Pastor David B. Curtis


Media #883 MP3 Audio File Video File

Faith Alone or Faith Plus Works?

John 12:37-42 Pt 2

Delivered 11/12/17

In our study last week we began looking at the final section in chapter 12; we looked at verses 37-42, which is an explanation of Israel's unbelief:

Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, John 12:37 ESV

The Jewish crowd who heard Yeshua teach, the crowd who saw Him heal the lame man, give sight to the blind man and raise the dead after four days in the tomb, the crowd who heard the voice of God speaking to His Son, did not believe in Yeshua. Yeshua prays, and heaven thunders, but they still do not believe. We saw in this text that Jewish unbelief was a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah.

Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, John 12:39 ESV

Why couldn't they believe? They couldn't believe because Yahweh had not revealed Himself to them, He had not given them an understanding heart. The unbelief of Israel was God's plan. He willed to make their unbelief the means by which He would provide salvation for the world.

So Lazarus says, "they still did not believe in Him" verse 37, and then he says, "Therefore they could not believe" verse 39. Then in verse 42 says this:

Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; John 12:42 ESV

"Nevertheless"—is from two Greek words, homos and mentoi which function as a strong adversative. The Lexham English Bible translates it, "Yet despite that, even many of the rulers believed in Him." The majority of Jews did not believe because they could not believe, they were blinded, "Yet despite that, in contrast to that, "many even of the authorities believed in Him." He is contrasting these authorities who believe with those who do not believe.

Despite this contrast, and the fact that the inspired authoritative Word of God says they "believed," many Scholars and commentators say they did NOT believe. What is it that causes people to think that these authorities did NOT believe when the inspired text says that they did? What causes them to doubt their belief? It's their works! Look at the rest of the verse:

Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; John 12:42 ESV

Because these new believers feared the Pharisees and therefore would not confess Christ, people say they did not believe even though the inspired text says they did believe.

Let me say this again, How can "many even of the authorities believed in Him," (John 12:42) mean the same thing as, "…they still did not believe in Him." (John 12:37) How can Lazarus say that some believed and some did not, but mean none believed? This is eisegesis, they are imposing their theology on the text. The Bible says they believed, but they say they didn't because they didn't perform the way that they think a Christian should.

Last week I said, You don't get to heaven because of what you do or don't do. You go to heaven because you believe in Yeshua. Salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. Every time I talk about the fact that "good works" are not necessary for salvation, that a person is saved by what he believes, faith alone, not what he does, James 2 always comes up. "But what about James?" Notice what James says:

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

A literal Greek rendering would read more like this,

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Faith cannot save him, can it? James 2:14

This translation is based on the original Greek and is crucial to a correct interpretation. The form of the question that James asks in the last part of the verse is one which expects a negative response. The expected answer, from James' 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 a lot of confusion and multiple interpretations.

This verse in James caused Martin Luther to call the book of James, "The Epistle of Straw" and to even 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:

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
So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:17 ESV
Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? James 2:20 ESV
For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. James 2:26 ESV

James says, without a doubt,"works are necessary for salvation." That is clearly what he says here.

Now if you hold to the verbal inspiration of Scripture, If you believe that the Bible is the Word of God, then you must admit that something is wrong here. Either Scripture contradicts itself or we're interpreting something wrong. Now, which one of those are you more comfortable with?

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. Look at what Paul writes:

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. Paul goes on to say:

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?

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

James says that faith alone cannot save, but Paul says it does. Paul says it is all of faith, and works play no part:

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 pistle." James clearly states that works are necessary for salvation.

Many expositors have tried to harmonize James and Paul, but all harmonizations with a 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? Is he saying that one of these guys is wrong and the other is straightening them 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.

Albert Barns, 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 asserts that faith would not 'profit' at all unless accompanied with a holy life, and this doctrine he proceeds to illustrate in the following verses. (Barns' Notes on the New Testament, James—Jude, page 42.])

So, according to Mr. Barns, we are saved by faith plus works. In other words, we must "earn" our way into heaven by our good works. Barns' statement, "faith would not 'profit' at all unless accompanied with a holy life" is probably held by most folks in the Church today.

John Piper writes, "Works of any kind are not acceptable in the moment of initial justification. But when James affirms 'justification by works' he means that works are absolutely necessary in the ongoing life of a Christian to confirm and prove the reality of the faith which justifies."

Prove to who? Others? To God? So I would interpret what Piper is saying as, Works are not necessary to get saved, but they are necessary to stay saved. He says, "Works are absolutely necessary in the ongoing life of a Christian to confirm and prove the reality of the faith which justifies." So if you don't have these works, then you don't have a faith which justifies. Which means, works are necessary!

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 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" (NASB, ESV) or "such faith" (NIV). 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:

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 "And let 'that' steadfastness, or 'such steadfastness have its perfect work." The same construction is found in:

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 they try to change what James is saying? They are trying to make James say that it is a certain kind of faith that saves you. But, James point is clear, faith alone cannot save.

Did James really disagree with Paul on salvation being by grace through faith alone? Notice what he wrote in:

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 firstfruits 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.

What then does James mean in 2:14?

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

We need to apply a very basic 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 judgement, the wrath of God." 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

Here 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 wrath."

The theme of the book of James is found in:

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

Save your souls is "sozin ten psuche" in the Greek. It is the normal way of saying, "to save the life." James is talking to Christians, telling them that they can save their lives (they're already justified) 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 subject. James is not talking about eternal life and how to obtain it. James 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, the wicked servant is a believer and the forgiveness is speaking of redemption.

And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' Matthew 18:33 ESV

Mercy 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 talking about a believer. This is the salve that the Lord forgave:

And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. Matthew 18:27 ESV

Verse 34 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

If we are saved by grace apart from works, does it matter how we live? Absolutely! God brings temporal judgement on those believers who do not live out the principles of their faith. If your faith doesn't work—living out the teachings of Christ,—you will suffer temporal judgment because of it.

The solution to the problem of James 2:14 is simple—understand the correct subject. No text can be read correctly when the writer's real subject is not perceived. James' subject is "deliverance from temporal judgement [physical preservation], not eternal redemption." He has already made it perfectly clear that eternal life is a gift of God's sovereign choice.

Now, someone is bound to be thinking, "Are you trying to tell us that for many centuries of Christian teaching the Church has missed the true meaning of this passage?" Yes, I am! 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 the 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; We either see James opposing Paul and denying "Sola fide" or we see his subject as different. As I have already said, every time I talk to someone about the fact that salvation is by grace alone, their first response is, "What about James?" It is not too strong to say that the misreading of James 2:14-26 is one of the most tragic interpretive blunders in the history of the Church. It is a misreading of this text that has caused believers to encourage people to find assurance in their good works. We tell them, "If you don't live a holy life, you must not be saved."

If good works are really a condition, or an essential fruit of salvation, I can never really be sure of my eternal salvation. How do I know that I 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 logically become conditions for the end in view. To add works to faith is to make works essential to salvation. Is your assurance based on your works, or on the grace of God?

Please notice what we have already studied about what Lazarus 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. There were no works. Nothing for which to atone. No restitution, nothing; just look and you have life. 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? 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

No works here, just hear, believe, and have eternal life.

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 either that which God desires from mankind or that which God accomplishes in a person or, in this Gospel, it is most likely both. He uses the singular, "This is the work of God." The singular "work" here is trusting in Christ. The significance of the modifying phrase "of God" indicates that the "work" of faith is not our effort, but the gracious gift of God enabling us to trust in Christ. That faith is to be "in" the one whom God sent.

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

Do you see the stress on faith?

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 Lazarus wrote the Gospel, that you may believe and 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 Adler, "trust only in movement." He says, "We are not what we say, but we are what we do." Is this approach scriptural? Some will say, "Yes, it's biblical to judge a person by their works?" 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 their works? Are fruits equal to what they do? No! Their fruits are what they say, their words. Look at:

"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, you can tell he is false by what he says. Listen to John Eleazar aka Lazarus:

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 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 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 of 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, bring him under discipline, if necessary.

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 NASB and ESV's "that faith" have given people the idea that they may have the wrong kind of faith.

Biblically defined, FAITH IS: UNDERSTANDING 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." Now, you are either going to believe me, which is faith, you are trusting in what I said, or you are not.

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? No, because apart from the calling of God you cannot believe. Could someone believe with their head but not with their heart. NO! There is no such distinction! The heart in Scripture refers to the thinking process. You think with your heart.

The difference between various beliefs lies in the objects or propositions believed, 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 they deny the Deity of the Lord Yeshua Christ and they also count 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 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 Him just as surely as I can know whether or not I believe there is a China.

What does James mean by "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 false faith and true faith. 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.

So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:17 ESV

What are works? In the prior verses the failure was to help the needy, which is love. I think if we examine the context of chapter 2, we will see that the works that James is talking about is 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

If your faith doesn't produce love, it is a dead faith and in danger of temporal judgement. The moral dynamic of faith is love. Since faith is invisible, a persons' possession of faith is dependant upon his verbal testimony alone. How can you tell if a person has faith? They don't smoke, or drink, they live a very moral lifestyle. They witness to others of their faith. They give money to the church, they study their Bible, they are 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 is under the wrath of God because of his unbelief.

Faith is static, but love is always active, it does something, and without it faith dies. Verse 17 says that if faith is by itself—no 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.

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