One of the major reasons why there was the Protestant split with the Catholic church was over the nature of justification. Luther and others argued for justification by faith alone, while the Catholic Church reiterated its commitment to justification by faith and works. I affirm justification by faith alone, though I know that Catholics understand justification a little differently (they do not make a sharp distinction between justification and sanctification), so it is an oversimplification to accuse the Catholic Church of teaching a gross works-righteousness.
Protestants are armed with many texts, such as Eph. 2:8-9: “For 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” (NASB). However, while the Reformers harped on passages like this, the Catholic Church had James 2:14-26, which includes the famous phrase, “Faith without works is dead” (2:26b). Due to this and other issues, Luther had doubts about the book of James and is famous for calling it “an epistle of straw.” While he seems to have retracted that statement and eventually accepted a harmonization between it and the Pauline epistles, he clearly favored the latter.
Protestants have since readily explained that while salvation is by faith alone, a true faith will always produce good works if given the time. This is often stated, “Salvation is by faith alone, but faith is never alone.” This is why Paul states after Eph. 2:8-9 in v. 10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” However, while this seems straightforward, it turns out that this is not so easy to see in James 2:14-26 on face value. James says in 2:24: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone,” which a Catholic might say is about as clear a repudiation of justification by faith alone as you can ask for. Thus, Protestants should give a careful account of this passage, just as Catholics need to deal carefully with passages like Ephesians 2. I hope to do so below, though I will neglect giving background information for space considerations.
Intellectual assent is not enough
James begins by addressing someone who claims to have faith but has no works:
14 What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 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? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
This part is fairly straightforward, but it is important to note this: “Faith” here is described as something James’ interlocutor claims and is devoid of works. Such “faith” is what James is addressing, and he first implies that it cannot save a person and is every bit as useless as giving empty well-wishes to a cold and starving person. This is why I think the working definition of faith in this section is simply intellectual assent to right belief as opposed to the kind of faith Paul teaches about. Otherwise, James wouldn’t have asked rhetorically, “Can that faith save him?”
Also, works seems to be construed generally, though of course helping the poor is one of the commands of the Old Testament.
The illegitimate separation of faith and works
James then predicts what someone may say in the rest of the passage
18 But someone may well say, you have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (quotation marks removed)
Verses 18 and 19 in particular are very difficult to figure out because it is not clear when the quotation ends. There are no quotation marks in Greek, which is why I removed them when quoting the NASB in order to help the reader get a sense of how ambiguous it is. The NASB takes the quote all the way to the end of verse 18, though most of the other translations end the quote after the phrase “I have works.” These are the two most common choices commentators seem to take. Here are the problems with each:
- If you take the quote to the end of v. 18, James’ interlocutor states that James has faith while he has works. This makes it odd for him to tell James to show him (the interlocutor) his (James’) faith without works when James is the very one saying that faith without works is dead. It will also be strange for him to say that he will show James’ his faith by his works, as if that would somehow be an objection to James. Verse 19 would also be hard to understand; again, the person just said that he has works, so why is James is making this comparison with shuddering demons?
- If instead the quote is taken to end in the middle of v. 18, then James is telling his interlocutor to show him (James) his (interlocutor’s) faith without works, and James will show him (interlocutor) his (James’) faith by his works. However, this is also odd because the person just said that he has works, so why would James be telling him to show him (James) his (interlocutor’s) faith without works? Perhaps James is restating the person’s argument, but that’s hard to see in the text and to see why he would need to do so. Also, the issues with v. 19 still apply.
Due to this, I take a minority position: I think the interlocutor’s quote goes all the way to the end of v. 19. Not only does this make v. 20 the more natural beginning of James’ response, with the contrastive “but” and the address of “you foolish man,” it makes the most sense out of verses 18 and 19, though the argument takes some care to follow. Essentially, the interlocutor is giving an argument for the complete separation of faith and works, such that one does not have anything to do with the other.
The interlocutor is presenting a scenario: James has faith, and he has works. Then comes the challenge: Show him a faith without works, and then he will show his faith by his works. The implication is that this is impossible: Right belief without works cannot be “shown” because belief is not something tangible or visible. On the flipside, one cannot conclude right belief from good works; after all, people can do good works for a host of reasons, including wrong belief. For a modern example, other religious people like Buddhists can do good works, but it would be fallacious to conclude that they therefore have faith in Christ. Thus, James cannot make this link between faith and works, such that the absence of the latter means the nonexistence of the former.
James’ imaginary interlocutor then gives an illustration for the divorce of faith and works: He first sarcastically commends James for believing that God is one as in the Shema, but he points out that the demons also believe that. However, instead of doing good works, they shudder in fear, but that does not falsify the content of their belief. If demons can believe the right things but do no good works (obviously, they’re demons), then that is another reason to doubt a necessary connection between faith and works.
The argument can be summarized like this:
- Faith (right propositional belief) is by nature invisible.
- Correct beliefs cannot be concluded from good works.
- Individuals (like demons) can believe the right things and not do good works.
- Therefore, one cannot make conclusions about the genuineness of faith by good works.
I think viewing it this way removes a lot of the difficulties listed above, makes v. 20 into a natural transition, and clearly articulates an argument by the interlocutor which divorces faith and works, which is the obvious issue James is addressing.
Of course, the clarity of an argument doesn’t make it good, so James starts his response in v. 20, using two Old Testament examples to prove his position. The first is Abraham, who was “justified” by his works when he offered up Isaac as a sacrifice. Cut and dry against Protestants, right? Except James keeps going and says that Abraham’s faith was working with his works and was perfected as the result of works. “Perfected” here means “completed,” as it often does in the NT, so James is saying that Abraham’s faith was made complete by his act of obedience. One central aim of faith is bring about obedience, and Abraham’s act completed that intention.
This is made clearer by his OT citation of Genesis 15:6. This is a quotation used by Paul in Romans, it simply states that Abraham believed God’s promises, and it was credited to him as righteousness. This is why I do not accept the idea that James is using “justify” in this context in a way substantially different than Paul does, meaning “justified before men” and not God. However, this happened years before the Isaac episode (before Ishmael was even born), but Abraham is already declared righteous before God. This Scripture is “fulfilled,” meaning that it reaches its intended goal, when Abraham demonstrates that righteousness in obedience regarding Isaac.
Then James makes his conclusion in v. 24 that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. Recall the working definition of faith that James is arguing against that is claimed by his interlocutor: an intellectual assent to right doctrine that can be devoid of works. That “faith,” by itself, cannot justify, but must also have works. Abraham’s faith justified him before God, but his obedience confirmed the genuineness of his faith that already justified him, showing that the faith Abraham had is very different than the one James’ opponent is proposing.
James moves on to the example of Rahab, though he is less detailed here. The story is in Joshua 2 where Rahab hides the spies, and her reason for doing so is revealed in verses 8-12: She knows Israel’s God is the God of heaven and earth. In other words, her actions also confirm the faith she already had from hearing of the Lord’s victories well before the spies got there. James then concludes that just as the body without the spirit is dead, faith without works is dead. For James, a body without a spirit would just be an empty husk, and a “faith” without works is also that: Something that outwardly agrees with right belief but ultimately has no substance or life in it.
Thus, James has two examples of how justifying faith necessarily leads to good works. He is not teaching works-righteousness or his OT references would make zero sense, nor is he contradicting Paul, who never defined faith in the way James’ interlocutor does. If one takes “faith” in the latter way, then it is true that “faith” alone does not save because that’s not the kind of faith God is looking for. However, if it’s the kind that Abraham and Rahab had, a trust and fear of the living God, then that faith justifies and will eventually complete itself in works.
Works, therefore, can and should be distinguished from true faith, but it can never be divorced from faith. Doing so makes faith empty, lifeless, useless, and ultimately not true faith. When we see what view of faith that James is addressing, we see that he does not contradict Paul or justification by faith alone. He advocates the true justifying faith of Abraham, which will show and complete itself in good works (this matches his overall theme in his letter). This might take time, so we should not be quick to judge that someone’s faith is fake, but it does challenge Christians to not only examine themselves and their churches but also avoid oversimplifying the Gospel when we share it.