Post Author: Bill Pratt
If you’ve ever read James 2:14-26, then you’ve probably been confused. Why? Because James seems to be contradicting Paul’s clear teaching that eternal salvation is by faith alone, and not works.
Recently, through my seminary studies, I was introduced to a new way of interpreting this passage that has really opened my eyes.
The first thing to look at is James 2:26: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” Notice that in this analogy, the body is equated with faith and the spirit is equated with deeds (works). Since the spirit of a person is what animates his body, then James is saying that works are what animates faith! This is just the opposite of the way many of us think about faith and works, but that is definitely what James is saying in verse 26, which is the conclusion of the passage.
But what does James mean by dead faith? In verse 20, James says that “faith without deeds is useless.” So now we know that dead faith is not faith that has disappeared or ceased to exist, but it has become useless. It is not functioning in the way it was intended to function.
OK, but how was faith intended to function? Here is where most everyone gets tripped up. We read verse 14, which says, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” Ah hah! We are talking about salvation from hell, about eternal life with God, right? After all, any time the New Testament talks about being saved, it always means eternal life. Wrong!!
The New Testament authors use the word save to mean several different things, and the only way we can determine which meaning is correct is by context. According to Zane Hodges,
The Greek verb used in James 2:14 (sozo) has a wide range of possible meanings which run the gamut from physical healing and rescue from danger, to spiritual deliverances of various kinds, to preservation from final judgment and hell. It is the interpreter’s duty to examine each text where this verb occurs to ascertain its exact sense.
When we look at James 1:21; 2:15-16; and 5:19-20, it certainly appears that the context dictates that James is speaking of being saved from physical death, and not being saved from hell. Again, Hodges comments, “It has nothing to do with eternal destiny at all, but deals instead with the life-preserving benefits that obedience brings to the Christian and which cannot be experienced by mere hearing or by faith alone.”
Useless faith is faith which does not promote the life-saving qualities of God’s Word. Sin brings pain, suffering, and finally physical death to those who practice it. It is only by putting God’s Word to use through works that we gain the benefits of its life-saving capacity. In this way, our works animate our faith. They make our faith come alive in our earthly lives. The Book of Proverbs is full of this theme (see Prov. 10:27; 11:19; 12:28; 13:14; 19:16), and James is building on this Old Testament foundation.
“OK,” you say, “I can see your point, but what about James saying Abraham and Rahab were justified by works?” The word justified does not always refer to legal righteousness in front of God. It sometimes means that, but not always. In this case, James is talking about the vindication of our faith during our spiritual walk on earth. Abraham’s works perfected his faith. Rahab was also vindicated by her works. James is not speaking of the faith that saves from hell, but the faith that believers have after they are saved from hell. Works animate, perfect, and mature that faith.
These verses are not talking about eternal life or salvation from hell. They are not talking about the initial faith that saves a person from God’s eternal punishment. They are referring to the faith of a person who is already destined for heaven. For this person, their faith becomes useless in their earthly life if it is not animated by works. If you don’t act out your beliefs, you get no benefit from them while you live this physical life. This is very practical and wise advice that the readers of James needed to hear.
Our mistake is that whenever we read the words faith, works, save, and justification, we always assume the subject must be eternal life. This assumption is not always correct. The New Testament writers employed these words to convey several different concepts, and if we don’t carefully study the context, we will miss their point.