James 2:14-26 (NIV)

14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action is dead.

18 But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds."

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder.

20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.


Problem of James' Argument

Issue: Does James contradict Paul on the relationship of faith and works?

  • Paul: "For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Rom 3:28).
  • James: "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone" (Jas 2:24).

Problematic Answers

Example #1

  • Martin Luther believed that James does, in fact, contradict Paul and he rejected canonical status of James.
  • "It [letter of James] is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works."
  • Luther believed it impossible to reconcile James with Paul, claiming that if anyone could, "I'll put my professor's hat on him and let him call me a fool!"

Example #2

  • Some modern scholars echo Luther on the impossibility of reconciling James with Paul on subject of faith and works.
  • Josef B. Soucek (1902-1972): "The statements of James cannot be brought into harmony with the authentic Paul and what we confront is not only a tension but an antithesis" ("Zu den Problemen des Jakobusbriefes," Evangelische Theologie 18 [1958] 467)

Example #3

  • Other modern scholars see in James 2:14-26 evidence of a split within the early church.
  • James D. G. Dunn: "It is obvious then that what is reflected here is a controversy within Christianity--between that stream of Jewish Christianity which was represented by James at Jerusalem on the one hand, and the Gentile churches or Hellenistic Jewish Christians who had been decisively influenced by Paul's teaching on the other" (Unity and Diversity in the New Testament [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977] 251-252)

Example #4

  • "Lordship Salvation Debate" within the Evangelical wing of the church
    Issue: Is Jesus our Savior or our Lord?
    James 2:14-26 played a key role in this debate.
  • Position #1: Jesus is our Savior!
    • To be saved one must simply and only believe in Jesus.
    • Emphasis on free nature of grace obtained through faith.
    • Charge against "Lordship" proponents: they are guilty of legalism, works-righteousness.
  • Position #2: Jesus is our Lord!
    • To be saved one must not only believe in Jesus but also submit one's life to the lordship of Christ Emphasis on transforming character of grace which shows itself in good works or holy living.
    • Charge against "Savior" proponents: they are guilty of cheap grace, easy believism.


Verse 14a: "What good is it?"

  • Greek phrase τί  τὸ  ὄφελος (ti to ophelos) literally means "What [is] the benefit?"
  • A fixed expression of that day that always expected a negative answer (1 Cor 15:32; Sir 20:30; 41:14; Philo, On the Posterity of Cain 86; Epictetus, Discourses 1.4.16; 1.6.33; 3.7.30; 3.24.51)
  • Not a real question with an unknown answer but an assertion that faith without works is worth nothing!

Verse 14b: "Can such faith save him?"

  • Instead of referring to faith generically as "faith," James uses the definite article "the faith."
    • James is thus not speaking about faith in general or in the abstract but the specific kind of faith described in the first half of the verse, namely, the kind of faith where someone claims to have faith but no works.
    • Some translations are misleading when they translate verse 14b as "Can faith save you?" (KJV; NRSV)
    • NIV interprets this correctly by translating it with the adjective "such faith"--thereby pointing the reader back to the specific kind of faith described in the immediately preceding clause ("that faith": NASB; NJB; ESV; "faith like that": NCV; "that kind of faith": NLB)
  • Yet the NIV (and all other translations) lose something else in translation: What kind of question is verse 14b?
    • Three ways to ask a question in Greek:
      • A neutral question where speaker does not know the answer
      • A "loaded" question where the speaker asserts the answer:
        • "Yes!": question is introduced with the negative οὐ, ou
        • "No!”: question is introduced with negative μὴ,
  • Verse 14b is a loaded question where the James asserts the answer to be "No!"
    • Best translation: "Such faith is not able to save him, is it?"
    • James, as with the opening question "What good is it?," is not raising a real question but rather asserting something.

Verse 15: "Suppose a brother or sister ..."

  • Greek literally reads: "If a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food ..."
    • 3rd Class Condition: some scholars view this type of condition as describing a hypothetical situation (thus NIV "Suppose ...").
      Better to view 3rd class condition as describing a general or common situation
    • James is thus dealing not with a rare problem but a wide-spread, common problem among the Jewish churches.
  • James does not use his standard gender-inclusive "brother" but intentionally has fuller phrase "brother or sister."
    • This fact can be lost in most gender-inclusive translations that regularly render the simple "brother." as "brother or sister."
    • James highlights the plight of a needy "sister" likely because women were often overlooked in a patriarchal society, especially when they lost the provisional and protective help of either a father or husband.

Verse 15: "... lacking daily food"

  • Greek participle "lacking" (λειπόμενοι, leipomenoi) is given in the present tense.
  • This emphasizes that the poverty described in this verse is an ongoing or enduring situation.
  • Grammar thus stresses the seriousness of the historical context where the church is neglecting the significant and ongoing needs of fellow brothers or sisters.

Verse 16: "Keep warm and well fed!"
     (θερμαίνεσθε  καὶ  χορτάζεσθε)
     Middle or Passive voice?

  • Passive voice
    • Subject receives the action
    • "Be warm and be well fed!"
    • Unspoken agent of the action of being warmed and well fed is not stated--either God (so-called "divine passive") or another person.
    • Speaker is blind to the fact that he or she is in a position to help the poor believer be warm or be well fed.
  • Middle voice:
    • Subject does the action (as also in active voice), often with reflexive emphasis:
    • "Warm yourselves and feed yourselves!"
    • Insult to poor believers is even greater here, since they are told to take care of their needs themselves with no outside help from others.
    • Ralph P. Martin: "Probably the middle is better here for both verbs, though either voice points to the fact that some professed believers are failing to meet the needs of other church members" (James. Waco, Texas: Word, 1988, p. 85).

Verse 19: "... and they (the demons) shudder"

  • Greek verb φρίσσῶ (phrissô) is a hapax legomenon--word occurring only one time in NT.
  • Verb often used with hair of either people ("to have one's hairs stand on end”) and animals ("to bristle") in context of fear (LSJ 1955).
    • Strong verb meaning more than slight shuddering; refers to uncontrollable, uncontainable, violent shaking from extreme fear and terror.
    • Cognate noun φρικῆ, (phrikê) is where we get English word "fright."
    • Verb occurs frequently in magical papyri of demons reaction to exorcism spells.
  • Demons' faith in the existence and oneness of God elicits response of terror.
  • See also response of demons to Jesus in Mark 1:23-28 ("the evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek") and 5:1-20

Verse 20b: "... is useless"

  • Full verse reads: "You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without works is useless?"
  • Greek word for "useless" (ἀργή, argê) is a compound word made up of two parts (α + ἔργον) meaning "without work."
  • Occurs immediately after noun "works."
  • James thus makes a clever pun or word-play that in English might be rendered: "Faith without works does not work!"
  • Rhetorical function of the pun
    • 1st function: Makes the reader favorably disposed to the author and what the author is saying.
    • 2nd function: Draws attention to the statement being made, namely, that the kind of faith that is not accompanied by works is useless. ("Faith without works does not work!")

Verse 21: What kind of question is it?

  • Here, as in v 14b, we meet not a neutral question but a loaded question.
  • This time, however, the expected answer to the question is "Yes!"
  • "Yes--our father Abraham was indeed considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar!"

Verse 22: "...his actions were working"

  • Note 1st the plural "actions" (ergois).
  • Note 2nd the unique form of the verb "were working" (synêrgei) which uses the rarer imperfect tense that highlights the ongoing and continuous nature of the action.
  • James does not have in view only the one act of Abraham offering up Isaac but the actions (plural!) which throughout Abraham's life were part of his faith.

Verse 24: Significance of word order

  • Word order in verse 24: "You see that out of works is justified a person and not out of faith alone."
  • Prepositional phrase "out of works" is pushed by James to the front of the sentence for emphasis (see also questions of vv 21, 25), thereby stressing his argument that "works" or "deeds" are the means by which believers prove that they have true, saving faith in contrast to "faith alone"--that is, a false, non-saving faith that is devoid of works

Verse 25: What kind of question is it?

  • Here again we meet not a neutral question but a loaded question.
  • This time, as with question about Abraham in verse 21, the expected answer to the question is "Yes!"
  • "Yes"--in the same way Rahab the prostitute was indeed considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction!

Last modified: Tuesday, August 7, 2018, 10:45 AM