The Most Misunderstood
Passage in the Bible!
Passage in the Bible!
"What good is it, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith but has no works? Can faith save them?" (James 2:14)
Are good works necessary for salvation? Does James 2:14 teach that that we are saved by faith plus works? How can this passage in James be reconciled with the clear teaching of Scripture that salvation is the undeserved gift of God's grace, received through simple faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, and not by our works? (See Romans 3:19-31, Romans 4:1-8, Romans 9:30-32, Romans 11:5-6, Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:4-7, 2 Timothy 1:9)
"To the one who does not work, but trusts God who justified the wicked, His faith is credited to Him as righteousness." (Romans 4:5)
Over 160 different times the Bible states that a person is made right with God only by putting their faith in (their trust in) Jesus Christ alone, totally apart from doing any good works whatsoever. In addition, the Bible makes it clear that an unsaved person is completely incapable of doing any works that please God. (See Ecclesiastes 7:20, Jeremiah 17:9, Isaiah 64:6, Romans 3:10-12, Romans 8:7-8). Simply put, an unbeliever's good works are not only unacceptable to God but they are offensive to Him and utterly rejected as a means of justification or receiving forgiveness of sins.
"There is no one who is righteous, not even one... All of our righteous acts are like filthy rags [in His sight]..." (Romans 3:10, Isaiah 64:6)
So the question is, does James 2:14 contradict all of these other passages and teach that a person must do good works in order to be saved. As we will see, a great deal of confusion has been caused by people taking James 2:14 out of its context and overlooking James' intended meaning.
In order to correctly interpret the book of James, it is essential to realize that the author was not writing to unbelievers, or to so-called "professors", or to people who were never saved in the first place. Rather, James was written to saved people - those who were already believers in Jesus Christ and who had been born again by the Spirit of God (see James 1:18). The immediate context, before and after James 2:14, as well as the entire context of the letter, makes this clear. (See James 1:2, 1:9, 1:12, 1:16, 1:18, 1:19, 2:1, 2:5, 2:12, 3:1, 3:13, 4:6, 5:7-10, 5:13-16, 5:19-20). Historically, most of the errors regarding the meaning of James 2:14 have occurred because people have overlooked or ignored the context, failing to see to whom James was writing and why. Many teachers and commentators have made this critical error.
We conclude then, based on the context, that in James chapter two James is addressing those who are truly saved but who were not living by faith; not practicing their faith in their daily walk (this has been a problem for believers throughout church history). These believers were truly born again (see James 1:18, James 2:1), having received the free gift of eternal life as their everlasting possession, but they were not living out their faith in practical ways by meeting the needs of their fellow believers in the church (see James 2:15-16). Although they had been justified (declared perfectly righteous) in God's sight by faith in Christ alone, they were not living like it. They were not walking by faith in their daily interaction with other believers. They were saying the right words, but not doing the right things. They were, in fact, showing "favoritism" toward the rich and mistreating the poor, ignoring their physical needs.
"My brothers and sisters, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ do not show favoritism." (James 2:1)
Christian author and Bible teacher, Dr. Charles Bing writes, "James is not concerned with the reality of his readers' faith, but the quality and usefulness of their faith (see James 1:3, 1:6, 1:12, 1:26, 2:1, 2:14, 2:16, 5:15). James is not saying that faith will always manifest itself in works, but that without works faith is useless and unprofitable in this life... James' main concern is that his readers [who are already believers] become 'doers of the Word and not hearers only' (James 1:22)..."
Dr. Bing continues, "For example, faith that perseveres in trials earns a reward from God (James 1:3-12); and faith that is merciful to others receives God's mercy at the judgment seat of Christ (James 2:8-13). But faith [i.e., the believer's faith in daily living] that does not work is "useless" towards these blessings and "useless" in helping others (James 1:26; 2:20). The word "dead" in this passage should therefore be understood as useless and unprofitable rather than non-existent. [These believers had already been saved by faith, but they were not walking by faith in their daily Christian lives - they were selfishly ignoring the needs of other believers. Sadly, this often occurs among believers in our churches today]. The context of this section of James is bracketed by the theme of judgment (James 2:13; 3:1). The only judgment of Christians [believers] is the judgment seat of Christ, which is based on the believer's works or lack of works and rewards or lack of rewards for their works (see 1 Corinthians 3:13; 2 Corinthians 5:10). This fits James's concern exactly."
Note: The judgment seat of Christ, mentioned by Dr. Bing above, is the place where the believer's life and works are evaluated for the purpose of receiving rewards for Christian service. This judgment is only for those who are already saved and secure in Christ forever. This judgment has nothing to do with going to heaven or hell, it is only in regard to rewards or loss of rewards for each believer (See 1 Corinthians 3:12-16).
Salvation itself is the free gift of God's grace to anyone who simply believes in Jesus Christ alone. It is truly a gift, not a reward for doing good works. Although each believer is "created in Christ Jesus to do good works", the free and undeserved gift of forgiveness and eternal life is declared to be only "by grace...through faith...not by works!" (Ephesians 2:8-10). The Bible is clear, "It is not by works of righteousness which we have done, but only by His mercy that He saves us... He saved us and called us to a holy life, not because of anything we have done, but because of His grace." (Titus 3:5, 2 Timothy 1:9)
A close examination of James makes it clear that every other time he uses the word "save" in his letter, he uses it to refer to temporary, earthly and physical deliverance and not in the sense of getting saved from hell or damnation (see James 1:21, 5:15, 5:20). When James says, "Can this faith save him?", he is not using the word "save" in the sense of being saved from hell, but in the sense of being saved from a fruitless Christian life on earth. A common error in interpreting James, as well as many other passages in the Bible, is to assume that the words "save" and "saved" always mean saved from hell. What most people don't realize is that the majority of times that the words "save" and "saved" are used in the Bible, they are used to refer to physical or temporary salvation. Most often in the Old Testament and frequently in the New Testament, these two words are used to refer to being saved from ones enemies in a battle, or saved from physical death, or saved from a catastrophic event, such as a destructive storm or plague. A prime example of this is when Peter (at Jesus's direction) got out of the boat and began walking on the water. When He took His eyes off Jesus and began to sink under the waves, he cried out "Lord save me!" When this took place, Peter was already a saved man, he was already justified before God by faith in Jesus Christ alone. He certainly wasn't asking the Lord to save him from hell. Rather, he desperately wanted to be saved (rescued) from drowning. The Lord heard his cry and reached out his hand and saved him. This salvation (this rescue) - though important and life-saving, was physical and temporary in nature. It had nothing to do with receiving forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Dr. Bing adds, "In the bible, the word 'saved' is often used of Christians who are delivered or rescued from some undesirable circumstance [in this life or a the judgment seat of Christ]. James himself uses this word of a Christian's possible fate in 1:21, 5:15, and 5:20. Here in James 2:14-26 it is used to refer to a Christian delivered from an undesirable fate at the judgment seat of Christ such as having his works burned up (see 1 Corinthians 3:12-15) and losing his reward (see 2 John 7-8). Thus the "profit" or salvation that James speaks of is not salvation in the sense of getting saved from hell, but refers to the advantages and rewards that are accrued in this life and the next. In James 2:19 the faith of demons also shows the uselessness of faith without works...Their faith could not save them anyway, because it is only a faith in monotheism, not in Jesus Christ. The point of their mention is that because they only tremble, they do not do any good works to alleviate a fearful judgment. Their faith is useless to them."
James 2:19 is often used out of context to teach that believing in Jesus Christ alone will not save you, because of the statement that "the demons believe and tremble." But this false conclusion does not take into account James' intended meaning or the fact that the verse says that the demons believe, not in Jesus Christ as Savior, but that "there is one God." No one can be saved by simply believing in God, a person must believe that Jesus died and rose again for them personally. Believing that there is one God (although true) cannot save us. Faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, apart from works, is God's only way of salvation! (See John 14:6, Acts 4:12)
"...that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life... For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life... Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe [in Him] stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son... Everyone who believes in Him, receives forgiveness of sins through His name... Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved... "To the one who does not work, but trusts God who justified the wicked, His faith is credited to Him as righteousness." (John 3:15-18, Acts 10:43, Acts 16:31, Romans 4:5)
Dr. Bing continues, "When James speaks of being justified by works (James 2:21, 24, 25) he is not speaking of imputed justification (the righteousness of Christ) which saves us eternally as Paul uses the term in Romans 3:24 and 4:5. This would be a contradiction in the Bible. James is speaking of a vindication before others (Paul even recognizes this use of the word justify in Romans 4:2). There are two kinds of justification in the Bible. One concerns practical righteousness that vindicates us before people. The other concerns judicial righteousness that vindicates us before God. James obviously uses the practical sense because Abraham was judicially justified before God by faith alone in Genesis 15:6 (James 2:23) long before he offered Isaac in Genesis 22 (James 2:21). His vindication by others is seen when they call him "the friend of God" (James 2:23). Thus Abraham's faith was made "perfect" or mature by this demonstration of his faith (James 2:22). [Abraham was justified before God by faith alone in Genesis chapter 15. Bt the time he offered Isaac (in Genesis chapter 22), Abraham had been walking by faith for many, many years]... The issue in James chapter 2 is not whether faith exists in a person, but how faith becomes profitable or useful to a Christian and to others."
Note: At the time Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice to God, He had already been saved (justified before God) for a period of approximately15-20 years or more! Genesis 15:6 describes His initial justification before God by faith alone, which occurred before Isaac was even born! On the the other hand, Genesis chapter 22 describes his obedience to God as a believer who had been walking with God for much of his adult life. In Genesis 15:6, He was declared perfectly and eternally righteous before God by faith only, long before He ever offered His son in faithful obedience as a mature saved believer.
Dr. Bing offers this conclusion, "This passage in James is written to Christians [those who had already placed their faith in Christ alone for salvation]. They were "born from above" (James 1:18), they had already placed their faith in Jesus Christ (James 2:1), and they are repeatedly called brothers (James 1:2, 1:19, 2:1, 2:14, 3:1, 4:11, 5:7, 5:10, 5:12, 5:19). It was written to encourage these Christians to do good works which will make their faith mature and profitable to them and to others. There is no contradiction between James and Paul. When Paul speaks of justification through faith alone, he is speaking of judicial righteousness before God [how a person is saved and declared 'perfectly righteous forever' in God's sight]. When James speaks of justification by a faith that works, he is speaking of a practical righteousness displayed before other people by someone who is already saved. In Romans chapters 3-5, Paul is discussing how to obtain new life in Christ [how a person is born again]. In James, James is discussing how to make that new life profitable to oneself and to others. If this passage is taken to mean that one must demonstrate a real salvation through works, then works unavoidably becomes necessary for salvation which is a contradiction of Ephesians 2:8-9 [and over 160 other passages] ...An inaccurate interpretation of James chapter 2, opens the door to subjectivism and undermines the objective basis of assurance and the promise of God's Word that all who believe in Christ's work alone will be saved forever totally apart from their works!
Some have claimed that James (which is located toward the end of the New Testament) was written to correct or clarify Paul's teaching in Romans (which is located right after the book of Acts in the New Testament). This claim is entirely without Biblical or historical support, due the fact that Romans was written many year after James. In addition, Romans chapters 3 and 4 were written for the sole purpose of showing how a person is be justified before God - how a person is saved, forgiven and declared perfectly righteous forever by faith in Jesus Christ alone. On the other hand, James was written to show Christians (those who were already born again) how they should live by faith in their daily walk and how they should treat other believers.
Finally, it is also important to point out that the good news of Christ's death and resurrection (the gospel message itself) is not included anywhere in James' letter. This is another clear indicator that James was written to people who were already born again!
Note: Quotations from Dr. Charles Bing are from his weekly blog entitled "Grace Notes". To read more excellent insights from Dr. Bing, please visit GraceLife.org
More About James 2
When people read this passage in James they most often fail to consider the context, as well as the actual events in Abraham's life. In Genesis chapter 15, Abraham was justified (declared) righteous by faith alone totally apart from his works. He simply believed God's promise and God credited it to him as righteousness. Important: See Genesis 15:5-6 and Romans 4:1-8.
Note: Romans chapters 3&4 explain how a person is saved (declared righteous in God's sight) by faith alone, without works of any kind. I encourage you to read these two chapters often. They are among the most important chapters in the Bible, because they were specifically written to tell us exactly how we are made right with God. Sadly, most people - even many Christians - have never studied these two chapters carefully.
It is important to see that in James chapter 2, James is referring to the events that took place in Genesis chapter 22 when Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice to God which took place many, many years after Abraham was already justified by faith in Genesis chapter 15. In Genesis chapter 15, Issac was not even born yet! But in Genesis chapter 22, Issac was as young man (likely between the ages of 15 and 25).
By the time the events in Genesis 22 take place, Abraham had been saved (justified) for many years and had been learning to trust God more and more for his daily provision and protection, etc. He was a mature believer who had been trusting God, day-by-day and year-after-year, for most of his adult life! He was becoming a "friend of God."
When, Abraham offered up Isaac, his faith was justified (i.e., vindicated and demonstrated) by what he did - by his works. But long before this, Abraham was justified before God by faith only - without works!
James was written to believers who were already born again (see James 1:2, 1:9, 1:12, 1:16, 1:18, 1:19, 2:1, 2:5, 2:12, 3:1, 3:13, 4:6, 5:7-10, 5:13-16, 5:19-20) but who needed to reach out to, and care for, their brothers and sisters in the church (please read the first half of James chapter 2). Instead of just saying they had faith, James wanted them to demonstrate their Christian faith by their good works to others, not in order to get saved or even to prove that they were saved (without question, they were already saved!), but to act out their daily walk of faith by caring for the needs others.) James 2 is talking about how, as believers, we need to live out our Christianity in practical ways by actually serving others, and not just talking about it!
We are only justified (declared 'perfectly righteous forever' by God Himself) by faith alone in Christ alone, totally apart from our works. Once we have been justified by faith alone, God's purpose is that we demonstrate our faith by serving others and doing good works. God already knows whether someone has put their faith in His Son for their salvation (He is not asking us to prove it), but people cannot see our faith, or benefit from it, unless we demonstrate it by our works.
Finally, it is essential for us to remember that our good works are utterly rejected by God as a means of salvation, but once we are saved by faith alone, we are created to do good works through the empowering Holy Spirit (See Ephesians 2:8-10, Titus 3:4-8, Galatians 5:22-23).