What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (2:14)
My brethren perhaps refers especially to James’s fellow Jews, but he is also addressing the church at large.
If someone says is the phrase that governs the interpretation of the entire passage. James does not say that this person actually has saving faith, but that he claims to have it.
No particular kind of faith is mentioned, but the context indicates that it refers to acknowledgment that one believes the basic truths of the gospel. A person making such a claim would believe in such things as the existence of God, Scripture as the Word of God, and, presumably, in the messiahship of Christ and in His atoning death, resurrection, and ascension. In any case, the theological orthodoxy of such a person’s faith is not in question; the issue is that he has no works. The verb form in that phrase describes someone who continually lacks evidence to support the claim of faith he routinely makes.
Likewise, no particular type of works is specified; but the obvious meaning is that of righteous behavior conforming to God’s revealed Word that is pleasing and acceptable to Him. Some of the righteous and godly works James has already mentioned are endurance (1:3), perseverance under trial (1:12), purity of life (1:21), obedience to Scripture (1:22–23), compassion for the needy (1:27), and impartiality (2:1–9). Later he mentions such things as acts of compassion (2:15), control of the tongue (3:2–12), humility (4:6, 10), truthfulness (4:11), and patience (5:8).
The question Can that faith save him? is not offered to dispute the importance of faith, but to oppose the idea that just any kind of faith can save (cf. Matt. 7:16–18). The grammatical form of the question calls for a negative answer—“No, it cannot save.” A profession of faith that is devoid of righteous works cannot save a person, no matter how strongly it may be proclaimed. As already noted, it is not that some amount of good works added to true faith can save a person, but rather that faith that is genuine and saving will inevitably produce good works.
No New Testament writer is more adamant that salvation is solely by God’s grace working through man’s faith than Paul, and no writing of Paul makes that clearer than does his letter to the church at Rome. Yet in that letter he unequivocally asserts that God
will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.… It is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. (Rom. 2:6–10, 13–16)
James is therefore obviously not in conflict with Paul about the basis of salvation, as some interpreters have maintained. They are not standing face-to-face confronting each other, but are standing back-to-back fighting two common enemies. Paul opposes works-righteous legalism; James opposes easy-believism. But both men make clear that we are going to be judged on the basis of what we have done, for that is a sure indicator of genuine salvation. “Do not marvel at this,” Jesus said; “for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28–29).
In a passage already cited, Paul delineates in the clearest possible way the proper relationship between faith and works. After declaring that “by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast,” he immediately adds, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:8–10). In another place, he says that in all things believers are to “show [themselves] to be an example of good deeds” (Titus 2:7). Stated negatively, “Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness” (2 Tim. 2:19b), and those who “profess to know God, but by their deeds … deny Him, [are] detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed” (Titus 1:16).
Where there is true salvation, where sovereign grace reaches down to regenerate and transform a person from sinner to saint, God will create in the soul of that person new longings to forsake sin and self and gladly serve the Lord Jesus Christ and obey His divine standards of righteousness. The moment that Zaccheus believed in Jesus, he said, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much” (Luke 19:8). When pagans in Ephesus trusted in Christ and were “confessing and disclosing their practices … many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of everyone; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver” (Acts 19:18–19). By the indwelling Spirit working through their new natures, they instinctively knew that occult practices were evil and had no place in their redeemed lives. In the same way, many former pagans in Thessalonica had “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9).
It is not that newborn believers immediately understand the full implications of the gospel and know everything they should believe and everything they should and should not do. Those things come with ever-increasing awareness as one grows in knowledge of the Word and in fellowship with the Lord. But there is an immediate and new spiritual and moral orientation that the Lord gives every child who is born into His family and kingdom. No one is saved without becoming a new creation, and, by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the new creation produces such righteous works as repentance, submission, obedience, and love of God and fellow believers. Salvation does not produce immediate perfection, but a new direction. The new disposition that hates sin, loves the Lord, and seeks to know Him and obey His will begins to manifest itself in behavior.
What Good Is This “Faith”? (2:14)
James begins the process with a question: “What good is it [or “What is the benefit”], my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (2:14 esv). That is, does the kind of faith that affirms orthodox theology, but produces no distinctively Christian deeds, save? Does that faith lead to justification before God the Judge? It is an old question: Does every brand of faith save? Is there a faith that does not? Does an evangelical confession of faith, with nothing more, make one right with God?
As the truck driver and lawyer show, it is a contemporary question. When James faced it, he answered directly. There is a “faith” that does not save. It is the faith that adheres to orthodox theology but has no actions.
James 2:14–26 is rightly viewed as the theological high point of the epistle. James bends every effort to make his point clear. The kind of faith that utters orthodox words but produces no deeds is useless and dead. It has no value for humanity in this life or the next. James makes this point three times:
- Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (2:17).
- Faith without deeds is useless (2:20).
- Faith without deeds is dead (2:26).
In fact, he says it a fourth time, in his opening verse, through a question (2:14). The literal translation of verse 14b is quite stark: “Faith can’t save him, can it?” In Greek, there is a way to ask questions that shows the author anticipates the answer no; James uses that form, making his position clear: No, “faith” cannot save the person who has no works.
For various reasons, modern translators soften James’s language a bit, when they render the key phrase in verse 14, “Can such faith save him?” (niv) or “Can that faith save him?” (esv). But there is no word corresponding to “such” or “that” in the original Greek. The original (preserved in the KJV) asks, starkly, “Faith can’t save him [the person with no works] can it?” No, there is a kind of faith that is so dry and feckless that it cannot save.
Case Studies: Faith, False or True
Once James states his theme—that faith without works cannot save—he illustrates it with four case studies. We will consider the first two in this chapter and the last two in the next chapter.
- Case #1: Faith without deeds of compassion for a needy brother does that brother no good. Thus “faith” without works is dead (2:15–17).
- Case #2: Demons believe [have faith that] God is one, but they shudder. Such faith is useless (2:18–20).
- Case #3: Abraham was justified by a work—when he offered his son on the altar. That act proved his faith was alive (2:21–24).
- Case #4: Rahab was justified by the work of caring for Israel’s messengers (the spies sent to examine Jericho). That act proved her faith was real (2:25–26).
- Conclusion: The faith that justifies proves it is alive by its deeds. Conversely, faith without works is dead.
This is provocative language, but it has the capacity to shake the church from its orthodox lethargy. Since we know that Paul taught and traveled widely, we may assume that James’s congregation knew Paul’s foundational apostolic teaching on justification by faith: “A man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Rom. 3:28). And again, “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16 esv).
If James’s readers knew the gospel of justification by faith, then James means to induce consternation when he says there is a faith that does not save. He also says Abraham was justified by works—again, to provoke thought, correct an error, and effect a reform. James says there is a “faith”—a strictly external faith—that does not save. It is lifeless, and its deadness is proved by its inability to generate any good deeds (Matt. 7:17–20; 12:33–37).
Clearly, James is using the word “faith” in two ways. There is a faith that makes us heirs of the kingdom (James 2:5), and there is a “faith” that does not work and cannot save. In a way, this merely restates what James has already said: we must be doers of the word and not hearers only (1:22). Actually, Paul says the same thing: “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” (Rom. 2:13).
Here then is the question: What good is a faith that has no works? What good is a church service where worshipers casually mistreat people whom God has commanded them to love? What is the value of that worship? What is the benefit if someone claims to live by faith in God, but refuses the way of life that God requires of the faithful? What is the benefit if someone says, “I have been baptized, catechized, and sanitized from most major sins. So please let me live as I please”?
There is no benefit, James says. When he asks about the benefit, he is using a category of ancient rhetoric. In moral discourse, rhetoricians and ethicists asked their readers to consider what course of action was morally beneficial. Similarly, James 2:14–17 asks the church a series of rhetorical questions that begin, in essence, “What is the benefit …?” If someone says he has faith but has no works, that faith cannot save that man, can it?
14 Here James uses a couplet of rhetorical questions to put forth his basic thesis: a confessed faith that does not manifest righteous works is not saving faith. He begins by asking, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” The term ophelos (GK 4055), rendered “good” by the NIV and “use” by the NASB, connotes the idea of benefit or advantage (cf. 1 Co 15:32). James’s rhetorical question anticipates a negative answer—“there is no benefit.” The situation he has in mind concerns a person who talks “faith talk” but does not walk in the “works” associated with true faith. The word “claims” is very important at this point. To claim that one has faith does not mean that true faith is at hand. In fact, a confessed faith is marked as inadequate if the person “has no deeds.” The NIV’s “deeds” (ergon, GK 2240) helps to make a distinction between what James has in mind here and Paul’s focus on religious practices such as circumcision (see the discussion on James and Paul below). As is clear from the hypothetical situation that follows in vv. 15–16, James’s concern is that faith is manifested in practical acts of piety, such as caring for the poor. The “works” he has in mind, therefore, are quite distinct from Paul’s rebuke of those who would depend on “works” (i.e., religious rituals) for salvation. Consequently, for James, a person who gives mere lip service to faith but does not live righteously lives in a religious posture that has no advantage or benefit. In fact, he asks, “Can such faith save him?” James is not suggesting that faith cannot save but rather that the type of faith just described cannot save. Further, the salvation in mind is the salvation of the soul, mentioned also at 1:21; 4:12; and 5:20—i.e., deliverance from God’s righteous judgment (2:12–13) at the end of the age (Moo, 123–24).
2:14 / My brothers indicates a new departure in the argument. What good is it … if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? The question is purely rhetorical. The form of the question implies James’ expectation of a negative answer: No good at all!
The situation is that of saying one has faith but lacking deeds. In this passage, faith has a special meaning for James, that is, orthodox belief conventionally expressed (like “religion” in 1:26). This person can pass the test of orthodoxy, asserting belief in Jesus as Savior. The problem is that his or her lifestyle is identical to that of Jewish (or pagan) neighbors (except for the form of worship): there is no evident self-giving, no detachment from and sharing of wealth. James’ response is, What good is it?
Again James asks, Can such faith save him? The form of this second question also implies the negative answer. There is no salvation for the person who stops short of discipleship. If faith is only intellectual, only expressed in religious practices, it will not save. The Old Testament also condemns piety without action, as do John the Baptist (Luke 3:7–14), Jesus (Matt. 7:15–27), and Paul (Rom. 1:5; 2:6–8; 6:17–18; Gal. 6:4–6). James follows the rest of scripture: faith without actions (discipleship) will never save.
2:14. Two rhetorical questions here expect negative answers. Three features of the questions are important. First, they accept the reader’s claim to faith, but do not assume that the claim without works represents saving faith. The absence of deeds of obedience in this person’s life makes the claim highly suspicious, if not outright wrong!
Second, the topic is not faith in general but a specific kind of faith, one which has no deeds. Such in the niv text implies this focus. The question is not, “Can faith save the lost?” Of course, faith saves the lost. The question is, “Can a faith without deeds save the lost?” The answer to that question is “no.”
A verbal testimony alone is not an adequate evidence that true saving faith is present. Only works of obedience can prove the presence of genuine faith. Verse 15 provides an example of such deeds.
Third, save refers to acquittal at the final judgment. The question is, “What type of faith can guarantee a favorable verdict in the final judgment?” Only a faith that produces works can provide security in the final judgment.
Prospective drivers of automobiles and trucks must pass a written test on road rules and a skill test on the road. Lawyers must pass the bar examination, and accountants must pass the CPA exam. Students in all institutions must show their knowledge on examinations. It is only reasonable to realize that our profession of Christianity demands a test. That test is the production of works. Without works to demonstrate faith our claim becomes false, and we show our deception.
- What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?James begins by posing two direct questions which the reader can answer only with a negative reply. Faith without works is useless to man, for it cannot bring him salvation. Does this mean that faith does not save man? Paul writes, “However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).
Is Paul saying one thing and James another? Not at all. Rather, James looks at the one side of the coin called faith and Paul at the other. To put the matter in different words, James explains the active side of faith and Paul the passive side. In a sense, the writers say the same thing even though they view faith from different perspectives. Paul addresses the Jew who seeks to obtain salvation by keeping the law of God. To him Paul says, “Not the works of the law but faith in Christ brings salvation.” By contrast, James directs his remarks to the person who says that he has faith but fails to put it into practice.
Consider these points:
- Faith without deeds
What does James mean by faith? Certainly he is not referring to a doctrinal statement that is called a confession of faith, for example, the testimony Jesus is Lord (1 Cor. 12:3). The difference between expressing faith in a confession—reciting the Apostles’ Creed—and actively confessing our faith in word and deed is that faith expressed in a confession can result in mere intellectual assent without deeds to confirm it. This is what James has in mind when he asks, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?”
James is specific. He says, “if a man claims to have faith.” He does not write, “if a man has faith.” James intimates that the faith of this particular person is not a genuine trust in Jesus Christ. In fact, that man’s claim to faith is hollow. If he only nods his head in assent to the words of a doctrinal statement, his faith is intellectual, barren, and worthless.
Faith in God through Jesus Christ is a certainty that flows from our hearts, emanates from our minds, and translates into deeds. Vibrant faith of word and deed, spoken and performed out of love for God and our neighbor, saves us.
2:14. For James, being “quick to hear” (1:19) meant to be prompt to obey God’s command to do good deeds that benefit others. But the readers had neglected good works, content to claim their justification before God by faith alone. James agreed that justification before God was by faith alone. But believers must add works to their faith to develop maturity. Then they will be justified (called righteous) by their works in the eyes of other people (cf. Mt 5:16). A person who says he has faith finds it easy to talk his faith while lacking useful deeds. Bible teachers may be in mind (cf. 3:1–12). The question Can [“that” is not in Gk.] faith save him? demands a negative answer in Greek (“Faith cannot save him, can it?”) and appears to contradict justification by faith alone (Rm 3:27–28; 4:4–5; Gl 2:16; Eph 2:8–9). But James’s use of the Greek verb “save” (soizo) is flexible. This is evident in 5:15, where James uses the word in a way that does not mean “delivered from eternal judgment.” Contextually, “save” in v. 14 is equivalent to the believer’s triumph over a stern evaluation (“judgment”) by God mentioned in 2:13 and 3:1 (an inclusio). (Also see comments on “save” at 1:21.) So the phrase, “Can faith [alone] save him?” asks if a believer without acts of mercy will be able to escape a strict evaluation at the believer’s final performance review.