Updated: Sep 25
“Faith without works is dead.” For many people, this may be one of the most perplexing, if not the most, perplexing phrase in the 66 books of the Bible. It bothers/ confuses so many, because of the numerous other passages throughout the New Testament where we are plainly told that we are saved by grace alone and not by works. Yet here in James 2:20 and 26, the Bible directly states as plain as day, 2 TIMES, that faith without works is dead; it’s right there in black and white.
There have been myriad commentaries and sermons written on these verses and those accompanying them. Most of the ones I have come across are rather confusing and convoluted and/or just plain bad. Most of them that I have seen make an attempt in one way or another to [erroneously] redefine faith; asserting such ideas that James isn’t just talking about just any-old-faith, but he is talking about some sort of [nebulously] “lively faith,” or they may state something to the effect that real faith that saves will automatically result in changed behavior. This is ultimately an unbiblical reliance on works, no matter how you slice it or try to twist it. These sorts of arguments do nothing more than back-load works (again, which we are not, and cannot in any way be saved by) into the equation. This sort of thinking almost invariably leaves a person wondering if they have done enough, if they have repented hard enough, if they have made themselves feel sorry and miserable enough, if they have cleaned up their act enough, if they have sacrificed enough; always wondering if they have made the cut; wondering if God really sees their faith as being legitimate enough to keep them out of Hell. I know this feeling from experience and it is absolutely terrible. If there are indeed folks who are buying into this philosophy that have somehow managed to convince [deceive] themselves that they are comfortable and eternally secure in it, I would suspect that they are probably quite spiritually arrogant. Remember that Jesus’ harshest words were reserved for spiritually arrogant people.
I would humbly, but boldly assert that there are some other much better ways; biblical ways to look at this little apparent dilemma. Let’s first consider the following passage:
Eph 2:8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
Eph 2:9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.
As I have already stated, in attempting to rectify this passage with grace and faith, many have somehow tried to re-define what faith is. The Greek word used here translated as “faith” is “pistus.” There is nothing in the definition of this word that alludes to any works.
Here is probably the most famous salvation verse in the Bible:
Joh 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
The Greek word here translated as “believe” is “pisteuo.” As with the word discussed above, which is much like it, there is again no allusion to works in the definition of it, none whatsoever.
“Pistus” is the Greek word also translated as faith in our phrase “faith without works is dead” in James 2:20 and 26. Again, no reference to any sort of works, whatsoever. Redefining “faith” in order to explain this passage is just flat-out unbiblical, as I see it. Again, there are numerous other places where Scripture is clearly stating that salvation is by grace alone and it uses words such as these in doing so. For the sake of brevity, I will not expound on those here. I would encourage you to research them yourself; much attention is paid to this in the articles, blog, and free e-book that can be found, and freely used and shared, on this website.
Let us look at how the book of James starts out. James is addressing believers, Jewish believers in particular. In verse 2 he says “my brethren.” This is always a reference to believers in the New Testament. Believers have the irrevocable gift of salvation (Romans 6:23, 11:29, Ephesians 1:13, 2:8-9, etc.). Gifts are not earned, they are FREE; including the FREE gift of salvation The Bible is clear about that (Romans 5:15-16, 18). You therefore are not saved by works, period. No scriptural “gymnastics” and slick back-loading of works into the equation are going to make this passage say anything different. James even starts chapter 2, the chapter which contains the verses in question in this post by addressing his “brethren.”
OK, but it still says that faith without works is dead. Yes it does. Let’s look at the word “dead.” The Greek word translated to “dead” here is “Nekros.” This can mean a corpse (which incidentally is something that God can bring to life), and it can just as easily refer to something more or less figuratively being dead, such as in the sense of such as a dead battery, or a dead ball in a football game, etc. Dead here means that whatever is being referred to is not doing anything; not getting anything done. There is nothing in this word that at all alludes to condemnation or damnation of the believer; once again, the person who has trusted Christ as Savior and received the irrevocable gift of salvation; one of the “brethren.” James is admonishing his audience to do something with what they already and will always HAVE!
Another thought: if the true definitions of the original Greek words translated as “faith” or “believe” in our English Bible would have included a works component, then the phrase in question would have been a gross redundancy and thus there would have been no need for the Holy Spirit to inspire James to include it.
Now, should the person of faith be doing good works for the Lord? Absolutely, without question! But not to get saved, stay saved, or prove that they are saved in any way, shape or form. The proof of the salvation of the believer is in the infallible Scripture, not in the fallible believer.
Consider this passage:
1Co 3:11 For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
1Co 3:12 Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;
1Co 3:13 Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is.
1Co 3:14 If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.
1Co 3:15 If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.
The WORKS of believers are being judged here; Jesus has already paid for our sins and has taken OUR judgement; received the wage of death which must be paid for sin; He has made the payment of His death for OUR sins, been buried, and rose again; it’s a done deal, so there is nothing left to judge in that regard. We HAVE the foundation, which is Jesus Christ. NO ONE is going to Hell here in this passage, in fact every one of us here in this passage is not only going to Heaven, but I would argue is already IN Heaven at the point of this event occurring. What is being determined/judged here is how our WORKS will be REWARDED for eternity. Some of us saved people will receive many eternal rewards, some of us will not.
Let’s go back a few verses in our James passage and look at the topic sentence of the section:
Jas 2:14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
Note that the word “profit” is used here. Profit is something that is earned (in this case by and for the believer, and for another benefactor), by working and/or investing; it is NOT a gift. Again, salvation is a gift from God. True gifts are in no, way, shape, or form earned. If anyone is able to [and does] give true gifts, it would be God. Believers can and should indeed be earning rewards. God rewards the believer; one of the brethren, for faithfulness, service, and obedience; which are one in the same; works; things getting done that God wants us to get done. Note, this OPPORTUNITY is only for the believer; someone who possesses the irrevocable gift of eternal life. Paul tells us in Galatians 5:16 to walk in the Spirit so we won’t fulfill the lusts of the flesh. The Apostle Paul, like James, is talking to saved people. The fruit of the Spirit that is described in verses 22 and 23 of the same chapter are made manifest by walking in the Spirit; the believer’s good works, which again, are getting things done that God wants done. The believer still has the flesh (remember, he is talking to believers in this passage) and when we are not walking in the Spirit, we are fulfilling the lust of the flesh…which accomplishes no works of any value, but only dead works, which are clearly of no value (Hebrews 6:1, 9:14). Any works that one may be relying upon to play any contributing part at all in their GIFT of salvation qualify as dead works.
Jas 2:19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
This verse is often [mis]used to reinforce the unbiblical redefinition of faith and the back-loading of works that we have been discussing. I’ll make 2 points here: First off, the teachings of many false religions that are leading people straight to Hell adhere to the belief that there is one God. Secondly, Jesus didn’t die for the devils. James is admonishing his audience to make the most of their gift of salvation; their rebirth in Christ (John 3, Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 2:10)
In James 2:14 we also read the phrase: “Can faith save him?” The clear and resounding answer to that question is YES! Scripture is clear on this in more than one place.
No matter how hard you may have “worked for God,” no matter how religious and “righteous” and “spiritual” you may think you are (perhaps you are even a pastor or some other sort of church/religious leader), if you have never truly trusted Christ as savior, you will not be at the Judgement that I discussed above, which is talked about in 1 Corinthians 3. Instead you will be at the judgement described in Revelation 20, starting in verse 11, where it won’t just be your works getting judged, but it will be YOU getting judged and in no way rewarded, but sentenced, based on your dead works, which cannot and will not save you. To say that you will not like your sentence would be an infinite understatement. There will be no opportunity for appeal either. You can of course trust Christ as Savior right now, however, and avoid it altogether.
James is a beautiful book. I love the book of James; it is part of God’s Word. Some folks have almost asserted that it is unfortunate that the words we have been discussing are in it, or that the book of James is even in the Bible at all. This is not what is unfortunate. What is unfortunate is that so many people; including many esteemed teachers of the Bible, have not taken the initiative to rightly divide and diligently do a proper study here. God’s Word interprets its self; it does not contradict its self. If James really was telling us that works were a necessary component for salvation, then the Bible would contradict its self in a very [infinitely] big way in its key underlying theme. This would render it to be untrustworthy and flat out worthless. I have heard it said that when you find an apparent “contradiction” in God’s Word, that there is a gem to be uncovered with some digging. I agree. This is indeed one of those cases. After some honest study, what an encouragement this passage becomes for me, the believer, to rest in the Lord and to trust in Him alone for the irrevocable gift of eternal life, and to actively live in and use that gift that He has freely given to me to bless Him as He blesses me.
Please take some time to read some of the other posts on the blog, as well as the rest of the site, including the free e-book "Angles and Aspects of Salvation." Please also consider subscribing. Please give the post a "like" if you feel so inclined. All materials on this site may be freely used and distributed for the purpose of getting the lost saved and equipping the saved. I have also provided a link to a fantastic sermon on this topic, below. God bless.