Category Archives: Works

James 2:21-26 (ESV): It’s true you can be justified by works.

 By Spencer D Gear PhD [1]

It’s true clip_image002

You can be justified by works clip_image004

Is James a preacher of falsehood?clip_image006

1. Introduction

It was early May 2015 and our backyard was flooding with water pouring onto it from the neighbour’s property. I needed sandbags to stop the water from coming into our house. To go to the Council’s works’ depot, I drove down Boundary Rd., North Lakes towards Deception Bay Rd. I came to the creek and the water was flooded over the causeway. Instead of trying to cross, not knowing the depth of the water, I turned around. Was I justified in not crossing the flooded causeway? Of course!

In my writing of this paragraph of my sermon, I have used the ‘justify’ format so that my writing is carefully aligned on the right and left margins. I have used the “justify” format function of MS Word for this paragraph.


Daniel morcombe.jpg(Daniel Morcombe photograph, courtesy Wikipedia)


DANIEL Morcombe, 13, went missing while waiting for a bus in 2003 [on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast]. It was almost eight years before his remains were found’. In 2014, Brett Peter Cowan faced trial charged with his murder’.[1a]

ABC News (Australia) reported on 15 March 2014 that

Brett Peter Cowan has been sentenced to life in jail with a minimum non-parole period of 20 years for the murder of Sunshine Coast teenager Daniel Morcombe.

Cowan was … found guilty of murder, indecent treatment of a child and interfering with a corpse.[2]

He was sentenced in Brisbane’s Supreme Court by Justice Roslyn Atkinson. Was the Justice justified in sentencing Cowan to life in prison?

Here I have used the English word, ‘justified’, to mean 3 different things:

Flower24 Justified in not crossing a flooded road;

Flower24 A paragraph of my typed sermon justified as part of its written format;

Flower24 A justice in court justified in inflicting punishment on a criminal, based on Australian law.

Please keep these examples in mind as we examine the language of this passage from James 2:21-26.

(a) Abraham justified by works (v. 21);

(b) Rahab, the prostitute, justified by works (v. 25);

(c) ‘You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone’ (v. 24);

(d) Then Paul has the audacity to state this of believers: ‘Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom 5:1 ESV).

1.1 A quick review (James 2:14-20)

Since I preached on James 2:14-20 a month ago, you may have forgotten some of the content. James 2:17 gives a quick summary of this passage: ‘So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead’

1.1.1 Faith by itself isn’t enough.

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

1.1.3 Faith without good deeds is dead or useless.

True faith is demonstrated by the good works that follow faith. James is not teaching that good works are need for you to obtain genuine faith. But if you have fair dinkum faith, we will see that unseen faith by the seen good works that you do. That’s the fundamental teaching in James 2:14-20.

Now to understand what James is saying that caused Luther so much heartache. It is not that difficult to understand if we keep this in mind the negative aspect in vv 14-20 – faith without works is useless. Now James turns to what a genuine, saving faith will look like.

He gives one example that we could expect – Abraham. But the other seems out in left field – Rahab, a prostitute. These 2 OT characters are as different as chalk and cheese by outward appearances. But when we get to the heart of the matter they are on the same page. You might say: What? Abraham the man of faith and Rahab the harlot. Those 2 examples seem such an unlikely couple to demonstrate justification by works.

To understand James 2:21, we must know the meaning of James 2:20. It reads, ‘Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?’ (ESV).

Now James sets out to demonstrate that genuine faith that is not followed by good works is useless. Look who he uses as his first example.

2. Abraham justified by works?

Faith & WorksNote the entire verse 21 (ESV): ‘Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?’ The NIV translates as: ‘Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?’

This verse refers to Abraham’s offering up Isaac, recorded in Genesis 22. When Abraham was obedient to God’s test and bound Isaac to the wood on the altar, took the knife to slaughter his son (Gen 22:10) but the angel of the Lord intervened to stop this sacrifice of Isaac. These are the works that James is speaking about.

2.1 Didn’t this happen when he offered Isaac on the altar? (v. 21)

What we are not told in verse 21 is about Abraham believing God and being justified by faith, or being counted as righteousness. We have to wait until James 2:23 to read about that.

However, it is critical for our understanding that we know that Abraham’s being justified by works in James 2:21 follows Abraham’s being justified by faith.

We are told about this justification by faith in Genesis 15 in God’s Covenant with Abram. God’s promise was his very own son to be Abram’s heir (Gen 15:4) and Abram’s descendants would be as many as the stars in the heaven (Gen 15:5). Then in Gen 15:6 we have these words from Abram, ‘And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness’. This is where Abram was justified by faith in God alone.

This is the verse to which Paul refers when he wrote to the Romans 4:3, ‘For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”’. To the Galatians 3:6, Paul wrote, ‘Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”’. In these 2 verses in Romans and Galatians, Paul is referring to Gen 15:6 when Abram was justified by faith.

However James 2:21 is referring to another incident in the life of Abraham when he offered up Isaac as a sacrifice, a demonstration of Abraham’s faith in God.

Commentator C. E. B. Cranfield summarised this very well:

For James, no less than for Paul, the words of Gen. 15.6 quoted in [James 2] verse 23 (“And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness”) are decisive. It was by his faith that Abraham was justified. His works (his readiness to offer up Isaac related to Gen. 22) did not earn his justification (about which we hear already in Gen. 15): they were simply the fruit and the outward evidence of his faith (Cranfield 1965:340).[3]

That’s an excellent statement and summary. Even though these verses got Luther tangled up, they are not all that difficult to understand if we consider the context in James 2 and the references to Genesis 15 and Gen 22. In James 2:21, Abraham is stated as being justified by works. This is an illustration of the true faith that Abraham already had. Abraham’s good works and his faith are inseparable, but the works DO NOT lead to Abraham’s faith and righteousness before God. Abraham’s work of offering up Isaac is a proof of genuine faith.

Again, Cranfield said it well, ‘Had there been no works, Abraham would not have been justified; but that would have been because the absence of works would have meant that he had no real faith’ (Cranfield 1965:340).[4]

So to answer the question, ‘Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac?’ We say, ‘Yes, Abraham the father of the Jews, including Jewish Christians, ‘was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar’ (that’s the NLT translation). However, this demonstration of works was based on Abraham’s being declared to be righteous by faith.

The same applies to all believers. Our good works demonstrate that we are already believers who have been justified by faith. This leads to the summary in James 2:22,

2.2 Faith active with works (v. 22)

This is what I’ve just explained and James 2:22 states, ‘You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works’. Or as the NLT puts it, ‘You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete’.

What could it possibly mean that Abraham’s

3. Faith completed by works (v.  22)

arrow-small NASB, ‘as a result of the works, faith was perfected’.

arrow-small CEV, ‘He proved that his faith was real by what he did’.

arrow-small NRSV, ‘faith was brought to completion by the works’.

‘Was completed or perfected’ is the aorist tense (point action) of the verb, teleiow, meaning ‘to carry to the end, to complete like love in 1 John 4:18’,[5] which reads, ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love’. The same verb is in James 1:4 with ergon teleion, ‘And let steadfastness have its full effect (or ‘must finish its work’ NIV), that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing’ (ESV).

Faith is ‘brought to its intended goal’ by good works. Abraham was justified by faith (Gen 15) but his faith was made complete by his offering of Isaac as a sacrifice (Gen 22). Your works will demonstrate whether your faith is the real thing.

My wife, Desley, and I really enjoy custard apples. They are grown in different parts of the Queensland east coast and into northern NSW. A custard apple tree is made perfect, brought to its intended goal, by producing custard apple fruit. If you have faith that is genuine, you will have that faith perfected by your doing good works (Hiebert 1979:194).

Let’s use a down to earth analogy: This photo is an example of justification by works for the custard apple tree.



This is the justification by faith for the custard apple tree – flowers:


(photo courtesy

Wherever you have a genuine custard apple tree and flowers, it must blossom into the good works of custard apple fruit.

So, wherever people have genuine faith, it must blossom into good works – feeding the hungry, clothing those needing clothes, and meeting human need. It will also blossom into Christians proclaiming the Gospel. Timothy was a pastor who cared for people. However, what did Paul say to Timothy? ‘But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry’ (2 Tim 4:5 NIV). Primarily, he was not an evangelist, but God’s instruction still was, ‘Do the work of an evangelist’.

No matter what the gifts of people, we need to engage in practical good works among needy people. We may choose to do it locally or through international humanitarian groups such as Compassion, Voice of the Martyrs, Open Doors, Mercy Ships, or many other ministries.

Notice the emphasis of James 2:23:

3.1 Scripture was fulfilled (v. 23)

‘and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God’.

This refers back to Gen 15:6, which I’ve already covered, when Abraham was justified by faith.

3.1.1 Abraham believed God (v. 23)

3.1.2 It was counted to him as righteousness (v. 23)

a. Abraham was called a friend of God (v. 23)

Where is Abraham called ‘a friend of God’? These words do not come from Gen 15 or Gen 22. So to what is James referring? Here are a few possibilities:

clip_image012A close relationship between God and Abraham is implied in Gen 18:17-18 (ESV): ‘7 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?’

clip_image012[1]We know from 2 Chron 20:7 that King Jehoshaphat while addressing God, spoke of Abraham as ‘Abraham your friend’ (ESV).

clip_image012[2]In Isa 41:8, God spoke of ‘Abraham, my friend’.

So there you have a few examples of Abraham’s intimate relationship with God so that Abraham could be called a ‘friend of God’.

Now James 2:24 gives a summary:

4. This means: A person is justified by works (v. 24)

‘You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone’. How is that possible? As I’ve attempted to show in my last message and this one that being justified by works and not faith alone means that genuine faith, fair dinkum faith in Christ alone for salvation, is not the real thing unless it is shown by its good works. Good deeds follow salvation but they are a package. If there is no good works, there is no genuine faith. So it is biblically sound to say that a Christian is justified by works and not faith alone, as long as one remembers that faith and works are used interchangeably as a demonstration of genuine faith in Christ alone for salvation.

4.1 Not justified by faith alone (v. 24)

Miss Placed FaithNow, you won’t accuse me of preaching a false doctrine when I say that we are not justified by faith alone, will you? That’s exactly what James taught because of the compulsory combination of genuine faith expressed through good works. If you don’t have the good works, you don’t have real, saving faith. But the good works come after saving faith. They demonstrate that you already have faith.

Then we come to an unexpected example of justification by works. We can understand Abraham demonstrating his faith by moving to sacrifice Isaac on the altar. Abraham was a hero of the faith.

But then we have this provocative example in a Jewish culture that treated women as sub-standard. Bible History online has an article, ‘Jewish women and the Temple’, in which it says this about Jewish women in the first century AD:

Rabbinic literature was filled with contempt for women. The rabbis taught that women were not to be saluted, or spoken to in the street, and they were not to be instructed in the law or receive an inheritance. A woman walked six paces behind her husband and if she uncovered her hair in a public place she was considered a harlot.

In ancient Israel the Jewish culture was one of the most male dominant cultures in the whole world…. The Mishnah taught that a woman was like a gentile slave who could be obtained by intercourse, money or writ (m. Qidd 1:1).[6]

The Mishnah dealt with the debates on the Jewish oral law that were composed by the Jews between AD 70 and 200 and forms part of the Talmud. If you want to investigate any teaching (such as that on women) within the Mishnah, that is called a Midrash.[7]

Now to …

5. Rahab, the prostitute, justified by works (v. 25)

She is a very unexpected example. Not only was she a woman, but also she had been a prostitute. We read about Rahab in Joshua chs 2-6. Remember the story? Paul Cornford has been preaching about her in recent weeks. Just a few incidents from her life are mentioned here in James:

5.1 She was justified by works (v 25)

This verse from James 2:25 (ESV) states, ‘And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?’

Don’t miss the introductory words, ‘And in the same way’ (homoi?s). And in the same way as Abraham, but what a prominent contrast. James has taken 2 people of very different characters and demonstrated how their faith was followed by works, thus proving their justification by faith.

Remember the story?

5.1.1 When? Receiving messengers & sending out by another way (v. 25)

What were the works that justified her? We know from Joshua 2:1 and 6:17, 22 that Rahab received the spies (here in James they are called messengers). Joshua had sent 2 spies to check the land of Canaan, but especially Jericho. Rahab hid these spies in her house. The King of Jericho went to Rahab saying, ‘Bring out the men who have come to you, who have entered your house for they have come to search out all the land’ (Josh 2:3).

To protect the spies, what did Rahab do? ‘She let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was built into the city wall’ (Josh 2:15). The spies departed by another way and Rahab ‘tied the scarlet cord in the window’ (Josh 2:21).

That’s all we have reference to here in James 2:25, but that’s enough to demonstrate she was justified by works. HOWEVER, where is Rahab’s faith that preceded her good works?

This we know:

clip_image014 Rahab has her name in Christ’s family tree, his genealogy, according to Matt 1:5 (ESV): ‘and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse….’

clip_image016 Here’s the BIG one regarding Rahab’s faith: ‘By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies’ (Heb 11:31 ESV).

In the great faith chapter of the Bible we have proof of Rahab’s faith and this meant she did not perish with the disobedient ones because of what she did for the spies.

When James asks, ‘Was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works?’ He is asking: What works did Rahab do to demonstrate she had faith in the living God? Her good works entailed what she did for the spies, the messengers.

Now James concluded his discussion:

6. Faith without works is dead (v 26)

James 2:26, ‘For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead’ (ESV).

6.1 Just as the body apart from the spirit is dead (v. 26)

What happens when your spirit leaves your body when you breathe your last breath? We have information about this in Eccl 12:6-7 (NLT):

‘Yes, remember your Creator now while you are young, before the silver cord of life snaps and the golden bowl is broken. Don’t wait until the water jar is smashed at the spring and the pulley is broken at the well. 7 For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it’.

The analogy is:

6.2 In a similar way, faith without works is dead (v. 26)

I hope you have gained the message in my expositions on James 2 that if you don’t have works that follow faith, then your faith is not genuine.

So to say that you are justified by your works is using justify to mean demonstrate to be righteous. Just as custard apples justify the existence of a living custard apple tree that blossoms and produces fruit, so a Christian’s works justify that he or she has genuine faith. Unless you have works accompanying faith, you do not have fair dinkum faith that saves.

7. Conclusion

Wayne Grudem, a Reformed Baptist theologian, summarised his interpretation of James 2, stating that

“show to be righteous” is an acceptable sense for the word justified, but also on the consideration that this sense fits well with the primary purpose of James in [James 2].[8] James is concerned to show that mere intellectual agreement with the gospel is a “faith” that is really no faith at all. He is concerned to argue against those who say they have faith but show no change in their lives. He says, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (James 2:18) [Grudem 1999:322].

Now to some,

7.1 Applications of James 2:21-26 to your life and this church

Let me suggest a couple before I ask for your contributions:

  1. What does it mean to be justified by works? It means that you will SHOW you are righteous before God by your good deeds. What good works should we be doing as individuals and as a church?
  2. No matter how bad your past, Rahab is an example that demonstrates that justification by faith leads to justification by works – the practice of good works.
  3. Is the title of this sermon accurate? ‘It’s true! You can be justified by works!’ Dare I add, true Christians MUST be justified by works!
  4. Now it’s over to you. How can you apply this message to your life and this church’s ministry?

8. Works consulted

Cranfield, C E B 1965. The message of James. Scottish Journal of Theology 18 (3), September, 338-345.

Grudem, W 1999. Bible Doctrine: Essential teachings of the Christian faith. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press.

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

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

James 2:21-26 English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)

21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

9.  Notes

[1] Preached at North Pine Presbyterian Church, Petrie Qld., Australia, Sunday 17 June 2016, PM Service..

[1a] The Courier-Mail 2013. 10 years later, the life and death of Daniel Morcombe (online), December 06. Available at: (Accessed 28 August 2016).

[2] ABC News, 2014. Daniel Morcombe’s killer sentenced to life in prison (online), 15 March. Available at: (Accessed 7 May 2016).

[3] This Cranfield citation is from Hiebert (1979:192).

[4] This citation is taken from Hiebert (1979:193).

[5] Robertson (1933:37).

[6] Bible History online n d. ‘Women in Jewish history’. Available at: (Accessed 10 May 2016).

[7] What is a midrash? (online), Got Questions? Available at: (Accessed 10 May 2016).

[8] The original said, ‘this section’.


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

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


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: (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: (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, (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: (Accessed 12 April 2016).

[8] Available at: (Accessed 11 April 2016).

[9] Christian 2016. The Lounge, ‘Missionary needs help in India’, 9 April 2016, Natha#4. Available at: (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: (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.