What Does It Mean that We’re “Justified By Works”? (James 2)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?17So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.18But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.19You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!20Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;23and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God.24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.25And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?26For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
James 2:14–16

Two Piercing Questions

James signals the beginning of a new section with a vocative (“my brothers”) and two piercing questions (“What good is it . . . if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”). These questions function rhetorically as strong and memorable denials. They are akin to the declarative statements, “To say you have faith but not works is of no benefit. That kind of faith cannot save anyone.”

Readers should pay careful attention to the exact wording. James does not say that the person in question indeed has faith but not works. Instead, the person “says” he has faith (a deceived self-declaration). Furthermore, the ESV has rightly translated the sense of the article that appears in front of the word pistis (“faith”) in Greek. The question is not, “Shall faith be able to save him?” (so the DouayRheims translation), but rather, “Can that faith save him?” (ESV). The faith under discussion is not genuine saving faith but the inadequate self-declared faith from the first half of verse 14.

James next provides an illustration of the self-declared, inadequate, non-saving faith introduced in verse 14. The Greek language has several ways of introducing conditional sentences, and by the use of ean (“if”) in verse 15, James signals to his readers that he is describing a situation for hypothetical consideration (like the English introduction, “Let us imagine . . .”).

Despite James’s frequent generic use of adelphos (“brother”), anthrōpos “man,” and even anēr (normally “male,” but see 1:8), here he unexpectedly mentions both genders explicitly (“a brother or sister”; 2:15). Perhaps respecting the stricter segregation of the sexes of his ancient culture, James describes vividly a need that should be met with equal alacrity by both male and female readers.

Analogous to James’s vivid description of the rich man’s appearance (2:2), here he identifies the poor Christian brother or sister by his or her inadequate clothing and need for daily sustenance. The Greek word translated in 2:15 as “poorly clothed” is gymnos, which usually means “naked” but can also refer to the sparse coverings of the destitute (e.g., Matt. 25:36; LXX Job 31:19; Tob. 1:17).

Genuine faith organically bears such fruit produced by the Holy Spirit, who dwells in the hearts of those who have trusted in Christ for salvation.

Meeting Spiritual Needs

In verse 16, James continues to develop the plot of this hypothetical minidrama: “[Imagine] . . . one of you says to them . . .” James here skillfully weaves in a member of the ancient Christian community he is addressing. From a distance, this imagined interchange between the Christian of average means and the poor Christian seems warm and religiously appropriate. It recalls the spiritual greetings of the OT saints (e.g., Ruth 2:4). Certainly it is not wrong to wish someone the Lord’s blessing of peace or to wish for the Lord to provide him with the clothing, food, and shelter he needs (note the divine passive construction).1

But it is wrong, says James, to wish such blessings upon people when you yourself are able to help meet those material needs but do nothing beyond wagging your tongue in their direction. James speaks of “things needed for the body” (James 2:16), which reminds us that all humans have both a spirit/soul and a body. Humans have basic bodily needs (food, clothing, shelter), and a fundamental test of love is whether we give of our resources to help those in desperate need—especially a “brother or sister” (v. 15). The rhetorical question, “What good is that?” (v. 16b), repeats the exact Greek words that began verse 14 and makes unmistakably clear that this sad story is a visible example of empty, useless, non-saving faith.

Dead Faith

James summarizes starkly in verse 17: “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” It is important to note that the formula is not “faith + works = salvation.” James does not say that works need to be added to faith in order for one to be saved. Instead, his explicit language is that faith either “has” or “does not have” works (v. 17). Faith is inherently either dead or alive. If it is alive, it contains works organically in itself and thus overflows with them in the visible world. The alternative is a dead faith that does not contain such works. James’s contrast is between living and dead faith, not between a living faith that has works and a living faith that does not have works. Faith is like a seed. If a living seed is planted, it will produce a living plant. If a dead seed is planted, it will produce nothing.

In lively homiletic style, James introduces a potential objection in verse 18: “But someone will say, . . .” An interchange between an imaginary interlocutor and an author/speaker is called a diatribe. The diatribe style was common in ancient Greco-Roman rhetoric and is found also in Paul’s writings (e.g., Rom. 9:19). The interlocutor objects, “You have faith and I have works.” In this objection, the pronouns “you” and “I” are employed nonspecifically—i.e., as equivalent to “one person” or “another person.” In other words, the objector raises the question of whether “faith” and “works” are not just two separate, equally valid gifts. We might paraphrase his objection, “Why are you insisting that everyone has to be the same? Some people have faith; others have works!”

James’s verbal riposte skewers his opponent’s flawed perspective. He writes, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). How can a dead faith with no works be demonstrated? A self-deceived declaration of having faith (v. 14) is certainly not admissible evidence!

The explicit language of “show” (Gk. deiknymi ), used twice in verse 18b, again highlights that works are not being added to faith. Genuine saving faith “has” (Gk. echō; v. 17) works, and if such works are present, they will “show up” to be observed by others. Genuine saving faith is demonstrable through outward behavior. One is reminded of Jesus’ warning against false prophets:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matt. 7:15–20)

Although some scholars attempt to pit James and Paul against one another, in Galatians Paul presents a similar formula for genuine faith. Saving faith inevitably produces the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22–23). That is to say, genuine faith organically bears such fruit produced by the Holy Spirit, who dwells in the hearts of those who have trusted in Christ for salvation. Likewise in Galatians, Paul says, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). “Faith working through love” seems to be a Pauline equivalent to James’s idea of “faith having works” (James 2:14).

God Is One

In 2:19, James continues to respond to his self-deceived opponent. James writes, “You believe that God is one.” “God is one” is a literal translation of the famous Jewish confession known as the Shema (Deut. 6:4), which should likely be understood as an affirmation of monotheism. The fact that James chooses this well-known Jewish statement of faith is further evidence that the Christian congregation to which James writes is made up largely of persons of Jewish ethnicity (cf. James 1:1).

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Regarding the interlocutor’s affirmation of the Shema, James responds, “You do well.” This short statement could be understood as positive (i.e., “Yes, you are right in saying that much.”) or as sarcastic (“Oh, impressive!”). Given James’s clear agreement with the theology of the Shema, it is more likely that his words should be taken as positive before his thought turns sharply in the latter part of the verse.

After building middle ground with his opponent regarding the confession of the Shema, James adds, “Even the demons believe—and shudder!” Even though James approves of the confession of the Shema, he attacks the interlocutor’s mere intellectual affirmation of monotheism. We might paraphrase, “Yes, you are right to affirm monotheism—but do you realize that even the demons intellectually affirm monotheism? And they demonstrate a more rational response to their confession than you do; at least they shudder in fear of their coming judgment!”

What Is Saving Faith?

It is important to pay careful attention to the actual words James uses. James says the demons “believe” ( pisteuō; v. 19). Clearly, such belief is not saving faith; it is inadequate, non-saving, useless, dead faith. The demons do not need merely to add works to their faith to be saved. They need a completely different kind of faith—a living, saving faith that “has works” inherently in it.

James continues his diatribe with a frontal attack on the interlocutor. “Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?” (v. 20). In asking this question, James sets himself up to demonstrate his thesis further by way of appeal to Scripture in the following verses (vv. 21–25). It is worth noting that James addresses an imaginary opponent as “you foolish person,” whereas he consistently addresses the church as “brothers”—even when he has strong words for them.

James offers two Scriptural examples, Abraham and Rahab, to show that a faith without works is useless and non-salvific. Abraham, as the father of the Jewish faith, is an understandable example, but why the prostitute Rahab? Perhaps James deliberately chooses both a male and a female example—and, though Rahab was a prostitute, she appears as a converted heroine in the biblical narrative (Josh. 2:1–24; Heb. 11:31). Furthermore, Rahab was revered as an ancestor of King David (Matt. 1:5) and a preeminent example of a proselyte (Josh. 6:17–23).

Abraham is described as “our father”—as he is of all Christians (Rom. 4:16)— but if James is writing to ethnically Jewish Christians, then this was true of them both spiritually and physically (cf. James 1:1 and 2:19).

James asks a rhetorical question in 2:21: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” James indicates that the answer to this question is yes—both by the Greek construction he employs (rhetorical question with ouk) as well as by the following verse.

Justified by Works?

The language “justified by works” likely jars the modern reader, as it seems to contradict Paul’s explicit language in Romans 4:2 (“If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God”). Note, however, how James goes on in 2:22–23 to explain what “justification by works” means for him.

James clarifies, “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God” (vv. 22–23). Abraham’s prior exercise of saving faith had set him in the right with God. His faith was reckoned as “righteousness,” and he was in relationship with God as God’s “friend” (v. 23).2 Yet such faith, while living and salvific, was invisible until it showed itself in the works that it inherently contained.

James offers several different ways of describing the way these visible works emerged from this invisible faith to show/demonstrate/vindicate/justify Abraham. His faith was “active along with his works,” or literally, “faith was colaboring with his works” (v. 22). James then describes faith as being “completed” by Abraham’s works (v. 22). Finally, James depicts Abraham’s offering his son on the altar as a fulfillment of Scripture (v. 23). Colaboring; completing; fulfilling. This is not the language of external addition; it is organic language intended to convey the truth that Abraham’s visible obedience emerged from his invisible saving faith and demonstrated said faith in the visible realm. As such, he was “justified”— shown to be righteous by a living faith that led inexorably to obedience (v. 24).

James offers a second Scriptural example of genuine faith that shows itself in works: Rahab the prostitute.3James’s recipients were likely ethnically Jewish (cf. comment on 2:21–24) and would have been familiar with this OT heroine from the town of Jericho (cf. Josh. 2:1–24; 6:16–25). James employs the example of Rahab to continue instructing his “foolish” interlocutor that “faith apart from works is useless” (James 2:20). In other words, Rahab did not have merely a nominal faith (i.e., affirming the God of Israel as the true, righteous, and all-powerful Judge of all nations; Josh. 2:9–11); she acted on that belief (Josh. 2:15–21). She sheltered the messengers of the true God when they were in danger (Josh. 2:4–8). Had Rahab failed to act, her so-called faith would have been demonstrated as useless and dead.

Rightly Planted

James signals the end of this epistolary unit by offering an illustration from daily life that restates his initial point concerning the uselessness of work-less faith (v. 14). He writes, “As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (v. 26). James acknowledges there is a kind of “faith” that does not produce deeds, but it is a “dead” faith, not a living, true, or salvific one. Jesus, likewise, in the parable of the sower describes a temporary, false, and non-salvific faith unmasked by the passing of time. In describing the seed sown on rocky ground, Jesus indicates that it represents those “who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:16–17).

Notes:

  1. “Divine passive” refers to use of the passive voice with the implied subject being God (in this verse, “be warmed and filled [by God]”)
  2. Though no OT verse explicitly calls Abraham God’s “friend,” the title accurately captures the gracious and personal relationship Abraham shared with God—and there was a long post-OT tradition of referring to Abraham in this way.
  3. Concerning Rahab’s seemingly ever-present identification as “the prostitute,” A. T. Robertson comments, “Her vicious life she left behind, but the name clung to her always” (Word Pictures in the New Testament, [Nashville, Broadman, 1990], s.v.).


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