Author: Kevin George
This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!
James 2:14-19 “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 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? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 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. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” ESV
James is attacking the destructive ideas of Gnosticism which were entering Christianity. Gnosticism claims that there is a cosmological conflict of polar opposites like spirit versus flesh and faith versus works. In James 1:14-14 he shows that sins of the flesh originate in the individual’s mind. This is important to note because the Gnostics always wanted to have a total separation between the mind and the body – that they could sin in the flesh while simultaneously remaining pure in spirit, and this idea still infects Christianity today! There is also a Gnostic idea that faith and works are to remain irreconcilably separate, that faith is only for the mind and works are only for the body, and they must never be allowed to meet.
Because of this Gnostic poison, James is trying to make exceedingly clear that righteous actions are a byproduct of a faith which is in the mind. The connection is not accidental, nor incidental. Genuine living faith in a righteous God will produce works of righteousness which are visible and are demonstrated by righteous acts. It is not that righteous acts in themselves make a person to be righteous, as in fact a person can be devious and do a righteous act with the intent to deceive a person into trusting the devious person. The point is that genuine faith, living faith, not mere faith-on-paper or mere intellectual faith, will of necessity cause a person to do righteous deeds. To state otherwise, to separate faith from works, is to have dead faith, unproductive, unprofitable, useless faith that is not honored by God. James insists that faith must have corresponding works based on that faith, if it is to be genuine faith.
As an example of evidence, James points out something about demons who believe. This passing comment regarding demons may seem out of place unless the reader realizes that James is giving an example of unproductive, mere mental faith. In other words, believing something as a mere fact, as the demons do, is of no value unless that faith is made alive by action. Demons know the facts about God, yet deliberately rebel as demonstrated by them not doing any righteous works. By mentioning demons, James is showing that fruit-bearing faith holds true in the spiritual realm as well as in the physical human realm, which he brings up next.
James 2:20-26 “Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified [shown righteous] by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with [Gr. “synērgei”, synergistic] his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to [it reasoned] him as [Gr. “eis”, into] righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified [shown righteous] by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified [shown righteous] by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” ESV, underlines and [bracketed words added]
As examples to prove his point, James brings up the testimonies of Abraham and Rahab. In Hebrews 11:31 we read, “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies” ESV. And, in James 2:25 we read that her righteous deed was a product of her faith, just as Abraham’s deed was a product of his faith, “And in the same way [as Abraham,] was not also Rahab the prostitute justified [shown righteous] by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” When these two passages are analyzed, it is clear that Rahab’s faith, when obeyed, is the cause which produced the deed, the work of helping the spies. James links this to Abraham “in the same way”. Abraham’s mental faith is the primary cause of him doing right; he was not righteous in the absence of faith. Abraham’s faith was completed out from his works! Mere mental faith without works is incomplete and is not honored.
With the above in mind it is worth having a second look at verse 23, translated as, “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.” The underlined portion of this verse is also translated in various versions as, “it was imputed”, “it was accounted”, “it was reckoned”, or “it was credited”. However, we should take a more careful look at the Greek with an interlinear. The phrase, “it was counted to him as righteousness” is “elogisthē auto eis dikaiosynēn”. The word “eis” literally means “into”, and the word “elogisthē” means “reasoned, thought”. Furthermore, the word “episteusen”, which is “faith” is the active verb and “elogisthē” is in the passive tense, thus indicating that faith is what was driving the reasoning, that the reasoning is produced because of the faith.
What James is pointing out, especially when considering the full context of the passage, verses 20-26, is that “Abraham’s faith reasoned him into righteousness.” This is why James immediately brings up the parallel example of Rahab, whose faith also caused her to do the work of rescuing the spies. James is refuting the Gnostic claim that living faith and acts of righteousness are to be disconnected from one another. What you truly believe is what you live out in your actions (with, perhaps, some occasional lapses). Sadly, the Gnostic elements within Christianity are so strong that translators are not allowing themselves (or are not allowed by the publishers) to translate that “Abraham’s faith reasoned him into righteousness.”
Many Protestant teachers have emphasized salvation by faith to such an extreme that their followers develop a fear of doing good works, lest they develop the mistaken idea that they are earning salvation. James refutes this by inverting it and claiming that the bigger problem is to think that you can have faith and no corresponding works! It is certain that works isolated from faith provide no direct salvific benefit, but they are not to be isolated. Works are inseparable from genuine living, saving faith.