By: Dr. Hank Lindstrom
No passage in all of Scripture has been so misunderstood as James 2:14-26. “Faith without works is dead” is used again and again by those who would add works to salvation as their proof text. Most Christians don’t know how to explain James 2:14-26; therefore, when those who teach falsely use James to prove their point, seldom does anyone ever refute them. Christians need to know the answer.
Do you know how to explain James 2:14-26? Not being able to explain this passage will hinder your effectiveness as a Christian witness. So often the lost will object to the true gospel message by saying, “Faith without works is dead.” If you cannot explain this phrase, then you will make no further progress with the one to whom you are witnessing.
A new twist, also false, is to say that if you do not have works that you have no faith and, therefore, you are not saved. Many Christians have been confused and robbed of their assurance of their salvation by this presentation. Works are subtly added to the plan of salvation by this misteaching on the book of James.
First of all, James was written to the saved. James was written to the believers. Notice the phrase “my brethren” in James 1:2, James 1:16; James 1:19; James 2:1, James 2:5; James 2:14; James 3:1, etc. James writes to persons who are already saved and the subject is not how to be saved but the Christian life and how to receive rewards in heaven. James is writing to those who are “born again.” “Of his own will beget he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures (James 1:18).” The question is not loss of salvation (which is impossible: see John 6:37,39), but the loss of reward. Blessing, not salvation, is what is promised to the doer of God’s work in James 1:25.
Salvation is also without exception “the gift of God.” “For the wages of sin is death: but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23).” Look at Ephesians 2:8, 9: “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.” Read Romans chapter Five where salvation is called God’s gift six times.
James 2:14 talks about “profit”. Profit is something earned-something deserved. Salvation cannot be earned and is not deserved. Paul uses the same word “profit” in I Timothy 4:8 where again the topic is reward. “For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.”
James is speaking of the Judgment Seat of Christ (II Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10; I Corinthians 3:11-15) where reward, gain, profit, treasure or the loss of it is determined. James is saying to a believer that has faith but no works that his faith will not save him the embarrassment, regret, loss of reward that he will experience at the judgment seat of Christ (the judgment of a believer’s works for reward or loss of reward).
How do we know that James is speaking of the Judgment Seat of Christ? The context of James demands that interpretation. Notice James 2:12. “So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.” This could only be referring to the judgment of believers at the judgment seat of Christ. In James 2:14 we find no believer will be saved (exempted) from the believer’s judgment of works. No works will bring about no reward (profit). See II Corinthians 5:10.
Death in the Bible always is used to mean “separation”. Physical death is the separation of the spirit and soul from the body (See II Corinthians 5:8). The “second death” is the separation of the spirit and soul from God, in hell forever (See Revelation 20:14). Knowing this definition of death, let us examine the phrase “faith without works is dead.”
Knowing death speaks of separation and not cession of existence, let us look at James 2:26, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” If I were to die physically, my body would drop to the ground but my spirit would go to be with the Lord. “Absent from the body, present with the Lord (II Corinthians 5:8).” Would I still be alive? Yes, I have eternal life. But my body would not have any vital signs and would not display any life at all, yet I would be present with the Lord and very much alive.
In the same way, James says, “faith without works is dead.” What does he mean? Works are to faith what the body is to the spirit. The body displays the life of the spirit. Work displays faith. The only way I can display that I am alive is with my body (movement, pulse, etc.). The only way that I can display that I have faith is by my works.
If I have no works, does that mean that I have no faith? NO! NO! NO! That would be like saying that if I die physically, I would no longer exist. The truth is that I have eternal life, so though I may lose my body, I am still very much alive. If you have faith but no works, you simply cannot demonstrate to another that you have faith. That is the point James is making when he says, “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works (James 2:18).”
To be effective, to be able to demonstrate our faith, and to earn rewards, we must have works.
James speaks of justification by works before men. Paul speaks of justification by faith before God. Dr. C. I. Scofield makes the following observation in the Scofield Bible: “(These are two aspects of one truth). Paul speaks of that which justifies man before God, via: faith alone, wholly apart from works: James of the proof before men, that he who possesses to have justifying faith really has it. Paul speaks of what God sees-faith; James of what men see-works, as the visible evidence of faith. Paul draws his illustration from Genesis 15:6, James from Genesis 22:1-19. James’s key-phrase is ‘ye see’ (James 2:24), for men cannot see faith except as manifested through works.”
James teaches salvation by faith without works in James 2:23, “…Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness…” This is a quote from Genesis 15:6 where Abraham gets saved. James 2:21,22 is an illustration from Abraham’s life forty years after he was saved. It illustrates, or proves Abraham’s faith to others. “Seest thou” James 2:22. In plain English this is saying that you can see by Abraham’s willingness to slay Isaac that he had faith.
Salvation is “not of works” according to Ephesians 2:9. “Not of works” means “Not of works.” Works have no part in our salvation. Jesus Christ finished the work of salvation on the cross. We can be saved only by trusting His finished work on the cross. We can be saved only by trusting His finished work on the Cross. Why not trust Christ as your only hope of heaven? Then choose to serve Him and receive blessings, rewards, treasures in heaven, profit for eternity.