James 2:14-20, Faith and works, a compulsory combination

Faith Train

(image courtesy ChristArt)

 By Spencer D Gear PhD [1]

James 2:14-20 (NIV):

Faith and deeds

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

18 But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder. 20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?

A. Introduction

If you want to prepare people for a potentially controversial piece of theology, what is a recommended approach? James is setting us up to understand his most divisive statement in James 2:24 (NIV) which reads, ‘So you see, we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone’. The ESV translates it as, ‘You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone’.

Now, that is not how we learned the doctrine of salvation (Soteriology) from the Reformers. How is James going to prepare us for understanding this doctrine that seems contradictory to what Paul taught in,

3d-red-star Romans 3:28 (ESV), ‘For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law’.

3d-red-star Romans 5:1 (ESV), ‘Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’.

3d-red-star Titus 3:5 (ESV), ‘He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit’.

Lucas Cranach d.Ä. - Martin Luther, 1528 (Veste Coburg) (cropped).jpg(image of Martin Luther, courtesy Wikipedia)


This emphasis in James caused Martin Luther to have theological convulsions to the point where he called James ‘a right strawy epistle’.[1a] He questioned whether James should be in the canon of Scripture. It’s important to remember that Luther’s comment about ‘an epistle of straw’ only appeared in Luther’s original Preface to the New Testament in 1522. In all future editions it was dropped.[2]

This is what he stated in his Preface to James and Jude. Luther wrote in German and this is an English translation. He had these objections about James:[3]

1. It was ‘rejected by the ancients’ but he praised it as ‘a good book’. However, he did not ‘regard it as the writing of an apostle’ and these are his reasons:

2. Firstly, ‘it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works [in] 2:24’;

3. Secondly, its purpose was to teach Christians but in its teaching ‘it does not once mention the Passion, the resurrection, or the Spirit of Christ’.

4. James ‘wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but he wasn’t up ‘to the task in spirit, thought, and words’. Luther accused James: ‘He mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture’. Luther said, ‘Therefore I will not have him in my Bible to be numbered among the true chief books, though I would not thereby prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases’.

Luther had a contextual issue with James and he saw Paul and James at loggerheads, contradicting each other on faith and works. He could not harmonise them. In fact, one of Luther’s famous biographers, Roland Bainton, wrote in Here I stand, ‘Once Luther remarked that he would give his doctor’s beret to anyone who could reconcile James and Paul…. “Faith,” he wrote, “is a living, restless thing. It cannot be inoperative. We are not saved by works; but if there be no works, there must be something amiss with faith”’.[4]

Now to our passage:

B. Two questions we must answer and act on (v. 14)

Question 1: What good is it, brothers and sisters, if anyone says he/she claims to have faith but has no deeds? The KJV asked, ‘What doth it profit?’ NIV: ‘What good is it’? NASB, ‘What use is it’? What benefit is it if you have

1. Faith but no deeds

This is a question almost of impatience: What good is it? What on earth is the benefit if you have faith but don’t demonstrate that faith with deeds? This section of Scripture, vv. 14-26, is an example of how one word can be used in Scripture and mean different things. Here in v. 14 we have faith used in this context in the language, ‘claims to have faith but has no deeds’. What kind of faith is that? What is the meaning of faith in v. 14? Verse 17 has the same understanding of faith with language such as, ‘faith by itself … is dead. So does v. 18 have this interpretation of faith, with the statement, ‘Show me your faith without deeds’.

But we have a different understanding of faith also at the end of v. 18, ‘I will show you my faith by my deeds’ (NIV). We’ll get to that verse soon.

In James 2:14-26, ‘faith and works are mentioned together ten times in the thirteen verses of this paragraph, but the stress throughout is on their interrelationship’ (Hiebert 1979:173).

2. Can that faith save him or her?

That’s Question 2. The answer, according to the Greek construction, is: ‘No it can’t’.

That kind of faith is fake, spurious, a sham, invalid. So genuine faith, the fair-dinkum faith of salvation, will be demonstrated by the works you do as a result of salvation. Please note what I did not say. I did not say that you need these good works to earn salvation. It is quite the opposite.

Ephesians 2:8-9 is clear about no works can earn salvation:

‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast’ (NIV)

James is giving the flip side of the coin: Genuine faith that saves must be followed by good works. Works come AFTER salvation and not BEFORE.

Now to an

C. Example of faulty faith (v 15):

James is specific: ‘Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food’.

What kinds of works are we talking about? Ministering to the homeless in the Brisbane CBD, drug addicts in Fortitude Valley, next door neighbours who struggle with paying electricity bills? Which works could James be addressing?

James is dealing with good works for the Christians who are,

1. People without clothes and food

6pointblue-small ‘Without clothes’ (NIV). The KJV translates as, ‘naked’; the ESV as ‘poorly clothed’; and the NASB as, ‘without clothing’. The term need not be taken as absolutely naked and without clothes on, but is used of people who were ‘wearing only an undergarment (1 Sam. 19:24; John 21:7)’, or ‘those who were poorly clad (Job 22:6; 31:19; Isa 58:7; Matt 25:36)’. That’s why the ESV translation as ‘poorly clothed’, the RSV’s ‘is ill-clad’ and the NEB, ‘is in rags’ are probably closer to the meaning.[5]

6pointblue-small The other Christians who need good works performed for them are those needing ‘daily food’ (v. 15). This is the only time this statement appears in the NT and it probably suggests those who do not have ‘the day’s supply of food’, who didn’t have a supply of food even for a single day.[6]

starving children photo: starving children starvingchildren487tu57th85.jpg

(photo courtesy photobucket)

We in the Western world find it difficult to understand that there could be such poverty in the local church because of our elaborate welfare system. But that was very real and practical for first century believers. Try meeting up with Christians in

Top 10 Poorest Countries of the World (2015)

Rank Country Currency GDP Per Capita (2015)
1 Democratic Republic of the Congo Congolese Franc $348.00
2 Zimbabwe Zimbabwean dollar $456.00
3 Liberia Liberian Dollar $487.00
4 Nigeria Nigerian naira $600.00
5 Burundi Burundian franc $615.00
6 Central African Republic Central African CFA franc $768.00
7 Eritrea Eritrean nakfa $777.00
8 Sierra Leone Sierra Leonean Leone $849.00
9 Malawi Kwacha $860.00
10 Togo West African CFA franc $826.00

(source: mapsofworld.com)

Where are these poorest of poor countries?


Are these the only believers who need help? Pastor Paul mentioned the breadth of good deeds that is encouraged by Westminster Confession of Faith last Sunday (WCF, ch 16, para 1). Ben Hoyt was teaching the catechism to 14-year-olds who didn’t understand the old language and some of the expressions of the WCF from the 17th century,[7] so he has prepared The Plain English Westminster (PEW) by Ben Hoyt. Here is his translation of the first two points of the WCF chapter on ‘Good Works’ (ch 16, para 1-2):

1. Works are only “good works” if they’re things God commands us to do in His word. They’re not works people make up without grounding in Scripture, even if they do so out of blind zeal or with outwardly good intentions.

2. Good works are the fruit of a lively and true faith. We do them to obey God’s commands, and by them we show our thankfulness to God. Our good works assure us that we’re saved, build up our brothers, make our profession of the gospel beautiful, shut the mouths of our enemies, and glorify God.

“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” These works bear fruit that lead to holiness, so that in the end we may have eternal life.[8]

There is a precise example of the good works for Christians to do. These are the works that we will face at God’s final judgment, Matt 25:31-46. The sheep vs the goats will be chosen by what the sheep did with good works that were associated with their genuine faith. The Son of Man, the judge, will say to those on his right – Christian believers –

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ (Matt 25:34-40 NIV).

That is a specific list of good works for Christians to do for other Christians. We will be judged on our good works done after salvation, as a result of genuine salvation.

We need to realise that this was the first century and in an under-developed part of the world. J C Moyer in his article on ‘Poverty’ stated that ‘By modern western standards, most [people] who lived in Biblical times would be classified as poor’ (Moyer 1976:830).

An Indian pastor is ministering in India. I read his statement on a Christian forum online on Saturday, 9 April 2016:

Every day i am unable to bare the matters:
1. ministers in fields are with minimum food.
2. villages are without single church to worship Lord
3. Many many villages are not with single minister for them
4. Many poor christians suffering.
5. Every day millions going to die (each 5 seconds 9 people going to die, six of them are not hear the gospel)[9]

I hope you can hear the Indian accent in the English used.

So are Christians only to do good to other believers and not perform good works for the unbelieving world? Not at all! We have an explicit command about this in

cubed-iron-sm Gal 6:10 (NIV), ‘Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers’, AND

cubed-iron-sm Rom 12:20 (NIV), ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head’ (quoting Prov 25:21-22). The Proverbs passage adds that if you do this, ‘the Lord will reward you’.

For James, what were the responses given by these supposed Christians?

D. Christian old chestnut of responses (v. 16):

1. Cliches:

a. Go in peace: Bye, bye & have a good day

That was a warm and kind farewell among Jews (see it in 1 Sam 1:17; 20:42; 2 Sam 15:9; Mark 5:34; Acts 16:26). What’s the implication? That person in need is being given the front door treatment – dismissed with an alleged feeling of peace. These Jews were not mocking others – Jesus used the expression himself to dismiss those who came for help (see Luke 7:50; 8:48). Remember the sinful woman of the city with the alabaster flask of ointment who went to Jesus, wet his feet with her tears and washed his feet with her hair? Jesus forgave her and said, ‘Go in peace’ (Luke 7:50). That’s the phrase used here.

Then, what is done for these needy people?

b. Keep warm and be well fed

It could be the middle voice, ‘Keep yourself warm and get a good meal for yourself’, or it could be the passive voice, ‘Let somebody else get warm clothes for you and feed you’.[10]

But the issue is this:

2. Christians who refuse to meet physical needs: it is useless Christianity.

If you and I have that kind of faith, it is futile faith. It is not genuine faith and, thus, it is not saving faith because it is not demonstrated by works done for believers.

Now to fair dinkum, genuine faith:

E. Faith that is the real thing (v. 17)

1. Faith by itself isn’t enough.

Jesus Fish Chromatic by GDJThis must not be interpreted in opposition to Paul’s statement that we are justified by faith alone (Rom 5:1; Gal 3:24). Rom 5:1 reads, ‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’.

James is not downgrading the importance of faith – never. The supreme principle of the Christian life is faith. A person cannot be a Christian without it. What James is doing is showing that if the faith you profess is not accompanied by works after salvation, then your faith is not the real thing. It is dead, useless, ineffective and worthless. Edmond Hiebert calls it ‘inoperative faith’,[11] ‘Inoperative’ means it is out of action, unworkable, faulty. It is not genuine Christian salvation.

Hiebert explains James’ teaching in v. 17 well:

It is assumed that faith can be rightly expected to have works, but each case must be tested on that point. But the illustration pictures a case where that which calls itself faith is indeed without works. This is the fatal defect in the “faith” that James is condemning. The illustration demanded that faith must produce acts of social beneficence. [i.e. social charity or gracious gifts] (Hiebert 1979:181).

James is not teaching that works is needed to bring you to the faith that provides salvation. James is teaching that really genuine faith, must lead to good works. The International Standard Version translates it as, ‘In the same way, faith by itself, if it does not prove itself with actions, is dead’.

If faith is not accompanied by good works, what is it according to v 17?

2. Unless faith produces good deeds, it is not the real thing.

Genuine faith is like a mango tree that is alive and well. It produces fruit. The fruit are the good works to be demonstrated by every genuine Christian with true faith in Christ alone for salvation.

3. Faith without good deeds is dead or useless.

Then comes

F. The contrast (v 18):

‘But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds”. Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds’.

Most commentators are in agreement that verse 18 provides the words of an objector, ‘You have faith; I have deeds’, but there is no agreement on where the objector’s statement ends. Some think it is carried through until v. 26. I’m going with Hiebert as he seems to have built a solid case for it. Here’s the interaction:

1. A hypothetical argument:

James is giving us a proposal by someone. From an objector:

Verse 18a….

a. ‘You have faith: I have deeds’

Then comes James answer, his challenge to the objector, in v. 18b: ‘Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds’.

Question to you: Can anybody see your faith in Jesus? No, it’s invisible. But that invisible faith you have needs to be manifested in some way. According to James, how is it manifested? By good works that follow genuine salvation. If faith is not able to be demonstrated by good works, it is not true faith. We can say that ‘faith and works are inseparable’, not works that lead to faith, but good works that follow and demonstrate genuine faith.[12]

b. Faith without deeds vs showing faith by deeds

James has no disagreement with those who insist that faith is central to the Christian life. With whom does James have a dispute? It is with those who contradict him on faith that produces the outward results of conduct – good works.

Remember what Eph 2:10 states? We were ‘created in Christ Jesus to do good works’, so we should be doing them and we will be judged by our works (Matt 25:31-46, John 5:28-29 , and Rom 6:2-10). Our good works are the evidence that will identify us as members of the Body of Christ with authentic faith.[13]

What is the nature of fake faith?

G. You believe in one God (v. 19)

This seems a rather strange explanation. I thought that one of the demonstrations of being an orthodox, Bible-believing Christian is that you believe in one God. Notice how v. 19 begins: ‘You believe that there is one God. Good!’ (NIV) or as the ESV puts it, ‘You believe that God is one; you do well’. There are several variations in the MSS: (1) ‘There is one God’ and (2) ‘God is one’.

1. Some MSS say, ‘You believe that there is one God’. This agrees with the Jewish confession of faith, the Shema, in Deut 6:4-5: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength’ (NIV).

This is Jewish and Christian orthodoxy. There is only one God. Our faith is monotheistic.


2. ‘God is one’. This stresses that even though God is Trinity (three persons), he is one God; this emphasis is on the unity of God.

Then comes this strange statement, ‘Even the demons believe that – and shudder’. So the demons, evil spirits, have orthodox beliefs about the nature of God. The very same verb is used for ‘believe’ (pisteuw) in,

coil-gold-sm ‘You believe that there is one God’, and

coil-gold-sm ‘The demons believe that – and shudder’.

A. T. Robertson said, ‘Orthodoxy is better than heresy’,[14] but James is stressing that an orthodox, intellectual belief is tragically foolish, useless and not genuine faith. The demons can have it and it’s not genuine. Human beings can have it and it is inoperative faith.

Demon's Face by GDJRemember the story of Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac and his casting out the unclean spirit (Mark 5:1-10; Luke 8:26-33)? Here we have an excellent example of the demons who had faith. These supernatural evil spirits recognised Jesus’ existence and his omnipotence but their ‘faith’ did not change their character. They had orthodox belief but still had evil natures and actions.

H. What good is faith without actions? (v. 20)

v. 20: ‘You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?’

That’s for next month when we will deal with the example of Abraham who was ‘justified by works’ (That’s what v. 21 states). I’ll unpack that then.

Then we’ll deal with the verse that caused Luther to experience the theological shudders in 2:24, ‘You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone’. Judged by what I’ve preached tonight, that verse cannot mean what it sounds like on the surface. That’s for next month.

I. Conclusion

Let’s find some applications for James 2:14-20.

1. We know that faith is unseen by others. How will you know that you or a friend has genuine faith? Good works.

2. According to James 2, for whom do we need to perform these good works? Fellow believers.

3. What kinds of good works will they be?

design-gold-small Clothing, food (James 2:15) and those that show up at the last judgment (Matt 25:36-46).

design-gold-small Thirsty and drink;

design-gold-small Stanger and welcomed;

design-gold-small Sick;

design-gold-small In prison & visited;

4. Acts 20:25: Help the weak; Jesus’ words that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

5. Rom 15:1-2 (NIV): ‘We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. 2 Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up’.

6. 2 Thess 3:10-12 (NIV), ‘For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” 11 We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. 12 Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat’.

7. 1 Tim 5:4, 9-10 (NIV), ‘But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God…. No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, 10 and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.

8. Prov 28:27 (NIV), ‘Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses’.

9. What other lessons have you learned tonight?

(a) What is the place of faith?

(b) What is the place of good works?

J. Works consulted

Adamson, J B 1976. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle of James. F F Bruce gen ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Arndt, W F & Gingrich, F W 1957. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature.[15] Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (limited edition licensed to Zondervan Publishing House).

Bainton, R L 1978. Here I stand: A life of Martin Luther. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

George, T 1986. “A Right Strawy Epistle”: Reformation Perspectives on James’. This article first appeared in Review and Expositor 83 (Summer 1986) 369-382. Used by permission. Available at: http://d3pi8hptl0qhh4.cloudfront.net/documents/sbjt/sbjt_2000fall3.pdf (Accessed 11 April 2016).[16]

Hiebert, D E 1979. The Epistle of James: Tests of a Living Faith. Chicago: Moody Press.

Kistemaker, S J 1986. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of James, Epistles of John, Peter, and Jude. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.

Lenski, R C H 1966. Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of the Epistle of James. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers (1966 Augsburg Publishing House).

Moyer, J C 1976. Poverty, in M C Tenney & S Barabas (eds), The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol 4, 830. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Robertson, A T 1933. Word Pictures in the New Testament: The General Epistles and The Revelation of John, vol 6. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press.

Swan, J 2007. ‘Six points on Luther’s “Epistle of Straw”’, Alpha & Omega Ministries (online), 3 April. Available at: http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php/2007/04/03/six-points-on-luthers-epistle-of-straw/ (Accessed 7 April 2016).

K.  Notes

[1] Preached at North Pine Presbyterian Church, Petrie Qld., Australia, 10 June 2016, Sunday PM service.

[1a] Luther’s language was, ‘St. James’s epistle is really a right strawy epistle, compared to

these others [St John’s Gospel; Paul’s writings; 1 Peter], for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it’ (in George 1986:23).

[2] Swan (2007).

[3] These comments are from the translation of Luther’s Works, vol. 35. pages 395-398, available at Matt1618, http://matt1618.freeyellow.com/preface.html (Accessed 7 April 2016).

[4] (Bainton1978:342).

[5] Suggested by Hiebert 1979:179)

[6] Ibid.

[7] It was written over the period, 1643-1647. See: http://spindleworks.com/library/wcf/ward.htm (Accessed 12 April 2016).

[8] Available at: http://benhoyt.com/writings/pew/#chapter16 (Accessed 11 April 2016).

[9] Christian Forums.net 2016. The Lounge, ‘Missionary needs help in India’, 9 April 2016, Natha#4. Available at: http://christianforums.net/Fellowship/index.php?threads/missionary-needs-help-in-india.62588/ (Accessed 11 April 2016).

[10] Hiebert (1979:180).

[11] Hiebert (1979:179).

[12] Ideas from Hiebert (1979:185-186).

[13] Suggested by Jim Parker#8. Available at: http://christianforums.net/Fellowship/index.php?threads/early-church-history.64075/ (Accessed 8 April 2016).

[14] In Hiebert (1979:187).

[15] This is ‘a translation and adaptation of Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-Deutsches Wörtbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der übrigen urchristlichen Literatur’ (4th rev & augmented edn 1952) (Arndt & Gingrich 1957:iii).

[16] The name of this journal for online availability is unknown as it is nowhere stated in the document.


Copyright © 2016 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 28 August 2016.