Pastor David B. Curtis


But What About James?

Romans 3:28

Delivered 04/03/2011

Last week we looked at the subject, "Justified by Faith Alone." Notice verse 28:

For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Romans 3:28 NASB

In Luther's translation of this verse he added the word "alone." I said that I agreed with that, it is faith ALONE that saves us. I said that Christ plus anything equals nothing!

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?"

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 (Greek)

The translation just given 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 much confusion and multiple interpretations.

This verse in James caused Martin Luther to call the book "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 use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? James 2:14 NASB
Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. James 2:17 NASB
But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? James 2:20 NASB
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. James 2:26 NASB

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. Remember what we just studied in Paul's book:

being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Romans 3:24-28 NASB

Paul says that a man is justified by faith apart from any works. Paul goes on to say:

But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, Romans 4:5 NASB

Does that sound like it contradicts James 2:14?

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

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 is no longer grace. Romans 11:6 NASB

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 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.

S. Zodhiates wrote, "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 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) 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 use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? James 2:14 NASB

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 endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:4 NASB

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:

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, 1 Corinthians 13:4 NASB

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:

Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures. James 1:17-18 NASB

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 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 brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. James 5:19-20 NASB

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, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. James 1:21 NASB

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 by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. James 1:13-15 NASB

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:

He who is steadfast in righteousness will attain to life, And he who pursues evil will bring about his own death. Proverbs 11:19 NASB

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 by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? James 2:12-14 NASB

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.

The idea of temporal judgement in the life of a believer is also taught in the parable in Matthew 18 on forgiveness:

"Then summoning him, his lord said to him, 'You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Matthew 18:32 NASB

The master is God, and the forgiveness is speaking of redemption.

'Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?' Matthew 18:33 NASB

Compassion is a work that this believer was not doing.

"And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. Matthew 18:34 NASB

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

"And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. Matthew 18:27 NASB

Verse 34 is a picture of temporal judgement because of sin. Notice the next verse:

"My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart." Matthew 18:35 NASB

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 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.

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.

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 Lazarus says about salvation:

"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. "For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. "He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. John 3:14-18 NASB

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? It is all about faith.

"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. John 5:24 NASB
Therefore they said to Him, "What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?" Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent." John 6:28-29 NASB

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:

Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?" John 11:25-26 NASB

Do you see the stress on faith?

but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name. John 20:31 NASB

This is why Lazarus wrote the Epistle, 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 Jesus, 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 through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. "For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. "Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. "You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? "So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. "A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. "So then, you will know them by their fruits. Matthew 7:13-20 NASB

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, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. Matthew 12:33-34 NASB

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:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. 1 John 4:1-3 NASB

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 "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? Yes! 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:

'Also let none of you devise evil in your heart against another, and do not love perjury; for all these are what I hate,' declares the LORD." Zechariah 8:17 NASB

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 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 is round.


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:

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. James 2:26 NASB

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 spirit and works with the body?

James' point: 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 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:

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

Then he illustrates his argument in verses 15-16:

If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? James 2:15-16 NASB

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.

Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. James 2:17 NASB

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, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF," you are doing well. James 2:8 NASB

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. Love is obedience to God's revealed will:

"If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. John 14:15 NASB

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.

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 judgement of God. Keep your faith alive--walk in love.

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