4 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
18 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.
19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed upon him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.
24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?
26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
Theology vs. Life
This may well be the most controversial text in all the Bible. Many avoid James' epistle because they will not face up to this text.
We need to recognize that much can be separated in analysis that cannot be separated in life. We can and of necessity do analyze the human respiratory system and the circulatory system separately, but neither can exist without the other. Faith in theology is tied to the doctrine of salvation, and works to sanctification, but, just as breathing is necessary for the life of the heart, so too are works to a living faith. This is why James can say, "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only" (v. 24). Those who would separate faith and works can only do so theologically, and they should do so, but in life the two are inseparable. To take a theological distinction and assume that in life what is an otherwise valid and necessary difference is a radical separation of one from the other is to confuse dissection with life.
James confronts us with this fact: "What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works, can faith save him?" (v. 14) Can a man live with a heart only, and not lungs?
James then uses a very practical illustration of the interconnection of faith and works. Given the need for charity in the Jerusalem Christian synagogue, and like churches elsewhere, his example is both blunt and real. If a fellow believer is naked and hungry, and if we simply say, "Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled," or, "we will pray for you," and nothing more, what good is all this? Such a professed faith, having no works, is dead. It is dead because faith cannot stand alone: it manifests itself in works (vv. 1517).
James is not antitheology; what he is against is the separation of theology from life, the reduction of faith to easy-believism, and the negation of action as the expression of faith. Neither valid faith nor valid works can be separated one from another. How can any man demonstrate a valid faith without works? Faith is shown by works (v. 18).
Simple belief saves no man. "Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble" (v. 19). A more blunt and telling statement of the case cannot be imagined. Those in hell, beginning with the very devils, believe that God is; the knowledge makes them tremble, but it does not save them.
"But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?" (v. 20) Such a man is called vain by James. The word is kenos, meaning empty, foolish, senseless, purposeless; it is highly uncomplimentary. James does not dignify the position as one of valid dissent: it is a fool's opinion.
Then, in vv. 2124, James turns to Abraham, the covenant father, revered alike by Jews and Christians. He says without qualification that Abraham was "justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar" (v. 21). The reality of Abraham's faith was manifested in his readiness to obey God, even to binding Isaac to the altar (Gen. 22:9). God waited until Abraham's faith was shown by his works before He delivered Isaac.
James continues, "Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect" (v. 22). Literally, James says, "faith worked with his works." Faith became works, a realization of itself. Faith expressed itself, or revealed itself, in works. There is an essential connection between the two.
This, James says, is what the Scripture means when it says, "Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God" (v. 23).
It is in 2 Chronicles 20:7 that Abraham is called God's "friend for ever." In Genesis 15:6, we are told that Abraham "believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness." Paul cites this verse in Romans 4:3 and Galatians 3:6. Paul uses the text to criticize the idea of salvation through works, James to call attention to the emptiness of faith without works. It was Paul who, in Romans 3:31, said, "Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: we establish the law." Above all, our Lord in Matthew 7:1623 makes totally clear that "Ye shall know them by their fruits," i.e., by their works.
It is plain, James insists, that a man is justified by his works, not by faith only (v. 24). Works manifest the reality of a man's faith, so that his justification is shown to be real by his works, not by his faith only.
James then gives another illustration, Rahab. The account in Joshua makes obvious the terror of the people of Jericho. They knew what God had done to other peoples, so they believed that the Hebrews' God was working to destroy their enemies. Only Rahab acted on that faith; her works alone showed the reality of her faith. Hence, James says, she was justified by her works, i.e., her justification was manifested in her works.
Very clear in all that James has to say is that both faith and works have reference to God and to His law. The Council of Trent related faith to assent to the church, and too many Protestant groups have in practice tended to do the same. Both faith and works must be seen as essentially a trust in and obedience to God and His inscriptured Word.
James concludes with another blunt statement: "For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also" (v. 26). James does not say it is weak, but rather that it is dead. Here again, as in the Sermon on the Mount, and all the gospels and epistles, we are told how to "judge righteous judgment" (Jn. 7:24). There are many who follow ancient Greek thinking to say that we cannot know a man's heart and therefore cannot judge him, whereas our Lord says plainly, "by their fruits ye shall know them" (Mt. 7:20). Works are faith in action, faith made manifest.