Faith and Works: James 2

The interplay of faith and works has been overly puzzling to many. Paul’s clarity on justification by faith alone to bring about salvation has been put forth as contradictory to James’ expectation that works are coextensive with faith. The supposed dilemma is answered simply by understanding that they are writing about different things. Paul often emphasizes that salvation as a deliverance from sin’s penalty is solely on the basis of faith (Rom 5:1; Eph 2:8-9). James discusses the importance that a life of faith post-conversion be accompanied by works if there is going to be any value practically in salvation from sin’s power. James is not saying that faith and works are required to save a soul from hell. He is saying that faith and works are required to represent and honour God as one is “saved” in the peaks and valleys of daily life. We will see this by considering James’ usage of the word “save,” his choice of illustrations, and by discovering his pastoral purpose for this teaching.

Saved from What?

Too often, when the word “save” or its derivatives are read, the first meaning that comes to mind is that of rescue from sin’s penalty in hell. This is unfortunate, as a simple perusal of Vine’s dictionary would yield multiple concepts for the word. Joseph Dillow estimates that the concept for salvation from sin’s judgment is only behind about 40% of the usages in the NT.[1] This leaves the majority of its uses to be otherwise, and the appropriate idea for the word must be derived from the context. In the case of James’ letter, the word is found in 1:21, 2:14, 4:12, 5:15 and 5:20. James’ audience is believers, as evidenced by his recurring call to his “brothers.” Further, the tone of the letter is exhortative, not evangelical. Contextually then, it is inappropriate to telegraph a meaning of salvation from sin’s penalty in hell to the usages of “save” in the above listing. Each has a more likely meaning of some kind of practical salvation in daily life.

Abraham’s Work

In the case of 2:14 specifically, James is pointing out that workless faith cannot save in the sense that it is of no value to you and others. It is not being evidenced by a change in life – there has been no growth in experience with God (consider the background of trials and temptation in chapter 1). This is why the illustration of Abraham is particularly apropos. Abraham was justified by faith long before he offered up Isaac on the altar. However, Abraham’s life of faith post-conversion is dotted with works, culminating in the climactic offering of his only son. Clearly, his faith was useful to him and others, and resulted in his being known as a “friend of God” (2:23). Rahab’s faith in the God of Israel was also later brought to usefulness when she provided for the messengers and kept them safe. In both examples, the works occurred long after faith justified them to declare them righteous. The works bore evidence to a living faith that was active daily in saving them. Neither Abraham’s nor Rahab’s eternal destiny was dependent on the action or maintenance of works.

Useful Faith

What is James driving at? He is keen to ensure that believers live lives that are changed. He is not teaching them to look at workless faith as proof of a lack of salvation from sin’s penalty; he is exhorting them that their faith in God be more than a fire escape from the penalty of sin. He wants faith to react to the trials of life with endurance (ch1). He desires that believers would respond to the law of liberty and live it out to their personal benefit and well-being. Perhaps most importantly, he is exhorting the believers to have a faith corresponding to the lifestyle modeled by the Lord Jesus (2:1). Work-filled faith would lead them to act in a way that is devoid of partiality, with the less fortunate and needy having their needs met simply by coming into contact with a believer. He is interested in the spiritual dimension of faith in God being translated into the physical dimension of work for others.

James is a practical fellow. He is not arguing against justification by faith alone. He assumes it.  He is concerned, however, that believers enjoy the benefits of faithful interactions with God evidenced in good works. Paul would agree, of course. He too is clear with regards to good works and their need to accompany salvation. He exhorted the Philippian believers to work out their own salvation (Php 2:12) – again, a practical, personal deliverance from the action of sin in their lives. Paul crowned his précis of salvation by grace through faith in Ephesians 2 by declaring that the purpose of salvation is a Christian life full of good works. Unfortunately, we all know believers who are not living “saved” lives. In these cases, it is unnecessary to discuss kinds of faith, genuine or saving, temporary or otherwise. Justification before God is by faith alone – full stop. A person’s destiny is independent of works, even though their Christian life may or may not be visibly justified by works. James concludes the section with the analogy of works animating our faith just as the spirit animates our bodies. Faith is present even if lacking works, just as a body would be present if lacking the spirit, but it would be useless and dead. Peter in a similar vein exhorts us to add to our faith (2Pe 1:5-9) so that we would not be unfruitful.

Note: The idea embodied in the phrase “the perseverance of the saints,” that is, the concept that those who are truly saved will have good works and will have them until the end of life, is pushing this too far. Works are not a proof of salvation (from hell), nor are lack of works indicative of no salvation. Some have promoted a concept called lordship salvation – again, this is unnecessary. In an effort to have good works accompany and follow salvation, justification by faith alone can be compromised to being just the first step of many. Faith in Christ alone gets us on the road to heaven; our individual experience on the road will depend on our works in response to our faith.


[1] Joseph Dillow, Final Destiny: The Future Reign of the Servant Kings, 2nd Edition (The Woodlands, TX: Grace Theology Press, 2015), 404.