Home » Various Sermons » Who Needs a Dead Faith? Mines’ a Working Living One: James 2.14-26

Who Needs a Dead Faith? Mines’ a Working Living One: James 2.14-26

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and 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?  So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But 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.  You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!  Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?  Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?  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.  You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.  And 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?  For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” – James 2.14-26

Martin Luther once called James an “epistle of straw,” and even threw the epistle in the back of the New Testament as a sort of appendix.   Partly it seemed because it conflicted with the way that Luther perceived how one was saved.  That is one is saved, justified by “Faith, and faith alone.”  And James would seem to contradict this when he declares, “I will show you my faith by my works.”  This section of James is hard to understand at points, for James at points seemly is not only against Luther’s theology but also that of Saint Paul’s.  I would content that James is anything but an “epistle of straw,” and that he deals with issues which are true and that even Paul would agree him.  Simply put we cannot through works out and deal with only faith, nor can we through faith out and only deal with works.  Instead true faith is the intermixing of true works and true faith.

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” – James 2.14

Once again we see that James turns to a new section with the phrase “my brother,” and once again we move to a portion that James thinks very important.  We have a topic shift here as James moves on he does so by two questions[1].  These two questions which James bring up are of course expected to only be given one answer, no[2].  Hitting upon two very hard questions, he begins with “what good is it?”  This question is a common wisdom motif, and it can be found in other passages[3].  such as Jesus’ words in Mark 8.36: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” or 1 Corinthians 15.32: “What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”” or Ben Sira’s 20.30: “Hidden wisdom and unseen treasure, what  advantage is there in either of them?”

Johnson puts it nicely in his commentary as “What difference does it make[4]?”  Thus James begins with “what difference does faith without works make?” The second question then is: “can that faith save him?”   The New Living Translation puts the question into a statement very well “That kind of faith can’t save anyone.” James here isn’t saying Faith can’t save a person, instead he is saying the wrong kind of faith does not saves a person, notice the word “that” in the NLT and ESV translation as well as most modern as opposed to the KJV version[5].  “What difference does faith without works make?  That kind of faith can’t save anyone.”

One could also look toward John 8.39 “They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did,” The point is James has asked questions which should be answered No! right away, James has already argued what has saved soul, the “word of truth” for “doers of the word and not hearers only[6].”  It is God who saves, but the person who has truly heard that “word of truth” will do God’s deeds as James will continue to point out[7].  You cannot separate faith and works, in 2.13 we see that it “damnation, not salvation” for those who have chosen not to work, our faith is something more[8].  It is what I call a working faith, or a living faith instead of having a saying faith or dead faith.

“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and 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?  So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” – James 2.15-17

James now as he seems to prefer dives into an illustration to prove his point.  James of course is continuing in the wisdom motif he had started by asking the question when he gives this illustration which will lead us to the final phrase of “faith by itself, without works, is dead[9].”  This illustration he gives is one which to answer more importantly the first question he asked, since verse 16 ends as 14 began[10].  Of interest here is that James says both, “a brother or sister” in this particular passage, of the few times sister (in connection with the believing community is found[11]).   These fellow believers here in need of help the King James Version says that they are “naked.”  Which while the word gymnos can indeed be translated that way, it is more likely the idea that they are in only their undergarment, John 21.7 explains Peter in this same word, where it is understood as undergarments, so here too[12].

In truth it comes down to the fact that they are very much “vulnerable,” that is they need help[13].  A Fellow believer who is only in threadbare “rags[14]!”  This nakedness is to be associated with poverty which is always accompanied by shame in the Jewish mindset[15]. (One could refer to Ezekiel 16.7: “I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare.” Or Revelation 3.18 “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.”

Moreover to go along with the idea that this believer is poor beside the rags is their lacking of “daily food.”  The idea here which is probably meant is that they have been in hunger for quite some time, that they’ve been lacking their daily need to survive[16].  It is the poor and dissolute who are often the most in need of help (as attested to in other pieces of Jewish Wisdom such as the apocryphal Tobit 4.16: “Give of your bread to the hungry and of your clothing to the naked.  Give all your surplus to charity and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it.”  As well as Jesus’s words in Matthew 25.36 well reflect: “I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me[17].’”).

Another person (someone in the community) comes along and James notes (instead of doing the above stuff) the person says “Go in peace, be warm and filled.”  The person who is saying this isn’t saying something in mirth they are serious in thinking “Go in peace…” is what ought to be said[18].  The member of the audience sees the problem before them, and they say something that’s good, “a common biblical blessing,” but they don’t go far enough[19].  (Noting verses like Judges 6.23: “But the Lord said to him, “Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.”” or 1 Kings 5.19 “He said to him, “Go in peace.” But when Naaman had gone from him a short distance,”).  It isn’t that they are saying something wrong, but that they would think that this is far enough and use it as a “religious cover for the failure” of action[20].  This person’s faith is nothing more than a Saying Faith.

God once spoke poorly of Israel because of such a faith.  We read in Isaiah 29.13 “And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,” God was not pleased of such a faith before Christ why would he then be pleased of one after him? James too is against that idea.  He looks at this whole situation and he is not pleased.  Instead of the right action James instead sees one saying the right things, but doing the wrong things.  In the end he asks harshly “what good is this!?” he has shown this illustration to tell his audience that such a thing ought not be[21]!

He then makes the conclusion “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”  This in the end leads to the idea that our faith needs to be a Living faith (as opposed to a dead one) and thus that means a Working Faith.  One can look at it this way, as “life and breath” go hand in hand so too does faith and works, we can’t live without breathing can we[22]?  So too we do not have faith without works, we need a Working Faith, a living faith.

“But 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.  You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?” – James 2.18-20

Someone decides that might know more the James however and they say “I have faith, while you have your works.”  This someone, perhaps (although it is uncertain) the same man who was just illustrated is the one who gives this retort to James “I have faith[23].” They act as if one can have one or the other, that their workless faith is good enough, while supposing one faithless work is well also.  James is not pleased with this, he commands to see how one’s faith apart from their works because it simply does not work, but his faith he will prove by his works[24].  James is “fully prepared to do” what is needed to prove his point, but one has to wonder if the objector is[25]?

Moving on James says to his opponent “You believe God is one.” That is his opponent is perhaps making a common “Christian Confession,” or as likely (perhaps more) a Jewish one based on the Shema[26].  As Deuteronomy 6.4 says “”Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” and 1 Corinthians 8.6 relates “yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” The point is basically that his opponent is making a basic belief, a statement of his faith with no word of action[27].  To which James replies sarcastically: “Good!  You’re doing well now[28].” For he notes that “Even the demons believe—and shudder!”

Belief in God as one is good, it’s even part of being orthodox, but isn’t enough as even he demons believe (as attested to in other parts of the New Testament such as one of Jesus’ many exorcism), yet the demons belief in God does nothing to save them[29].   A Saying Faith like the demons is nothing but dead, therefore we need more we need a Working, Living Faith.  Preparing to finish this little lesson James address his opponent “You foolish person.” James is likely calling his opponent (imaginary or real) “fool,” to bring to mind the many foolish persons of Jewish Wisdom[30]. Then in the same breath James again sums up his point that “without works, Faith is useless.”

“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 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. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” – James 2.21-24

He then moves onto to his last “proofs,” of the type of faith which we are to have.  The first character James looks at is the infamous Abraham and his test with Isaac.  Looking to Abraham first is natural, all the more since the letter seems to be to Jewish Christians, since he was their “father,” but also since he had become important during the intertestmental period as one with “great moral virtue[31].” Of particular note in is that Jubilees refers to him as “perfect in all his deeds,” so in talking about Abraham’s deeds, James is hitting a very deep chord[32].  Moreover when James speaks of Abraham as being justified by his works or in a sense as Johnson puts it “On the basis of deeds,” James almost seems to contradict what Paul is known to have said of Abraham’s faith[33].

Romans 4.2-3 does say: “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.””  And Galatians 3.5-9 “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.  And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”

To say the least this portion of James is difficult as James almost seems in tension with Saint Paul. Firsly it should be noted that James is not so much saying that righteousness is “secured,” because of one’s works, but rather it is “declared” in “light” of one’s works[34].  It is assumed by James that Abraham had faith, but that his faith could not be seen as true or righteous except through the actions which he does.  Yes Abraham had faith, but it was one that showed works[35]. However we must remember one thing time each time Paul talks of faith and works, the works which is talking about are the “works of the law,” such things as circumcision and what not[36].

James instead is contrasting real faith and dead faith on the basis of ones true deeds because of their faith.  That is James is talking about works, “deeds” done in service to God, while Paul instead is referring to the ceremonial practices of the law, in this way it would seem likely that Paul would agree that works are in response Moo puts “in response to God’s grace to have some kind of instrumental role in justification[37].” Thus he can say “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

“”And 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?” – James 2.25

But Abraham doesn’t seem to be the only proof which James would like to use.  It’s quite interesting that James would refer to Rahab, and it would seem if we remember above his use of brother and sister, he ties up his teaching of Living Faith with a male and female example[38].  But also of interest is that by using the great Patirach of the faith is denotes someone of worth to prove his point, but then by turning to Rahab, a harlot, he looks to someone more of ill repute and we the idea that no matter who you are, you can have the faith that James tells us we need[39].  Everyone can have working faith instead of saying faith, everyone can have a living instead of dead faith.  Moreover one can look at the story and see that Rahab keeps the scouts safe, does a work, which shows her faith, she fits exactly what James is talking about[40].

“For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” – James 2.26

James ends his section thus.   I have called the faith that James tells us we need as two things, a working faith, because we needs works, and living faith, because it contrasts nicely James consistent use of the wrong faith as dead faith.   Here we see that well, when one is living they are doing various actions, when they’re dead they do nothing, and so when one has true faith, living faith they are going to do actions, if they don’t have true faith they won’t do anything[41].  The traditional idea of “Faith without works is dead, so are works with faith dead.”

In conclusion I would like to remark on Luther’s words in his preface to Romans, (though ironic since his distaste of James is well known), as noted by Moo[42]

“O it is a living, busy active mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.”


[1] Moo 122

[2] Martin 79

[3] Johnson 237

[4] Johnson 237

[5] Moo 123

[6] Johnson 237

[7] Johnson 237

[8] Martin 81

[9] Durken 777

[10] Moo 124

[11] Nicott 444, Johnson 238, Moo 124

[12] Moo 124, Nicott 444

[13] Johnson 238

[14] Moo 124

[15] Johnson 238

[16] Moo 125

[17] Johnson 238

[18] Nicott 444-5

[19] Moo 125

[20] Johnson 239

[21] Johnson 239

[22] Martin 85

[23] Moo 127

[24] Johnson 240

[25] Moo 130

[26] Johnson 240

[27] Johnson 240

[28] Moo 130

[29] Martin 89

[30] Martin 90

[31] Moo 132

[32] Moo 132

[33] Johnson 242

[34] Martin 92

[35] Martin 92

[36] Johnson 242

[37] Moo 140

[38] Johnson 245

[39] Moo 143

[40] Johnson 245

[41] Johnson 245

[42] Moo 144

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for finally writing about >Who Needs a Dead Faith?

    Mines’ a Working Living One: James 2.14-26 A Knight of The Word <Liked it!

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