love is always active. Love is obedience to God's revealed will.
"If you love me, you will keep my commandments. John 14:15 ESV
Love is active, it does something, and without it, faith dies. Verse 17 says that if faith is by itself (without love), it is dead.
Believers, faith and works are connected. It is by works that faith is made mature. As we act on what we believe and live out our Christianity, our faith grows and matures. But if we fail to work (love), our faith will die. And a dead faith, one that is unproductive, will come under the temporal judgment of God. Keep your faith alive. Walk in love.