What is James Teaching About Faith and Works?

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.

  • kay

    Agree with most of what you said. Not sure about what you said about if you don’t act out your beliefs, you get no benefit from them while on earth.

    I try to do good deeds because I want to please God. He wants us He wants. I want no benefit from them here on earth.

    The rest was the way I believe — there is a saving faith and a believing faith. If a saving faith, you will do good works.

    Not sure why I wrote this as you and everyone else on this blog are much smarter than me.

  • perfectlyperfect

    Love it. I completely agree.

  • perfectlyperfect

    I know unbelievers who do good works. As a matter-of-fact, everyone I know does good works sometimes. I believe what pleases God is Faith in Christ’s work on the cross. Faith that what our Lord did needs no help from us to complete.

  • Well said Bill!
    Now for the fella that feel less smart then others in this blog…
    don’t worry about it my dear friend. If you are seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, all these things will be added unto you, food, clothing, shelter, peace, joy,(plus if your serving God) persecution, temptation and tribulation… count it all joy! You cannot work for salvation, it is a free gift of God and once you receive it and understand the price that was paid for you, the works come automatically. It’s not so complicated. A child understands it…they want to please Daddy by doing things for him and obeying him…They enjoy the rewards of their action and works. Adults try to explain this simple interaction between father and child, making it complicated by analyzing the simple and obvious, mixing in the enticing words of man’s wisdom. Loving and serving the Father IS simple my friend. Enjoy the benefits of peace and joy, putting your energy and effort into winning soul with the simple glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. godswager.com

  • I think you have over-complicated the interpretation of this passage. The point is that true saving faith results in good works. If there is an absence of works, their is no true faith (it is dead).

    The passage is concerned with comparing true faith with one who claims to have faith. The passage is definitely concerned with salvation, not simply the benefits of belief in this physical life. Those who are truly saved have lives that reflect their faith.

  • Keep in mind also that Hebrews 11 gives us a definition of true faith. The KJV says,

    “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

    Another translation of the Greek word translated as “substance” is “essence”. So, true faith is the essence of what we hope for. Will the essence of hoping for something or, as the NIV puts it, will being “sure of” what we hope for ever not carry with it action?

    In addition, true faith is the “evidence” of things not seen. So if there is “evidence” of what we cannot see or hope for, what is that “evidence” if not outward action?

    IMO, from this verse I believe that we can see that true faith actually embodies action and any claim to faith that does not carry with it a changed life or has no “substance” or “evidence” of what we hope for and cannot see is probably not true faith.


  • perfectlyperfect

    I can’t help but come back to this post… I would agree with Darrell, true faith has to come with actions. The part where I see things different from many Christians is that the person who has faith that leads to salvation lives life not fearing anything from God. This means that if we do good or bad we know that we are clean, holy and righteous in the eyes of God.
    The person who judges their life by their good things that they do for others and the amount of self control they have is NOT in faith. If you are looking for these good works in your life to see if you are really a child of God, then you have missed the mark. This person does not believe that they are truly forgiven, they don’t believe that the work of the cross was a perfect and complete work.
    The “work” of faith we need to have is the one where we live our life completely free of fear from any negative consequences from our Lord for our actions. The person who fears nothing from God on this level is the one who truly has faith in the cleansing blood of Jesus.
    We try and watch how we speak, what we watch, how we treat others, what we put into our bodies, etc. and we then feel that we are a good child deserving of Gods favor. But these are not the things that make us deserving of Gods favor and approval! These things may give us more peace and prosperity in this life, but the ONLY thing that makes us deserving of Gods favor is Jesus shedding his blood on the cross.
    John 6:28-29
    Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
    Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he sent.”
    If we are looking for a work that that shows our faith, it is a life that is free of guilt. True freedom results in no fear of God in our bad behaviors, thoughts, etc. That’s a hard pill for most people to swallow.

  • answeringthechurchesofchrist

    Great stuff, Bill. I have hit on these same points with my Church of Christ friends.