March 29, 2011

Faith That Works (James 2:14-26)

[14] 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! [20] Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? [21] Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? [22] You see that faith was active along with 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 him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. [24] You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. [25] 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? [26] For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
(James 2:14-26 ESV)

The opening line of the passage under examination introduces us to the main theme of this section (Davids 1982, 120) with two rhetorical questions (Moo 2000, 122): “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? (ESV).” The first question is a third-class conditional sentence (Blomberg and Kamell 2008, 129), indicated by the presence of the ἐάν and the subjunctive mood of the main verb λέγῃ, meaning that this is a hypothetical situation (Moo 2000, 122). However, as the same author points out, just because this is a hypothetical question does not mean that the situation is without any real basis in his readership.

The initial use of the word πίστις, Blomberg points out “is moved forward for emphasis, showing that 'faith' ... is the key concept to be explored in this passage (ibid.).” There are differing interpretations about the concept of faith here. One author asserted that this cannot mean the theological concept of faith, but must mean the Christian faith in general (Dibelius 1976, 151-2), while all the others seemed to take it as the more theological concept of faith. At this point, all the authors surveyed, with the exception of Adamson, seemed to prefer the NIV and NET's translation of λέγῃ with “claims” (Blomberg and Kamell 2008, 127) rather than the literal “says” (ESV, HCSB, KJV, and NASB). The claim to have faith is not the same thing as genuinely having faith (McCartney 2009, 155) and this, no matter “... the content of the faith in terms of orthodox belief , pious, expressions, prayers, etc. (Davids 1982, 120),” is only that, a claim. Additionally, as Blomberg also points out, “someone can 'claim' to have faith even when they do not (ibid.).” In the next clause of this sentence, James uses the term ἔργα (works; ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NET, NRSV) , which is probably “... better translated 'deeds' [or] 'acts' … to avoid confusion with Paul's teaching on nomistic religion, i.e. 'works of the law' (Martin 1988, 80-81) (see NIV for this translation).”

The second rhetorical question begins with the Greek particle “μή” indicating that the expected answer is “no” (Moo 2000, 123); BAGD s. v. “μή,” III.C.1). Moo additionally points out that the article used with πίστις is used anaphorically (Moo, ibid.) which may be defined as “... denoting previous reference (Wallace 1996, 217).” So, this may be translated as “this faith” indicating the type of faith as defined in the previous question, i.e. faith that does not have works (ibid., 219). Some have argued that the salvation that is in view in this question is not eschatalogical salvation, but merely temporal deliverance from some calamity (Moo 2000, 123). However, “the eschatalogical ring of [this] question is unmistakable” especially in view of other places in James where this same verb, σῶζω, is used in this sense (cf. 4:12; 1:21; and 5:20) (Davids 1982, 120).

In the next two verses, James presents a situation regarding the condition of some fellow believers to illustrate the point that he has just made. The sentence is once again a third-class conditional sentence, indicating, though not demanding, that this is a hypothetical situation (Moo 2000, 124). Indeed, Martin, going against the majority of scholars, thinks this is an actual situation in the church (1988, 84), which James is now using to illustrate his point.

In this illustration, the author includes both brothers (ἀδελφός) and sisters (ἀδελφή) in the faith as a means of indicating the inclusiveness of this situation (Blomberg and Kamell 2008, 130). Also, he may have included “sisters” because “women often comprised the more desperately needy and were the more easily overlooked in his society, especially when they lacked provision and protection by a father or husband (ibid.).” The text next states the condition, “poorly clothed and lacking in daily food (ESV).” “Poorly clothed” could literally be translated “naked,” from γυμνός, but could also indicate a person that is only wearing an inner layer of clothing; so, we are probably “to envisage a person inadequately dressed for the conditions … (Moo 2000, 124).” The next phrase probably connotes that the condition that these individuals were in, lacking proper clothing and daily food, was a continual state of affairs (Moo 2000, 125).

In the face of this need, someone among the congregation responds with “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” (ESV). Dibelius describes this first portion as a “Jewish word of farewell which means something like 'may it go well with you' (Dibelius 1976, 153).” There is some debate over whether the next two expressions should be taken in the middle or passive voice. If taken in the middle, which Martin prefers (1988, 85), they would mean “warm yourself, feed yourself” and if taken in the passive, it would mean “be warmed and be filled.” Whichever is the case, “the point is the same: confronted with a need among his brothers and sisters, this 'believer' does nothing but express his good wishes (Moo 2000, 125).” Blomberg, quoting Johnson, says “It is not the form of the statement that is reprehensible, but its functioning as a religious cover for the failure to act (2008, 131).” It is this kind of faith that shows itself to be dead and worthless (McCartney 2009, 157)

In verse eighteen, James once again puts forward an interlocutor to oppose, but if read naturally, this person would seem to support James' position (Blomberg and Kamell 2008, 132). McCartney identifies eight solutions (2009, 158-60) for this difficult text:

Fix the text so that it reflects what is more appropriate for the context. Two emendations have been suggest: (a) the original text read “you have works, but I have faith,” or (b) the interlocutors statement has been lost to history and all that remains is James' response. Either option is questionable at best. (McCartney 2009, 158).

The interlocutor is an ally, not an opponent of James (Adamson 1976, 124-25). This doesn't seem to fit the text though, because the introductory phrase, “someone will say,” always is used to set up an opposing viewpoint. Also, the insult in verse 20, “O foolish man” would not seem to indicate that the person he is referring to is any ally. (McCartney 2009, 158)

The interlocutor's words stop after the first few words of verse 18, which should be read as a question: “Do you have faith?” However, the contracted conjunction κἀγώ between “you have faith” and “I have works, would not seem to allow for this. (ibid.)

All of 2:18-19 represents the opponent's Paulinist viewpoint which is questioning James if all he believes is Jewish monotheism (ibid., 159)

All of 2:18-19 represents the interlocutor's view which is that of an “unbelieving Jew who is critiquing Christian reliance on faith (ibid.)” and is a partial ally of James.

All of 2:18-19 is the interlocutor speaking and we are to follow the Byzantine textual tradition on the first sentence, so that it reads “show me your faith by your works...” instead of “show me your faith without works...” With this solution, the interlocutor is ridiculing the notion that faith can be shown through action.

James simply got mixed up and used the wrong personal pronouns. However, if this were the case, since this is an encyclical letter, this sort of error never would have made it past the first round of copying (McCartney 2009, 159-60)

18a represents the position of the interlocutor; however, instead of the personal pronouns being taken to refer to his faith as opposed to James' works, rather they are used as saying “one person says this, another that (ibid., 160).” This is what is considered to be the consensus view among modern commentators (Blomberg and Kamell 2008, 133).

Blomberg proposes a ninth option, which he says is the best, but is hardly ever considered (ibid., 134). In this view, verse 18a should be seen as indirect discourse. What this means is that James is rephrasing the position of his opponent; so, the personal pronouns in the texts are taken literally: the “you” (σύ) refers to the interlocutor, while the “I” (ἐγώ) refers to James. One of these last two positions seems the most preferable in light of the challenge that James presents next: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works (ESV).”

The phrase “You believe that God is one” in verse nineteen does not indicate a personal trust in God, as in the Pauline sense of “faith.” Rather, it reflects a sterile recitation of creed, specifically the Jewish Shemah (Martin 1988, 89; Davids 1982, 125). James, here is not denigrating this confession, he is merely arguing that it is not sufficient to save a person which is demonstrated by the next line: “Even the demons believe—and shudder (ESV)!”

In verses twenty through twenty-six, James presents two examples of the concept that he has been proclaiming up to this point: Abraham and Rahab. In verse twenty there are a couple of bits of lexical information that are worth mentioning. “Foolish” translates a word that literally means “empty” and probably connotes “a lack of understanding … with the implication that the intellectual failure has moral bases or implications(Moo 2000, 132).” Also, the word “ἀργός” is a contraction of “α-,” the negative prefix, and “ἐργόν” (work) and so the phrase could be translated “ without works, does not work (Moo 2000, 132; Witherington 2007, 477).”

First, James makes an appeal to Abraham: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works…?” The “οὐκ” in this question indicates that the answer that he expected was “yes” (Blomberg and Kamell 2008, 136; Davids 1982, 127). The fact that Abraham is called “our father” does not prove that the writer or recipients were Jews because, while he was the physical ancestor of the Jews, he was also considered to be the spiritual father of Christians as well (Rom. 4:16f; Gal 3:7, 29) (Dibelius 1976, 161).

Since the time of the Reformation, the usage of δικαιόω in this verse has sparked a great deal of debate and discussions (McCartney 2009, 161). Certainly not least among these is Luther's own comments where he said that it was:

“... in direct opposition to St. Paul and all the rest of the Bible, it ascribes justification to works, and declares that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered up his son. St. Paul, on the contrary in Romans 4 [:3], teaches that Abraham was justified without works, by his faith alone, the proof being Genesis 15 [:6], which was before he sacrificed his son.” (Luther 1962, 35)

There are five meanings that McCartney identifies (2009, 162-3) in biblical literature: (1) “to give justice,” (2) “to declare someone to be righteous,” (3) “to prove or demonstrate that someone is righteous,” (4) “to clear a dept obligation,” and (5) “to cause someone to behave righteously.” Meanings 1 and 4 can be eliminated because they do not fit the context. Meaning 5 is barely possible, but is extremely rare (McCartney 2009, 163). This leaves only the forensic or demonstrative meanings. In Paul, the primary usage of this verb is the forensic one. However, in this epistle, James is not arguing against some form of nomism, where someone would try to earn favor before God by works of the Law, he is arguing against a work-less faith. So, in this context, Abraham's “readiness to sacrifice Isaac was proof of his faith and revealed the basic relationship of obedience (Adamson 1976, 129).” This point is made explicit in the next verse where it says that “... faith worked together with his works, and was made perfect by his works (author's translation).” According to Moo, verb τελειόω, could mean “reach its intended goal;” so, here, “Abraham's faith … reached its intended goal when the patriarch did what God was asking him to do (Moo 2000, 137).” This obedience, in offering his son as a sacrifice, fulfilled, or brought to completion (McCartney 2009, 169), what was earlier said of him, that he “believed God, and it was counted to him righteousness.” So, now, James reiterates his main point that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” which, as has been shown, means that they are shown to be righteous by works working together with faith and not by faith apart from works.

As a final example of his point, James presents the Canaanite harlot Rahab. Although no “justifying” word is spoken of her in the text of Joshua 2, she is shown to be righteous by the fact that by faith she took in the Israelite spies (see Hebrews 11:31) (McCartney 2009, 171) and thus, her faith was wedded with action.

In verse 26 he restates the central themes of this passage “that faith apart from works is dead,” closing a literary bracket around the discussion of faith, works, and salvation (Moo 2000, 143).

At the end of his chapter on this passage, Moo (2000, 144) points to a quote from Luther that summarizes the meaning of this passage:

O, when it comes to faith, what a living, creative, active, powerful thing it is. It cannot do other than good at all times. It never waits to ask whether there is some good work to do, Rather, before the question is raised, it has done the deed, and keeps doing it. A man not active in this way is a man without faith. He is groping about for faith and searching for good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Nevertheless, he keeps on talking nonsense about faith and good works. (Luther 1962, 24)


  • Adamson, James. 1976. The Epistle of James. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Erdmans.
  • Blomberg, Craig L., and Mariam J. Kamell. 2008. James. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
  • Davids, Peter. 1982. The epistle of James: a commentary on the Greek text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Dibelius, Martin. 1976. James : a commentary on the epistle of James. Trans. Heinrich Greeven. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
  • Luther, Martin. 1962. Martin Luther : selections from his writings. Ed. John Dillenberger. New York: Anchor Books.
  • Martin, Ralph. 1988. James. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco: Word Books.
  • McCartney, Dan. 2009. James. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
  • Moo, Douglas. 2000. The letter of James. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Wallace, Daniel. 1996. Greek grammar beyond the basics. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
  • Witherington, Ben. 2007. Letters and homilies for Jewish Christians : a socio-rhetorical commentary on Hebrews, James and Jude. Letters and Homilies to Hellenized Christians. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic.

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