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What Does It Mean That "Faith Without Works is Dead"?

Updated: Jan 21, 2023

A FALSE PROFESSION OF FAITH


In James Chapter 2, verses 14-26, we are taught that “faith without works is dead.” Many people use this passage to deny the Truth in Romans 4:4-5, Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 11:6, and Galatians 6:14 that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, apart from any works of our own that could give us cause for boasting in what we’ve done to earn or contribute to our Salvation. What a lot of people miss about James 2 is that James’ discourse isn’t about someone who actually has faith. Notice how he begins the passage:


“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?” James 2:14 (emphasis mine)


Clearly, this is about someone who says he has faith, but, as evidenced by his lack of corresponding works, doesn’t really have faith. So dead faith is no faith at all. Jesus also spoke of those who have a false profession of faith:


“Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth night unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me (their faith is dead), teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” Matthew 15:7-9 (parentheses mine)


A lot of people also misinterpret the illustrations used by James to demonstrate his point. Here is the first one:


“If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” James 2:15-17


People tend to read this and think, “See, faith in Christ isn’t enough to save you. You also have to feed and clothe the poor.” However, it should be noticed that James doesn’t here describe someone who has faith in Christ but doesn’t also feed and clothe the poor. People just read that into the text, but it’s not there. Look again. That concept is simply not there. James is merely describing someone whose words are empty, as evidenced by their lack of corresponding actions. His point isn’t that you have to add good deeds to faith in Christ to be saved. His point is that words are empty if your actions don’t line up with what you say. Let me reiterate this again: the hypothetical person described above in James 2:15-17 is not said to have faith in Christ. Instead, we are simply given an example of a person’s actions not lining up with their words.


In any case, however you look at that particular example, the idea isn’t that we have faith and then do works to earn Salvation. The idea is that if our actions don’t line up with our profession of faith in Christ, we really don’t have faith.


James gives two additional examples from the Old Testament to say the same thing. The work he said justified Abraham (the first example) was offering Isaac on the altar. Notice, this was no good deed, like feeding and clothing the poor. It was simply an action that demonstrated that Abraham believed what God had told him. God told Abraham He would establish an everlasting covenant with Isaac and with Isaac’s seed after him (Gen 17:19). Because God told Abraham He was going to establish a covenant with Isaac’s seed, that meant Isaac must have children for God’s promise to be fulfilled. Since Isaac hadn’t yet had children when God told Abraham to offer Isaac on the altar, the death of Isaac would mean that God’s promise could not come to pass.


If Abraham had refused to offer Isaac on the altar, thinking Isaac would die and become unable to have children, that would be evidence that Abraham didn’t believe God’s promise, which again, necessitated that Isaac live long enough to have children. However, because he believed God’s promise regarding Isaac’s seed, Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead (Hebrews 11:9). Accordingly, he took an action that demonstrated that he believed God and offered Isaac on the altar. Here is how the writer of Hebrews describes that event:


“By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall they seed be called: Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.” Hebrews 11:19 (emphasis mine)


In short, if Abraham had said he believed God’s promise regarding Isaac’s seed but when his so-called faith was tried, he had refused to offer Isaac, that would prove that Abraham really had a false profession of faith, which James calls dead faith. What happened instead was that his corresponding action demonstrated his genuine belief in what God had promised.

Romans 4:2-3 makes it clear, though, that God accounted righteousness to Abraham based on his faith alone, before he had done any work.


“For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory (same Greek word for boast used in Eph 2:9 and Gal 6:14), but not before God. For what saith the Scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Romans 4:2-3 (parentheses mine)


It’s clear from Romans 4:2 that God didn’t credit Abraham with righteousness in return for his work of offering Isaac. Instead, Abraham was accounted righteousness through the faith that was behind his work. Romans 4:4-5 makes it even clearer, showing that we cannot earn anything from God through works.


“Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” Romans 4:4-5


God’s grace must be given on the basis of faith alone. If it were given on the basis of our works, that would mean God owes it to us as a debt in exchange for our works. Romans 4:4 clearly tells us that if God were indebted to us because of our works, our reward couldn’t be considered grace. This is stated even more clearly in Romans 11:6. So, earning righteousness in exchange for good works is impossible. What is possible, however, is receiving the gift of righteousness through faith. James 2:14-26 clarifies all of this further by telling us that grace doesn’t come through a mere profession of faith, but through actual faith, which will be evidenced by actions that correspond to what we say we believe. Take note, however, God accounts righteousness to us the moment we believe (Rom 4:3, 10, Gal 3:6), as God knows right away whether or not our faith is genuine. Corresponding actions are merely evidence to ourselves and/or to the world that our faith is genuine. In 2 Corinthians 13:5, the Aposlte Paul said, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith.” We do that not by examining what we say we believe. Instead, we examine that fruit that is in our lives. If our lives are characterized by the works of the flesh, rather than the fruit of the Spirit, then something is defintely wrong with our faith. The same is true of other believers, including ministers, who claim to have faith in Christ.


Turning to the last example given by James (Rahab’s help of the spies from Israel), the principle of faith being proven genuine through corresponding actions is repeated. Rahab said that she feared the God of Israel (Joshua 2:9-13). If she’d said that, but refused to help the spies from Israel, her actions would have demonstrated that she had no real faith in the power of the God of Israel. Instead, her actions would have demonstrated that she wasn’t worried about being saved from the wrath of God that was about to come upon Jericho. In other words, her words regarding her fear of God would have been empty.


IN CONTEXT Putting all of this in the context of the entire chapter, why is James saying this? What is the context? Is he trying to refute Paul’s teaching regarding justification by faith alone outlined in Romans 4-5 (especially 4:4-5 & 5:1- 2), Ephesians 2:8-9, Galatians 2:21, and many other passages? Of course not, considering he supported Paul’s ministry and decreed that Gentiles were not to be bound by the law (Gal 2:9, Acts 15:1-24). Instead, he was teaching the readers of his epistle not to be hypocrites, which Jesus defined as someone whose heart doesn’t match the words of their mouth. If you believe James was trying to refute Paul, you must also admit that you don’t believe the Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16), which means you are not a Bible-believing Christian.


In the discourse immediately preceding James 2:14-26, James is telling the church to “have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.” (James 2:1). In other words, all believers, regardless of social status or anything else that pertains to their person, should be counted equally righteous and thus treated equally. That’s the topic introduced in the chapter, and it continues throughout the chapter without a break. Some translations add a heading between verse 13 and verse 14, but those headings were not in James’ original letter. Please read James 2 for yourself so you can see what I’m talking about. If you don’t, the rest of this article won’t make much sense to you.


The idea presented in James 2 is this: if I really believe I am saved by God’s mercy, which he has shown to “the poor of this world rich in faith,” (James 2:5) and not by my social or financial status, then why would I give more honor to rich people who come into my assembly than I give to poor people who come into my assembly? If I give greater honor to those with a superior social status, I am showing by my actions that I don’t really believe the Righteousness of Christ, freely given by grace through faith (see footnote at bottom), is sufficient to grant all who receive it an equal status of righteousness. By having respect of persons, I am demonstrating that my faith really isn’t in the finished work of Christ. Instead, I believe righteousness is attained, at least in part, through social/financial status. As such, my claim to faith in Christ is false, as I am considering social status a means of righteousness, instead of considering the death of Christ as the only means of righteousness.


In Galatians, Paul warns the churches in that region not to glory in law-keeping and circumcision as a means of righteousness (Gal 5:1-4). Instead, they are to glory in the cross alone (Gal 6:14). Similarly, James is teaching his readers not to glory in social status, as everyone, both rich and poor, is a law-breaker in need of God’s mercy (James 2:10-13), which is given only through the blood of Christ (Rom 3:25).


That’s just a brief summary, but I believe if James 2 is read through that lens, noticing that there is no transition between James 2:13 and James 2:14, it will become clear that the discourse on “faith without works is dead” is meant to demonstrate that someone who truly has faith in Christ alone will not, by their actions, treat one group of people with more honor than another, considering both groups are equally righteous in the eyes of God.

CONCLUSION


The whole point of the chapter is to have no respect of persons. If I believe I’m justified by Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross plus my own good deeds, I am doing what James was telling his readers not to do. I am having the faith of Christ with respect of persons. I am supposing that the person who does many good deeds in addition to their faith in Christ is more righteous than someone like the thief on the cross, who was justified by faith in Christ before having the opportunity to do any good deeds. Notice, this passage teaches exactly the opposite of what those who believe in works-salvation teach.


The Apostle Paul said, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Gal 6:14). If someone is glorying in the cross plus their good deeds, they are glorying in their own flesh (see how flesh is used in Galatians 6:13 and Philippians 3:4, reading it in context) and thus respecting their own person. Conversely, if we follow the command of the Holy Spirit through Paul not to glory in anything but the cross, we will admit that we are saved by faith in the cross alone, apart from any good deeds of our own. We will then act like a person who has been saved by God’s mercy, treating others with the same mercy, and refusing to show partiality. That’s the teaching of James 2. It’s this simple. Good works are always the fruit, never the root. Righteousness cannot be earned. It was paid for with the precious blood of God’s sinless Son. God will not diminish what His Son did for us by letting us earn what Jesus paid such a high price to freely give us. If our faith is in Jesus Christ and Him crucified alone and we understand that Jesus’ righteousness has been freely imputed to us, then we’ll act like a sinner saved by grace. If our faith is in our own works and we are trying to establish our own righteousness, then we’ll act like a self-righteous hypocrite who thinks we can save ourselves (Luke 18:9-14). A sinner saved by grace treats others with mercy and shows no partiality. A self-righteous hypocrite treats others with judgment and shows partiality. So my question for you is this. Do you look down on others, supposing you’re more righteous than they are because of your own personal qualifications, whether it be good deeds, social status, religious works, or anything else you’ve done to attempt to establish your own righteousness? If so, the faith you say you have in Christ is dead, as your works demonstrate that you have not truly been humbled at the cross. Repent today, admit that you are not righteous, confess that you’re a sinner in need of a Savior, and put your faith exclusively in the Salvation Jesus’ provided for you at the cross. Only when you enter into this faith (faith in Jesus Christ and Him crucified alone) will God consider your faith to be alive, as it is only when your faith is in the cross alone that your works will be that of someone who is trusting in the cross alone. “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” James 2:20


Footnote - Righteousness is a Free Gift


  • Romans 5:17 - righteousness referred to as a gift

    • Romans 5:15-16 - The gift of righteousness mentioned in verse 17 is called “the free gift”

  • Romans 4:2-6 - righteousness imputed “without works”

    • Romans 4:23-24 - not written for Abraham’s sake alone that righteousness was imputed, but for ours also, to whom it shall be imputed through faith

    • Impute = accounted, reckoned (God takes Jesus’ Righteousness and put it in our account as a free gift)

  • “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9

    • If any of my own works contributed to my righteous standing, I could boast about them. However, I am saved by grace through faith alone, not of works, so I can’t boast. As such, I can only glory (same Greek word as boast) in the cross (Galatians 6:14).

    • “But God forbid that I should glory (boast), save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ...” (Galatians 6:14)




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