Pastor David B. Curtis


The Narrow Road - Love

James 2

Delivered 05/04/2003

In our study last week we looked at Matthew 7:13-14, which deals with the narrow and wide paths. I don't believe that the "narrow and difficult" way that Jesus is referring to is talking about eternal life or eternal death but of discipleship; of living a life of love. He is referring to all he has said in this sermon about loving each other climaxing in the Golden Rule:

Matthew 7:12 (NKJV) "Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

This is how a disciple of Jesus Christ is supposed to live - we are to love! He is calling us to live radically different lives. Biblical love is not normal or natural, it is supernatural. That is how we are to live, supernaturally! Would you agree with that?

The narrow and difficult way that Jesus talks about has nothing to do with our eternal destiny. Salvation is not of faith plus works, it's all faith! You may think that this is basic and beyond saying, but all religions add human works to faith. Religion teaches that faith alone is not enough. Biblically, the only condition of eternal salvation is faith in Christ. To make works a necessary condition of faith confuses grace with merit.

After the message last week Frank, who is 16, came up to me and asked me how James 2:14 fits with a faith alone doctrine. Every time I talk about the fact that "good works" are not necessary for eternal life, that a person is saved by what they believe, not what they do, James 2 always comes up. "What about James?" is a common question. Let's look at what James has to say:

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

The translation just given 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' 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 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:

  • James 2:14 .....Faith cannot save him , can it?
  • James 2:17 (NKJV) Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
  • James 2:20 (NKJV) But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?
  • James 2:26 (NKJV) For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

James says, without a doubt,"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. 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. Let's look at what Paul says about justification.

Romans 3:24-28 (NKJV) being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.

Paul says that a man is justified by faith apart from any works.

Romans 4:5 (NKJV) But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,

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.

Romans 5:1 (NKJV) Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,

Again Paul says that justification is by faith alone.

Romans 11:6 (NKJV) And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.

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."

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? What he is saying is 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.

S. Zodhiates wrote, "Paul and James do not stand face to face fighting against each other, but back to back fighting different foes." 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 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. Barn's statement, "Faith would not 'profit' at all unless accompanied with a holy life" is probably held by most folks in the church today. But in contradiction to the church, 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) or "such faith" (NIV). Indicating that there is a "kind" of faith that does not save:

James 2:14 (NIV) 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 (NASB) What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?

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:

James 1:4 (NKJV) But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.

But no one attempts to translate this as "but let 'that' patience, or 'such patience' have its perfect work." The same construction is found in:

1 Corinthians 13:4 (NKJV) Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;

We don't translate this as "that" love or "such" love suffers long.

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:

James 1:17-18 (NKJV) Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. 18 Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.

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? 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 eternal judgement." We must determine its meaning from its context. To help us understand how James uses it, look at how he closes this letter:

James 5:19-20 (NKJV) Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.

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 damnation."

The theme of the book of James is found in:

James 1:21 (NKJV) Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls (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:

James 1:13-15 (NKJV) Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. 15 Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.

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.

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.

James 2:12-14 (NKJV) So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. 14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?

James is asking, "Does the fact that you are a believer save you from the temporal judgement of God if you live in sin?" His question demands a negative answer.

God will bring temporal judgement 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 judgement 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.

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.

Please notice clearly what John says about salvation:

John 3:14-18 (NKJV) "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 "that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. 16 "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. 18 "He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

What did the children of Israel have to do to be delivered from the snake bit? 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? It is all about faith.

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 certainty whether he, in fact, really believes. The additions in the NIV "such faith" and NASB "that faith" have given people the idea that they may have the wrong kind of faith. How does a person know if he really believes the gospel?

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.

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 Mormon faith is a non-saving faith because they deny the Deity of the Lord Jesus 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 or that the earth orbits the sun.


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. Let's look as James' climax to this book:

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

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 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: Works are actually the key to the vitality of faith. James' analogy shows 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 it does affect our temporal life and the preserving of it from judgement.

James is clearly teaching that works are necessary for salvation - physical preservation. He states his argument in verse 14.

James 2:14 (NKJV) What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?

Then he illustrates his argument in verses 15-16:

James 2:15-16 (NKJV) If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 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?

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.

James 2:17 (NKJV) Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

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 "love".

James 2:8 (NKJV) If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you do well;

In the context of this verse James says that if you are a respecter of persons, you are not walking in love. Paul says that faith works by love:

Galatians 5:6 (NKJV) For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.

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 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:

John 14:15 (NKJV) "If you love Me, keep My commandments.

Love is active, it does something, and without it faith dies. Verse 17 says that if faith is by itself-- no love-- it is dead.

James introduces the words of an imaginary objector to his ideas:

James 2:18-19 (NKJV) But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe; and tremble!

Both of these verses belong to the objector. The response of James only begins in verse 20. The objector is in effect saying, "Faith and works are two distinct entities."

Are faith and works in the Christian's daily experience dynamically related? Does faith really die without the sustaining energy of works? "Such thoughts," the objector is saying, "are contrary to reality." He maintains that there is no visible, verifiable connection between faith and works: "Faith and works are not really related to each other in the way you say they are, James. So don't criticize the vitality of my faith because I don't do such and such a thing."

Now, in verses 20-26, we have James reply to the objector:

James 2:20 (NKJV) But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?

"Foolish man" -- what a stupid argument, how foolish you are to make it. Are you willing to know that faith without works is dead? A thing can properly be said to be dead when it fails to respond to its environment. So, "dead faith" would be faith that does not respond to its environment.

1 John 3:16-18 (NKJV) By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 17 But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? 18 My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.

"Dead faith" is a faith that does not love. Love is action, love is obedience to law of Christ. Dead equals barren or unproductive.

James 2:20 (NKJV) But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?

The Textus Receptus uses the word "dead" in verse 20, but the modern critics generally accept the reading "barren" as most likely the true meaning. There is a subtle play on words here in the Greek, ergon - arge, which is: "works - workless." If you don't work, your faith is barren.

To prove his point, James uses the illustration of Abraham in verses 21-24. If one could not see the dynamic interaction between faith and works in Abraham's famous act of obedience, he could not see it anywhere. Abraham had a "living faith" because he acted on what he believed.

James 2:21 (NKJV) Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?

There are two kinds of justification. Abraham was justified by faith before God, but he was also justified by works before men. The only way we can demonstrate our faith before men is by love.

John 13:34-35 (NKJV) "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."
Galatians 5:6 (NKJV) For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.

Living faith is demonstrated in love.

James 2:22 (NKJV) Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?

"Made perfect" is: "matured." Our faith is matured by works. As clearly as faith had generated obedient activity, so too, had obedient activity generated a richer faith. When you act on what you believe, your faith will grow.

Could Abraham have believed God and not acted to offer Isaac? Yes. Do you believe that God sovereignly controls all things? Do you believe that Romans 8:28 is true? Yes, but do you always act on what you believe? No!

Point: Like Abraham, we too have been accounted righteous before God by faith. Yet, that original confidence in God can be expanded and developed by a life of active obedience.

James 2:24 (NKJV) You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

James is saying that justification by faith is not the only kind of justification there is. James does not say that justification by faith cannot exist apart from justification by works. If this were true, it would have been forty years before Abraham was justified.

Next, James moves to the illustration of Rahab:

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

In this illustration, he returns to his fundamental theme of saving the life from judgement. Abraham and Rahab were as different as they could be; Jew/Gentile, man/woman, good/evil, God fearer/pagan. But Rahab was like Abraham in that she acted on what she believed.

By acting on what she believed, "Your God, he is God in Heaven above and on earth beneath." she literally, physically saved her own life. She would have died with the inhabitants of Jericho had she not acted on her faith. By her "love", she saved her own life and the life of her family. Josephus accredits Rahab's safety to her good deed.

James' readers could do the same thing, save their lives, if they were committed doers of the word. So can we. If it was a case of escaping physical death, which sin could so greatly hasten, faith alone could not save anyone. But faith that worked could. Do you see the connection between faith and works? There is a vital connection. Life preservation is at the core of this whole passage.

What kind of works vindicate faith? As we said in our last study, love is the work of faith.

Galatians 5:6 (NKJV) For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but FAITH WORKING THROUGH LOVE.

Abraham and Rahab both laid their lives on the line for what they believed. Their love caused them to be willing to sacrifice all for what they believed. Their faith was alive!

James closes his argument with this:

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

"For as" is literally: "just as, even so." In this analogy, in both cases, if the second member is missing, the result is death. A person's faith, like his body, can die. James' point: Works are actually the key to the vitality of faith. His point is not that a vital faith is the key to works. When love separates from faith, that faith becomes lifeless and useless. When our faith dies, we lose our fellowship with God and come under temporal judgement.

Abraham's obedience to God was an act of love:

John 14:15 (NKJV) "If you love Me, keep My commandments.

Rahab's risking her life was an act of love:

John 15:13 (NKJV) "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends.

Biblical love is defined as obedience to God and sacrificial service to a neighbor. Love is the spirit that keeps faith alive. In the "Sermon on the Mount" Jesus is saying that the narrow way - that of walking in love - is the way that leads to a fulfilled joyous life.

How would you characterize your faith? Is it living or dead? A dead faith is in danger of temporal judgement. It is a living faith that preserves the physical life and brings temporal blessings.

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