Bible Book List
James 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Resources » Commentaries » James » Chapter 2 » exegesis

James's Central Concern: Faith That Works

The works James requires are not done apart from faith but done in faith, not done instead of faith but done because of faith. Faith is the underlying stance of Christian life; deeds are the way of life; becoming mature and complete is the goal of Christian life. James cannot be charged with opposing deeds to faith, since he does not say, "I will show you deeds instead of faith." Rather, he contends for a showing of both faith and deeds: I will show you my faith by what I do. He does not object to faith; he objects only to faith not accompanied by action. Simply stated, he wants Christians to have faith that works.

James's logical argument in 2:14-18 can be outlined in four parts, so that conclusions can be drawn about his meaning.Rhetorical Questions About Faith Without Deeds (2:14)

The two rhetorical questions about faith without deeds are (1) "What good is it?" (answer: none) and (2) "Can it save?" (answer: no). The first question implies a general lack of any usefulness for a faith without actions. The second question specifies a particular use that is lacking--salvation itself. The combined impact is to declare a thorough uselessness of faith without deeds and, to make it absolutely clear, also to declare its particular uselessness in regard to salvation, which would be the primary point of having faith in the first place. "In a Christian context such as this, . . . the `use' takes on serious consequences, for it is salvation which is at stake" (Davids 1982:120). In the subsequent example in 2:15-16, there is no "good" for the needy person who receives no help. Here in 2:14, however, it is explicit that the good lacking is for the person who claims to have faith. James asks not if such faith can save "anyone else" but if such faith can save him.An Example of Faith Without Deeds (2:15-16)

The situation in James's illustration is technically hypothetical ("If . . . ") but probably one he considered quite realistic. James's specification of a brother or sister (not just "someone") reflects an envisioning of real action toward real people. We already know many of his readers were living in economic hardship. His illustration does not imply that all Christians were living in poverty, but that in their midst they would be encountering cases of hardship as severe as a lack of sufficient clothing and even "the day's supply of food" (Adamson 1976:122).

The hypothetical response to the need is good wishes without any actions, for the needy ones are merely "dismissed with friendly words" (Davids 1982:121). The response to the needy ones begins literally, "Go in peace." The verbs "be warmed" and "be filled" could be either passive or middle. Though Davids disagrees (1982:122), Adamson (1976: 123) and Laws (1980:121) take them in the passive voice, which allows a religious overtone to the wishes. The person would be saying not just the secular-sounding translation of the NIV but the more pious "Go in peace. May you be warmed and filled" as an expectation that God would provide for the needy one. This would certainly suit James's context, objecting to "faith" that has pious words but no actions. The uselessness of this response is so obvious and offensive that James needs only to repeat his first rhetorical question: What good is it? James expects that faith will surely lead to actions to meet others' material needs.Conclusion About Faith Without Deeds (2:17)

In fact, his expectation is so strong that he concludes with the most severe condemnation of faith without deeds: it is dead. The last words of his sentence are by itself, referring back to faith. Placed here, these words emphasize the focus of James's concern, which is faith by itself--that is, faith without the authenticating actions. It is not that he is promoting deeds as an alternative to faith. He obviously knows the value of faith, for he called those who have faith "rich" in 2:5. What James is rejecting is the notion that one can have faith by itself, without the accompanying actions.An Anticipated Objection and Its Answer (2:18)

The objection that James anticipates presents a problem. We would expect him to propose the statements "You have deeds; I have faith" as a potential retort spoken to him; but what he writes is a reversal of these statements. Some have supposed a loss from the original text; but with no manuscript evidence to support it, this theory must remain a last resort. Others (e.g., Ropes 1916:208-14; Dibelius 1976:155-56; Laws 1980:123-24) have simply accepted James's reversal of these statements as a carelessness about how he formulates them; his primary point is to confront the false theology of separating faith and actions, regardless of which party holds which alternative. Such an explanation is possible but dangerous with any text; the first course must be to seek a reasonable explanation for a deliberately worded text. Laws, for example, admits the solution is not entirely satisfactory (1980:124). Mayor (1897:95-96) and Adamson (1976:124-25) try to solve the problem by extending the quotation through the end of 2:18 and rendering the whole verse not as an anticipated objection to 2:17 but as a further confirmation of it. This requires an understanding of will say in 2:18 as "someone may well say" and the rest of the verse as the person's argument, which James is commending to his readers.

A paraphrase of James's thought would then be: "Faith by itself is dead. In fact, someone could properly say, `You have faith, and I have deeds. Show me your faith apart from deeds, and I will show you my faith by deeds.' " This solution is possible grammatically and attractive because of the consistency it provides for James's use of the pronouns. However, it is too forced, not only because of the sense it requires of the verb will say but also because it attempts to reverse the whole first phrase (but someone will say), which in all other cases in Greek literature introduces a contrast or objection to what has preceded. Davids (1982:124) and Moo (1985:105-6) finally choose the solution accepted by Ropes, Dibelius and Laws as the most likely, acknowledging that all of the solutions to this passage have their difficulties. This does seem the best option.

In other words, James is not particular about whether any hypothetical questioner believes in faith alone or in deeds alone. Instead, James is repudiating any separation of faith and actions as if they were contradictory or even equal alternatives. He is insisting on the theological unity of the two. In 2:18 he challenges anyone to be able to claim genuine faith without the authenticating works, and he declares the only way to have genuine faith is to carry it out with deeds. He affirms the necessity of both faith and actions and says he will show the former by the latter.

With these observations of James's logical argument, we are in a position to draw interpretive conclusions.

1. What does James mean by deeds? First, we can state the theological content of deeds. James consistently speaks of deeds as actions that are taken because of one's faith and that therefore demonstrate and authenticate one's faith. The primary, earnest and repeated point he makes is "not that works must be added to faith but that genuine faith includes works" (Moo 1985:99). It is the very nature of genuine faith to express itself in works. Though he uses the same term for deeds (erga) as Paul does in Galatians and Romans, James is not writing in the same context. It is not just that Paul and James discuss different times in the Christian life (as Barclay presents it, 1976:74); they are addressing different issues at any stage in a Christian's life. Paul uses the term to refer to works of the law (not only rituals but any act of obedience to God's commands, as Moo rightly contends, 1985:101-2) intended as a basis for standing as righteous before God. In that context, such works are a false alternative to faith in which one would rely on one's own works instead of relying (by faith) on God's redemptive works. James is referring to moral actions flowing naturally from genuine faith, so that the faith and deeds are not a dichotomy but a unity. Paul agrees in Ephesians 2:9-10: we are not saved "by works" (ex ergon), but we are saved "for works" (epi ergois). (See the section on "Faith and Deeds" in the introduction to this volume.)

Second, we can state some of the practical content of deeds. James's illustration calls for the active giving of material help for people lacking clothing and food. The deeds James especially has in mind for a life of faith, then, are not the keeping of religious ritual but the acts of love commanded in Christ's "royal law." We also find in James a conviction that Christians are responsible to care for each other. He pictures fellow believers (a needy brother or sister) in his example, and it is one of you who speaks the good wishes without taking the practical actions.

2. What does James mean by faith without deeds? James has used three important terms by which to assess faith without deeds. First, such faith is of no good. We found this term to mean of no use or benefit. Second, such faith does not save, and we found this to refer to the lack of salvation for the one who has this kind of faith. Third, such faith is dead. James chose this third term for summation and climax in 2:17, even as he will employ it again at the very end of this passage in 2:26. There he will explain his analogy: faith without deeds is dead as a body without a spirit is dead. The force of his meaning thus builds and intensifies. Faith that does not result in deeds is a faith that is utterly useless, ineffectual for salvation and in fact dead. With such terms in the text, we are finally forced to conclude that he is talking about a "faith" that is no genuine faith at all. Even when James depicts a Christian in the example of 2:15-16 (one of you), this does not mean that he expects a person of genuine, saving faith actually to ignore the poor. The point of the illustration is that such an outcome is unthinkable.

This biblical truth needs to be forcefully preached and taught for the social conscience of the modern church. It must become unthinkable for us, too, that our faith would leave us content to ignore needy people. Our churches are failing to supply the channels of ministry for a life of faith if they are not providing ways for Christians to minister to needy people. As churches plan their priorities, it does not matter whether church growth can occur through outreach to the poor; it is a question of whether we have genuine, saving faith. This point is a message to convict and to motivate those who would be people of "faith."

3. What does James mean by faith? A life of faith (pistis) is the unifying theme of James's letter. He strongly emphasizes that faith is a stance of belief and trust toward God--for example, trusting God even in the face of trials. But with equal strength James emphasizes that genuine faith is "working faith" (Moo 1985:107). It is the stance of belief toward God by which one endures trials, asks for wisdom, resists temptation, controls one's tongue, looks after orphans and widows in their distress, keeps oneself unpolluted by the world, avoids favoritism, loves one's neighbor as oneself, gives physical necessities to the poor and, in short, lives as a doer of the word.

We can affirm all of this with James's passionate earnestness but without distorting his view into an unrealistic expectation of sinless perfection. Of course Christians fail to live up to this perfectly; that is why James bothers to write about it. But the meaning of real faith is still to be embraced and practiced. If the works of faith are not present, the authenticity of one's faith is in serious question. Genuine faith, faith that does result in salvation, must acknowledge the lordship of Christ and so respond to Christ's word with actions of obedience. Thus 2:14 recalls the emphasis on that "which can save you" in 1:21. Christ is both Savior and Lord; he cannot be separated into two persons. Genuine, saving faith necessarily includes both a trusting of Christ as Savior and a following of Christ as Lord.

Previous commentary:
Faith and Deeds: The Theological Unity

Next commentary:
Three Examples

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.