So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:17 ESV
What did James mean in this verse?
This has been a troublesome verse for many over the years. At one time, Martin Luther wanted to remove the book of James from the Bible, believing that it directly contradicted salvation by grace through faith which we know cannot be the case.
Some claim James is saying that works are required to prove your faith, to prove you believe the gospel? To prove you are a true Christian. In other words, if you do not have good works, you do not believe and are not saved. Is this accurate or is there another explanation? This is an important topic because the only unforgivable sin is unbelief, not a lack of works. Read: What is the One Unforgivable Sin?
We also know that when Jesus returns his question is "will I find faith" not works.
Now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? “I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” Luke 18:7-8 NAS
This study seeks to show that good works are not the root of our salvation. Good works are a fruit of our salvation designed to be a light unto the world so that others can see our faith and be saved.
I am all for good works that are a light unto the world so all can see our faith and come to a saving knowledge of Christ. So we can extend the kindness of God that leads to repentance and salvation. But we need to be careful in presenting this verse to others, it is often presented incorrectly leading a person to doubt their salvation. It can tear down their faith in God's ironclad promise of salvation by grace through faith to all who believe, when God has called us to build up and encourage the faith in His promise, not bring doubt and destroy it. People who doubt their salvation will do the dead work of trying to be right with God through works instead of the living works God has for them.
There are three possible options as to what James meant.
1) James meant that if you do not have good works and keep the law along with faith, your faith is dead and cannot save you.
2) The works James is talking about uses the same context for works that Jesus uses in John 6:29.
Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” John 6:28-29 ESV
3) James is telling us that other people cannot see our faith apart from our works. Therefore, our faith cannot save anyone, lead others to a saving knowledge of Christ.
Option 1) James meant that if you do not do good works and keep the law in addition to your faith, your faith is dead, you must not believe, and you are therefore not saved.
This option must be false because the truth never contradicts itself. Therefore, this option is impossible. We know FOR CERTAIN, James cannot be contradicting the multitude of verses that clearly tell us when a person believes in the gospel, they are saved by grace through faith. They are justified, made righteous (right with God) by God at the moment they believe, just like the 3,000 saved the day they believed in the book of Acts HERE.
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. Rom 3:20 ESV
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Rom 3:28 ESV
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. Rom 11:6 ESV
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. Eph 2:8-9 ESV
And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day (saved) about three thousand souls. Acts 2:40-41 ESV (emphasis mine)
that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. Rom 10:9-10 NASB
This first option would be what Paul railed against in the book of Galatians.
You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. Gal 5:4
Over 80 more verses on salvation by grace through faith HERE, HERE and HERE.
We can also verify that James is not talking about letter of the law-keeping by examining the two examples of faith and works that James uses. Neither one is an example of what some suggest, that the works James speaks of is law keeping, the law of Moses. Even though the law had not been given yet in the examples James uses, God’s perfect standard is always the same, and telling a lie or intent to commit murder would not be in accordance with the letter of the law. In James 2:17-26, Rahab violated the letter of the law by lying about the spies she had hidden and Abraham was ready to murder his son.
Note: Abraham also believed that God would raise his son if he did kill him. He understood that he could not have descendants as numerous as the stars with no offspring. Read: How Were Those Before Jesus Saved?
Option 2) The works James is talking about uses the same context for works that Jesus uses in John 6:29.
The Greek word translated work in the verses we are discussing is defined: 2041 /érgon ("work") a deed (action) that carries out (completes) an inner desire (intention, purpose)
While the Apostle Paul or most of us do not consider belief a work, Jesus tells us “belief in him” is the work we must do to be doing the works of God.
Based on the text, James could be utilizing Jesus definition of works in John 6:29. The following interesting verses found in the midst of or text under discussion helps. They mention that demons believe God exists and shudder. They obviously fear God but are not saved. This appears to be an example of faith without works and dead faith that James is discussing.
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. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? James 2:18-20 ESV
It seems that James is saying that it is no big deal that you believe that God exists as the demons believe. The point though is the demons believe that God exists and shudder, but they do not “believe in him whom he has sent” as John 6:29 states. In other words, the demons do not place their faith in and trust in Jesus as their savior, thus doing the works of God as Jesus specifies in John 6:29.
“This is the work of God, that you “believe in” him whom he has sent.” John 6:29 ESV
There is a huge difference between “belief that” and “belief in.” A person in a plane that is going down will die if they simply believe that the parachute can save them but never put it on. They need to put their belief in the parachute by putting on the parachute to be saved.
Likewise, a person will perish, their faith cannot save them and is dead if they simply believe that God exists and never by faith trust in the savior by putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Most people in the world believe that God exists but not all people put their belief in Jesus to save them.
A person is saved, doing the works of God as Jesus stated in John 6:29 when they make the shift from a “belief that God exists and can save them” to a “belief in the Gospel and Jesus as their Lord and Savior.” Putting on the Lord Jesus Christ as Paul instructs (Rom 13:14).
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Gal 3:27 ESV
But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. Rom 13:14 ESV
and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness Eph 4:24 ESV
Noah believed God and built the Ark by faith. The Ark is an Old Testament picture of Jesus. If Noah had built the Ark and believed it would save him but did not put his trust in the Ark by getting in it, he would have perished.
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. Heb 11:6-7 ESV
Adam proved he did not believe God by doing the one thing God warned him not to do. We prove we believe God by doing the one thing God tells us to do, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
One more point about the demons in James to think about. If James were saying people with belief alone and no good works, have dead faith and are not saved, he is would also be saying that demons are not saved because while they believe God exists, they lack good works to accompany their belief. Do you believe that? The only work demons lack, like all of the lost, is to do the works of God in John 6:29, believe in Jesus and the gospel, to put on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus works in John 6:29
Based on scripture, I believe James can only be using the word “works” in the same sense that Jesus used in John 6:29 when it comes to salvation by grace through faith.
The one essential work James is talking about that results in saving faith is placing our faith in Jesus, making Jesus our Lord and Savior. Putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Option 3) James is telling us that other people cannot see our faith apart from our works. Therefore, our faith cannot save anyone, lead others to a saving knowledge of Christ.
I believe this option in combination with option two, is the most plausible option.
God who knows all, looks at the heart and not the outside appearance of a man, does not need us to prove we believe. He had known before we were born if we would believe the gospel or not. Once we do believe we are saved like the 3,000 in the book of acts were. None of them did any works to prove to God they believed so He would save them. God saved them when they believed and confessed Jesus as Lord. God can see our hearts and His desire is that none should perish.
Our wholehearted belief benefits us, not God. If we believe God wholeheartedly, not only do we take the right action that saves us, this life is much easier for us as we walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh.
Like the unique verse about demons, there is another interesting verse to consider. In most translations, James 2:14 essentially asks; Can faith without works save him? Most people when they read this, consider their own faith and works as though James was talking to them. Thoughts like, is my faith real, do my works show I have faith may go through their mind. Immediately after this statement, James goes on to talk about other brothers or sisters who need help, at least in a worldly sense and possibly the eternal sense.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 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? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:14-17 ESV
In James 2:14, (Can that faith save him?) the Greek word used for “him” is “autos”. This word is translated into a number of English words in the New Testament, another word it is translated into is “anyone.” If “anyone” is used instead of "him" in this verse as it is in the New Living Translation, James 2:14 seems to make better sense in the context of the following verses.
What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. James 2:14-17 NLT
Unlike God, other people can only know what we believe by what we do. Christians are called to lead others to a saving knowledge of Christ, to be a light in a dark world. Our faith links us to the Savior and can lead others to do likewise. But faith can only be seen by other humans by what they see us do. When we provide the needy food and clothing, telling them about Jesus at the same time, they can see our faith in Jesus and God's kindness through us that leads men to repent and be saved.
Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? Rom 2:4 NAS
Jesus tells us in Matthew, the good works generated from our faith can lead others to give glory to God.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matt 5:14-16 ESV
Peter agrees: Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 1 Peter 2:12 ESV
Paul has an overarching theme about how our faith should lead others to Christ, not offend them. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. 1 Cor 10:32-33 ESV
Jesus claims to forgive sins, could not be seen by mankind. His works and miracles are the only things people could see. Jesus knew His works would lead some to believe. He came so people would believe and we are left behind so others will believe.
but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” John 10:38 ESV
Hebrews 11 lists many who walked by faith. The Bible states they are witnesses to us. We could not see their faith apart from their actions. Their faith led others to believe and be saved and encourage us who already believe. Our faith on display through good works leads the lost to Christ and encourages the faith in the body of Christ.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Heb 12:1-2 ESV
The faith and love connection
Faith like love must have an object. A person cannot just love. Likewise, a person cannot just have faith. The object of a Christians faith is Jesus and the gospel message he brought us.
Just like faith, love cannot be seen by others apart from what a person does. If we love a person, it is not visible by what we say alone. For illustration purposes, read the following verse where I have replaced the word faith with love, you will see the same truth applies.
But someone will say, “You have love and I have works.” Show me your love apart from your works, and I will show you my love by my works. James 2:18 ESV
When we let others see our faith by our good works, we are expressing our love towards them to draw them into the Kingdom. We are called and qualified to walk by the Spirit of the law, which is love.
Work’s like we traditionally understand are not required to be saved or prove you really believe the gospel - to God. You and God know if you do believe God’s promise in the gospel and have placed your faith in Christ, but others cannot see your faith apart from your works. When it comes to your own personal salvation, maybe you look like the ideal Christian or like you belong to the struggling Corinthian church. Either way, if your faith is in Christ the Bible calls you a Saint. God made you a promise in John 3:16 and He always keeps His promises. Do not doubt, just believe.
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. Rom 11:6
The work James is talking about is the works of God stated in John 6:28-29, “believing in him whom he has sent.”
Good works are a fruit and not a root of salvation. Good works are to show others we believe in Jesus. Our belief and corresponding actions are the light that convicts others and hopefully leads them to believe God exists and to trust in Jesus as their Savior too. God's kindness led us to repent and believe. Much of that kindness came through works that displayed the faith of other believers to us. Let us do the same for those who are still lost. Our good works put on display the faith that lies within us, seeking and saving the lost while encouraging and building up the faith of other believers, setting the example God wants us all to set. The example Jesus set for us.
Read more New Covenant Bible Studies: If You Believe You Have Been Saved What About Those Who Have Never Heard of Jesus or the Gospel? Does God Send People to Hell Just Because They Do Not Believe in Him? We Need Jesus for Righteousness, Not Happiness
How We Do Greater Works Than Jesus
Many more New Covenant Bible Studies HERE. Jesus poured out His blood for the New Covenant of grace and truth, replacing the Old Covenant law of Moses. Believers are exclusively under the New Covenant, the last will and testament of Jesus that began after the cross.
And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood. Luke 22:20