“Faith Without Works Is Dead”

Daniel Morden

 

You see then that a man is justified [dikaioutai] by works [ergōn], 

and not by faith [pisteōs] only. James 2:24

 

Therefore we conclude that a man is justified [dikaiousthai] by faith [pistei

apart from the deeds [ergōn] of the law. Romans 3:28

 

On the surface, reading these two verses together gives the impression that James and Paul, their respective authors, are at odds with one another. It is made even more obvious in James 1:21, where James makes Abraham’s actions the “cause or instrument of his being ‘justified.’”[1] Looking at these verses, isolated from their context, certainly gives us pause. The issue does not lie with our translation of the Greek: as we see above, Paul and James are using the same words! How can two inspired authors write such seeming contradictions? Are we doomed to perpetual confusion? 

 

In attempting to understand and unite both of their arguments, it will help to look at contextual and semantic differences between Paul and James.[2]

 

Contextual differences

 

It is famously reported by Alexander Ross that there is no conflict at all, since James and Paul “are not antagonists facing each other with crossed swords; they stand back to back, confronting different foes of the Gospel.”[3] While this is an encouraging prospect, can it be established from the text?

From the outset, James is very practically-minded. It is evident that action is important to him. He does not want the Jewish converts to whom he writes calling themselves believers in Christ if they do not act in a godly way. He wants them to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (1:22), and points out that “If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless” (1:26). It is clear that James wants his audience to be busy doing good. Later, he writes that the wise person must “show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom” (3:13).

 

Paul’s context, in contrast, is different: He writes to churches in the province of Asia, as well as the great city of Rome. In many of his epistles, he is facing off against opponents who argue that being right before God can be accomplished by following the Mosaic law. He emphasizes the fact that faith in Christ—and this faith alone—is the means by which a person can be acquitted in God’s courtroom.

 

This is where, I think, James has suffered: We read James as if he were Paul. Douglas Moo writes that “they give the appearance of a conflict because they are writing from very different vantage points in order to combat very different problems.”[4]

 

Semantic Differences

 

Where we will focus most of our efforts in this short article is how Paul and James used the same words in their epistles. “We perhaps need to remind ourselves that neither James nor Paul defined their terms; they used words that came from various settings with meanings that were assumed, and sometimes they tweaked the assumptions.”[5] Dowd concisely agrees, “James is using Paul’s vocabulary, but not his dictionary.”[6]

 

A brief examination of three key terms (faith, works, justification) will shed light on James’ conception of how faith and works interact.

 

Faith

 

For James, a faith apart from works is useless (2:14), ineffective (2:14), dead (2:17), and futile (2:20). Simply, James appears to be using “faith” to delineate a bare confession of monotheism, a belief that “God is one” (2:19). Moreover, Moo rightly focuses on the “alone” of verse 24, making it abundantly evident that “faith alone” is merely “a neat summary of the bogus faith that James is criticizing.”[7]

 

James writes “even the demons believe [pisteuousin]—and tremble!” So “faith alone” means a bogus kind of faith, mere intellectual agreement without a genuine personal trust in Christ that bears fruit. Mere mental assent to the Christian faith does not save anyone. The faith that saves, as both Paul and James affirm, embraces the truth of the gospel and acts accordingly.

In 2:19, James says in effect, “‘So, you are a monotheist. Congratulations! You have now achieved the spiritual maturity of a demon!’” We see in the New Testament that the demons have an orthodox picture of who Christ is. “Any ‘faith’ that can be attributed to the most implacable opponents of God’s reign is certainly ‘not able to save’ anyone.”[8]

 

James is attacking an understanding of “faith” that sees it merely as a pious sentiment or an intellectual acceptance of doctrine.”[9] Paul does not use pistis (faith) in this manner—as a simple intellectual assent. He uses “faith” to denote a confidence in God’s saving act in Christ, who died for our trespasses and was raised from the dead for our justification (Rom 4:24–25). Paul would not have been able to attribute faith of any kind to demons. So in this brief investigation of their separate uses of “faith,” it appears that Paul and James are using the term in different ways.[10] In the words of J. Gresham Machen, “the faith that James is condemning is not the faith that Paul is commending.”[11]

 

Works

 

Simply put, James’ assertion is that a lack of works (or a practice of evil works) negates a simple verbal confession of faith. He writes that works are not to be viewed as an “added extra” any more than breath is to be taken as an “added extra” to a living body.[12] As Paul contends that men are justified without the aid of works, so James will not allow any to be regarded as justified who are destitute of good works.[13]

 

There is a nuanced difference between Paul and James at this point, but not an insurmountable one. Paul often uses “works” in conjunction with “law” to indicate conformity to the law of Moses, whereas James seems to use the term to describe a Christocentric interpretation of the law, more in line with the Sermon on the Mount. Either way, in general terms, both James and Paul use “works” to indicate actions which God has instructed His people to do. Paul writes that these works on their own cannot justify, and James writes that those who believe are justified by doing them (2:21, 24). 

 

Justification

 

Of course, having just read that, we must come to an understanding that James cannot be using dikaioō (“to justify”) in the same way Paul does. This is the heart of the matter. When James writes that “Abraham our father was justified by works,” does he mean that at that moment in time, because he raised the knife to kill Isaac, God forensically declared him innocent?

 

The particulars of justification are not minor aspects of Christian theology. These are hefty, profound distinctions. In fact, what the Bible teaches about the believer’s justification was one of the primary causes of the Reformation. 

In verse 18, James raises the question of whether faith and works can be separated. After all, Paul writes that 1 Cor. 12:9 that faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. How Can James expect every believer to have both gifts—faith and works? James introduces a set of statements intended to contrast one another and to teach that the two are inseparable. He pits the concept of “faith without works” over against “faith with works.” Demons have faith without works, but Abraham had faith with works. So, based on the flow of the argument, when James writes in verse 21 that Abraham was “justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar, “he clearly intends Abraham to be taken as an example of ‘faith with works.’”[14]

 

James, on the one hand, is asking how God knew Abraham was righteous when He made the statement in Genesis 22:12, and how the reader can know that the faith in Genesis 15:6 was a trust that actually justified Abraham. The answer is—from his deeds. And without such deeds any claim of righteousness or of faith is empty.

 

Paul, on the other hand, is pointing out that both Jews and Gentiles are equally short of God’s standard of righteous judgment, and thus the issue for him is how God will make the unrighteous righteous. The answer is—not through obedience to the law but through commitment to and faith in Jesus Christ. Paul and James use their terms in different ways because they address different issues.

 

Calvin’s assertion is that James did not write about how a person becomes justified, but how they demonstrate that they are justified. This definitely alleviates much perceived tension between Paul and James, provided this a legitimate use of the word “justified.” While it is not the most common use of dikaioō (“to justify”) in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, it is still defensible.[15] While debated, Mat 11:19 and Luke 10:29 show this usage in the New Testament. James has valid etymological grounds to use it in this sense. When James speaks of the justification of Abraham in Genesis 22, it is based on his works. Abraham’s obedience to the point of slaying his son of promise demonstrated that his faith was genuine.[16]

 

Paul and the other New Testament Also Accentuate Works

 

Although on the surface it may seem as if James is contradicting Paul’s “by grace you have been saved through faith … not a result of works” (Eph. 2:8–9), in reality there is no dichotomy between faith and works, for Paul and James both would agree that the basis of salvation is grace alone through faith, with works not the basis but the necessary result thereof. After all, Paul can confidently state in Romans 2:6 that God will “render to each one according to his deeds.” Here he focuses on action, not saving faith. Finally, nowhere does James give the impression that works alone, apart from faith, can save. He and James are not so different after all![17]

 

So what does this all mean?

 

When all of this data is assembled, when James is read in the context of the New Testament, and on his own etymological terms, his theology is remarkably similar to Paul’s.[18] There is no contradiction; in fact, his voice is a much-needed one in our age. James is certainly not alone when he heavily emphasizes the importance of works. After all, as he and other New Testament authors write, faith that is not accompanied by action is useless and dead, unable to save.

 

Let me end with an illustration: Joe loves cars. He studied automotive engineering in university. He comprehends the laws of physics, and can explain with ease the inner workings of the internal combustion engine. He has a knack for automotive repair, diagnosing engine problems and fixing them. He loves watching car races in person and on the television. In addition to this, Joe is also well-versed in the rules of the road. He even excels at the most realistic driving games on his game console at home. But I think you know where we are going with this: Joe has never been behind the wheel of an actual car. 

 

Is Joe a driver? He certainly knows more than I do about cars, but I have actually driven, whereas he has not.

 

In the same way, James argues that a simple academic knowledge of faith; a faith which does not translate into practice is no faith at all. It is a verbal profession, and nothing more. This faith is intellectual assent, devoid of any real trust. This is not a faith which can save. This is a dead faith. True faith must find some expression other than verbalization or pious sentiment.[19]

And so we must conclude with James that faith without works is indeed dead. It is of no profit on two counts: “it has no efficacy for the person claiming this kind of a faith, for such self-delusion (cf 1:22) can end only in eschatological disaster, and it does nothing to alleviate the suffering of the needy, who are not helped by pious words alone.”[20]

 

You and I must have a faith that is more than a simple verbal profession—a belief in the risen Lord that does more than wish for the wellbeing of others (2:14–16). You and I must act. We must practice kindness, generosity, justice, and humility. We are certainly not saved by our works, but one of James’ significant contributions to the canon of Scripture and the revealed will of God is a sobering one: we are certainly not saved without them.

 

Daniel Morden is Managing Editor of the Gospel Witness.

 

  1. Douglas Moo, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 133.

  2. From the outset, I reject the idea that these two men contradict each other. The differences between them are far from insuperable, as many have argued before me. Due to the scope of this article, I aim only to highlight a few of the arguments raised in support of their theological harmonization, viz., their contextual and semantic differences.

  3. Alexander Ross, The Epistles of James and John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954.), 53.

  4. Moo, The Letter of James, 121.

  5. Scot McKnight, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 260.

  6. Sharyn Dowd, “Faith that Works: James 2:14–26,” Review and Expositor 97 (2000): 202.

  7. Moo, The Letter of James, 141.

  8. Dowd, “Faith that Works,” 198.

  9. Ralph Martin, James (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988), 80.

  10. One of the clearest examples of a faith which does not save is in John 2:23–24, where John writes of the crowds following Jesus early in His ministry: “many believed [episteusan] in His name when they saw the signs which He did.” But were the masses saved? Are they in glory now? John’s next sentence is telling: “But Jesus did not commit [episteuen] Himself to them, because He knew all men.”

  11. J. Gresham Machen, Machen’s Notes on Galatians, ed. John H. Skilton (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1972), 220.

  12. Peter Davids, Commentary on James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 122.

  13. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2011), 3.17.12 [p. 536]. In pithy format, Calvin famously states in his Antidote to the Council of Trent (1547), “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.”

  14. Ronald Y. K. Fung, “‘Justification’ in the Epistle of James,” in Right With God, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 152. Fung’s writing is a valuable treatment of this subject.

  15. Passages from the Old Testament which seem to make use of dikaioō in this sense are Isa 45:25; Isa 50:8; Ezek 16:51; Job 33:32. Many translations use the term “vindicate,” “prove right,” or “justify.” 

  16. Moo discusses this meaning, but discounts it, tentatively accepting the meaning of an eschatological vindication. He argues that James has salvation in mind (1:21–27; 2:12–13). So, in his interpretation, “‘justify’ in Paul refers to how a person gets into relationship with God, while in James it connotes what the relationship must ultimately look like to receive God’s final approval” (Moo, 135). Davids and McKnight also hold to this interpretation. I tentatively side with others, such as Calvin, Martin, and Maxwell (“Justified by Works and Not by Faith Alone: Reconciling Paul and James,” Concordia Journal 33:375–378.), who contend that this view seems to promulgate judgement ultimately on the basis of works.

  17. Not just Paul, but other New Testament authors call for a changed life. See, for example, Eph. 2:10, Mat 7:21, and 1 John 2:4. In Hebrews 11, all are commended for their faith, but faith enabled all these saints. None are commended for simply confessing their faith. They are all commended for what they did by faith.

  18. I am by no means arguing that conformity to Paul should be the criterion of New Testament theology. I merely believe that having written much of the New Testament, Paul’s terminology and word usage are simply better known than James’. 

  19. Martin, James, 81.

  20. Martin, James, 82.