2:14 What is the benefit, my brothers, if someone should say to have faith but should not have works? The faith is not able to save him, is it?
Works for James, as we have already seen, have to do with what we traditionally think of as "good works," helping those in need like the poor, widows, and orphans (1:27). We have seen thus far a significant concern on James' part that leaders not pander to wealthy patrons but that they instead love their neighbor who is in need, the poor in their community. In this well known section, James continues the theme of hearing and not doing that he began in chapter 1:22-27.
Those who say they have faith but no works to prove it are like those who are hearers of the word but not doers. James here makes it clear that such a person will not be saved, will not escape condemnation on the day of judgment. Faith alone, understood as a mere assent to certain beliefs, is inadequate to save.
2:15-17 If a brother or sister is naked and lacking daily food and someone of you should say to them, "Go in peace. Be warm and fed," and you do not give them the needs of the body, what is the benefit? So also faith, if it should not have works, is dead by itself.
Here we see by example what James understands by "works." Works are the kinds of things that Matthew mentions in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:31-46): welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty. The rich person James has mentioned in 1:9-11 and 2:2-7 has the resources to help those in need but does not do so. Leaders in the community might be able to help those in need, and James' exhortation is surely directed primarily at them.
Faith without works is dead, like a body without a spirit. It is of no use. It does not do anything.
2:18 But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
The original Greek of this verse presents some complications. Ancient Greek largely did not use punctuation, including quotation marks, so scholars debate exactly where the quote ends and what the precise nature of the question is. By far we believe the above punctuation is most likely.
James' imaginary conversation partner simply claims to be a different person, one that has faith but who does not do works. James is a different type of person, one who does works. James somewhat mockingly, without completely denying the other person's "faith," points out the ironic that his faith shows in his works. The other person's faith, on the other hand, is dead faith.
2:19 You have faith that God is one. You are doing well. The demons also have faith and they tremble.
One disadvantage of reading the Bible in English is that you cannot see the similarities between various words. In English, the word faith and the word believe look quite different, and we might strongly distinguish them. But in Greek, these are varying meanings of the same word, the pist- root. Since we believe James is talking here about an inadequate faith rather than something that is not faith at all, we have chosen to translate accordingly.
The person James is indicting says that they have faith without works. The demons, James points out, have this level of faith. This is a mere belief that does not impact one's life. It is a mere assent with one's head without any real investment with one's heart. You believe that God is one, the affirmation of the Jewish Shema. Any mainstream Jew might affirm such a thing. The rich Jewish patron visiting your small Christian Jewish gathering would.
But this level of faith is no different than the amount of faith that the demons have, and they are still facing the judgment. And so will those within the community whose faith goes no further than mere assent to certain beliefs.
2:20 Do you want to know, O foolish person, that faith without works is ineffective?
This verse repeats the idea that faith without works is dead from 2:17 in a slightly different way. James uses a word play difficult to translate into English--faith without works (erga) is useless (arga). Those who think they are okay simply because they believe with their heads are foolish.
2:21 Was not Abraham, our father, justified by works after he offered his son Isaac on the altar?
From this point on in the chapter, we increasingly begin to sense that James is interacting with Pauline tradition in some form. We do not believe that James' thinking here actually contradicts Paul's thought, even though on some levels it may sound as if it does. Indeed, Paul and James did likely disagree on some issues as we play out the principles of their comments. Even further, they probably thought they disagreed! But nothing that has made it into the biblical text itself seems irreconcilable between the two.
James is still arguing that the faith that counts before God is a faith that issues forth in obedience and action. Paul certainly agreed with this idea as well. Here James brings up the well known story of Genesis 22 in which God tells Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, and Abraham obeys until God releases him.
2:22 You see that faith was working together with his works and faith was completed through works.
Again, this statement does not seem to contradict Paul's theology. Paul knew nothing of a faith in Jesus as Lord that did not result in the fruit of the Spirit--love, joy, peace, and so forth (Gal. 5:22-23). Ephesians 2:8, the classic "justification by grace through faith" verse, is immediately followed in 2:9 with the observation that "we were created for good works in Christ." Paul's theology may be more precise in the mechanism of justification, but the "product," what real faith looks like, is the same for both. Both faith and works are necessary to have the full package. They go together.
2:23 And the Scripture was fulfilled that says, "And Abraham had faith in God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," and he was called "a friend of God."
It is this verse more than any other that makes it very difficult to argue that James is not interacting with some type of Pauline tradition. This verse in Genesis 15:6 is a key passage in Paul's arguments for justification by faith (e.g., Gal. 3:6; Rom. 4:3). James is clearly responding to a "faith only" position of some kind, although not really to Paul's actual position on these issues.
Some have thus argued that James is writing very early, perhaps even earliest of any New Testament writing. In this scenario, James has only heard rumors of Paul's teaching and so does not quite have him right. One might note that James urges Paul to remember the poor in Galatians 2:10 when they finally did have a chance to talk at length.
Alternatively, one might argue that James is late, a generalized version of the historical James' own emphases in response to a perversion of Paul's teaching that arose after his death. While it is true that Paul did at points seem to point out that all justification is a matter of grace--that no one could truly earn God's favor--most of Paul's discussion of justification centers around works of Law rather than works in general. That is to say, when Paul argued against justification by works of Law, he was primarily arguing that matters like circumcision, food laws, and sabbath observance could not make a Jew right with God in themselves. Only the faithful death of Christ could bring about true justification.
In either case, James is not addressing the real point of debate between Paul and James during the central time of their disagreement. Their real point of disagreement centered on whether Jewish Christians were justified both by the faithful and necessary death of Christ and by their faithfulness to God's covenant with Israel, which of course included keeping the Jewish particulars we mentioned above. They also disagreed apparently on what Jewish and Gentile believers needed to do to eat with each other.
But none of these issues are at all in view in this section of James, probably implying that James as it stands is either very early or that it embodies the carrying forth of James' voice to address a post-Pauline situation. In either case, there is no substantial disagreement between the theology of the two as it is found in the New Testament.
2:24 See that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
It was no doubt this verse more than any other that got Luther's goat, seeing that for him Paul was the champion of justification by faith alone. We now recognize that this was a slight misunderstanding of Paul's own teaching. Paul nowhere say that justification is by faith alone. Romans 3:28 comes closest with its very close statement that "a person is justified by faith and not by works of Law." But even though the wording is so close as to make one wonder if James 2:24 is a direct response to Romans 3:28, the two statements are quite different in sense and do not contradict.
First, as we have mentioned above, works in this section of Romans primarily has in view those aspects of the Jewish Law that distinguished Jew from Gentile--circumcision, food laws, etc. James, on the other hand, has works like helping the poor and needy. Paul believes that authentic faith results in these sorts of concerns as well. Indeed, in some ways, the empty faith James is targeting is much like the "teacher of the Law" Paul also targets in Romans 2:21-23. This person is also a hearer of the Law who is not a doer.
A second observation is that justification by faith for Paul may very well focus firstly on the faith of Jesus himself, his faithfulness to the point of death. In that sense, justification by faith for Paul is in the first instance justification by the faith that Jesus showed to the point of dying on the cross to atone for sins.
Finally, works do play a role for Paul as well in final justification before God on the Day of Judgment (e.g., Rom. 2:6-10; 2 Cor. 5:10). One cannot earn a righteous status before God (Gal. 2:16; Rom. 3:20), but once one has been justified from past sins, works are required of a believer in order for a person to be justified finally (e.g., Rom. 3:31). These works are brought forth in Paul's thought by the power of the Holy Spirit (e.g., Rom. 8:1-11).
Biblical theologians have worked hard to work out a consistency in Paul's thought here. The nicest option is of course to say that for Paul, works result after justification by faith so that one is not strictly justified finally by works at all but that authentic faith will have works. Nevertheless, the basic points in Paul's thinking remain. There will be some evaluation of believers' works on the Day of Judgment, with the possibility of judgment. It is apparently even possible not to get the prize of eternal life after having been earlier justified through the blood of Christ (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:27; Phil. 3:10-14). Yet despite these necessities, one cannot be good enough to earn acceptance before God. Christ's faithful death is the essential prerequisite.
Paul never says that we are justified by faith alone. This is a slight modification of Paul's own view. James therefore does not in any way contradict Paul himself, although it might contradict Luther and Calvin's understanding of Paul.
2:25 And similarly was not Rahab the prostitute also justified because she welcomed the messengers and sent them out a different way?
It is not clear why James would use Rahab as an example of justification by works. Perhaps it is because Rahab was a person whose "faith" in itself might be questioned. Rahab, in that sense, might very well serve as an example of the justification of a non-Jew. She perhaps did not start out with the faith that "God is one," but she treated Israel properly. Is this a thinly veiled exhortation to Gentile believers to show kindness toward lesser fortunate Jewish believers?
2:26 For just as the body is dead without spirit, so also faith without works is dead.
And thus James ends this section with a generalization of what he has been discussing. Faith without works is not living faith. It is dead faith, like a corpse. Faith that is worth anything is faith that issues in material help for those in need.