It is inevitable that Truth should sometimes be wounded in the house of its friends. A notable case has been the supposed conflict between James and Paul in the matter of faith and works. Often has it been stated that they refuse to be reconciled and flatly contradict each other; that there are differences which cannot be explained away; that the salvation about which James writes does not include "justification."
There is no conflict in the second chapter of James with the teaching of Paul regarding faith and works. There never has been any difference. Due to careless regard for the supreme accuracy of these two truthful witnesses to the Truth of God, artificial distinctions have been created, which have caused honest souls to stray from the truth. Disregard for the niceties of Greek grammar and idiom, coupled with a desire to create as great a dispensational barrier as possible between Paul and James, has to some extent wrecked the whole teaching of the New Testament concerning saving faith.
Augustine, the greatest of the Latin fathers (4th century), explained at some length the apparent differences between James and Paul, and throughout the so-called Dark Ages no problem appears to have existed, until the rise of Martin Luther. In his great zeal for the doctrines of "justification by faith" it was natural for him to discover an opponent in James, who seemed to teach justification by works. That Luther described the Epistle of James as "a veritable strawy Epistle" is well known. He destroyed faith in James' Epistle and created an error which is still rampant in Christendom.
Let us ponder a strange feature within Christendom, that certain truths can become temporarily obscured or lost, thus causing the rise and spread of all sorts of errors and heresies. Sometimes an ancient truth may be found in an old book, the author of which has long been forgotten. Many of the doctrines which we imagine have been recently recovered were known long ago. For one millennium after the time of Jerome, his Latin Vulgate dominated Christendom, and revelations such as that made known in Col. 1:20 were expressed in such clear terms that anyone could grasp the truth.
At this point let us present as literal a rendering of James 2:14-24 as possible, paying the greatest attention to the most insignificant words in the Greek, also the emphatic words.
14: "What (is) the benefit, my brethren, if ever anyone may be saying he has FAITH, yet WORKS he may not have? Can the faith (i.e. that faith) save him? (No!). 15: If ever a brother or a sister may be existing all along thinly-clad and lacking the nurture for the day, 16: yet any out of you keep on saying to them, Be going away in peace, be getting warm and be getting satisfied, yet you may not be giving them what things are requisite for the body, what (is) the benefit? 17: Thus also (is) that faith (lit. the faith); if ever it may not have works, it is dead by itself. 18: But some one will be saying, Thou hast faith, and I have works. Shew me that (lit. the) faith of thine apart from the works, and I shall shew thee out of my works the faith. 19: Thou art believing that God is One. Ideally art thou doing! Even the demons are believing—and they are shuddering! 20: Yet art thou wanting to get to know, O empty man; that the faith apart from the works is dead? 21: Abraham our father, was he not out of works declared righteous, by carrying up (or offering) Isaac his son on to the altar? 22: Thou art observing that the faith worked together (or, co-operated) with his works, and out of the works the faith was perfected. 23: And there was fulfilled the scripture, that saying, Now Abraham believes God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness, and Friend of God was he called. 24: You are seeing that out of works is a man being declared righteous, and not out of faith only."
What do the versions say? Do any of them recognize the Definite Articles and their importance here? The Geneva Bible reads in v. 14, "Can that faith save him?" while in v. 20 it reads "Wylt thou understand O vayne man, that that faith (which is) without dedes is deade?" Passing on from the year 1557 to 1798 we find Scarlett in v. 14 reads "can such a faith save him?" where like Weymouth and the 20th Century version, the idiom of the Greek Definite Article is aptly and beautifully expressed. The Diaglott reads "This Faith is not able to save him." Charles Thomson (1808) reads "Can that belief save him?" Hayman reads "Can that faith save him?" Young reads "is that faith able to save him?" Had due attention been paid to the Revised Version (British or American) which reads the same as Hayman, much wasted labour would have been saved. Moffatt, as often, misses the point, in reading "Can his faith save him?" The Concordant Version is too non-committal and rather vague—"The faith cannot save him." This is cautious, but does not quite express the Greek idiom. James holds in his mind that kind of faith or belief which has no works or deeds. Rotherham is just as cautious and vague in his first edition (1872), "Is it possible for the faith to save him?" but his fifth edition (1903) is no better, "Can his faith save him?"
It will be noted that in v. 14 though the word "says" is not emphatic, it is an integral part of the argument. Some one has claimed to possess faith, but does not have works. But what are we to understand by "works?" We are so apt to think of "works" as only works of law, efforts to keep the Law of Moses. The Greek word erga means actions of various kinds, not necessarily involving toil. It is often rendered "deeds." Etymology brings the Greek word home close to us, as originally it was werg, which is letter for letter, the English work, German werk, and old Welsh guerg. Like ancient Hebrew, the Greek language very long ago lost every initial W, or GW.
Another point of some importance is that James sums up his argument by stating that out of works, or as a result of actions, a man is being declared righteous, and not out of faith only. It is very much better to read, "declared righteous" (for Greek dikaioutai) than "justified," as the latter word comes to us through the Latin language, which gave an ominous shift in meaning to most of the important Greek terms. If I said to you, Your actions have justified you, you would understand this to mean, you had done something meritorious. But did I say, Your actions have declared you right, or Your actions have shewn you up as right, or righteous, the whole sense is altered. James says that Abraham was SHEWN UP as righteous, by what he had done—what he had done in pure faith. James says that if anyone merely affirms that he possesses faith, this in itself will never SHEW HIM UP or declare him righteous. But the man's actions subsequent to his faith, or energized by his faith, will exhibit the proof of his faith. So James is perfectly correct to maintain that not by faith alone is a man declared righteous.
Observe present day Christendom. There is wide-spread mental assent to the fact of history that Christ has been here on earth. Our era dates from His birth. The Protestant Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Greek Church all join in believing more or less in Christ, and in using our Bible. But only occasionally does an individual soul acquire a living and energetic faith which saves him. A dead faith cannot save.
Verse 18 is explained in one case as, "Thou hast faith, as thou sayest, and I have works, as facts prove; shew me thy faith if thou canst apart from thy works." In this comparison the fundamental idea is that activity and motion are proofs of life, while the lack of these is proof of death. In order that one may be declared righteous, his faith must prove its reality by works. Only such works as are actions of a living faith can declare one righteous. No actions can do so which are only good works, unless they demonstrate faith in action. Nor can a faith declare one righteous which is not influential of a man's heart, character and actions. Abraham was declared righteous by that kind of results which could only spring out of a lively faith.
In verse 18 Moffatt paraphrases as follows: "'And you claim to have faith!' Yes, and I claim to have deeds as well: . . . . . . I will shew you by my deeds what faith is!"
Verse 19 is paraphrased in the Twentieth Century version thus: "It is a part of your Faith, is it not, that there is one God? Good; yet even the demons have that faith, and tremble at the thought."
The Greek words PisteuO (believe, have faith) and pistis (belief, faith) are related to peithO, which means persuade. A believer (pistos) is really one who is "persuadable."
James, however, takes faith as meaning assent to truth, whether it is vitally effective or merely inoperative. The faith of the demons is mere belief: it gives them no salvation. It is not likely to impel them to good actions.
What has been called Luther's "contemptuous rashness" would never have arisen had he patiently discovered that Paul and James use the words FAITH and WORKS in different senses or connections. With Paul, faith signifies the inmost principle of the believer's spiritual life. But James also uses the word of mere mental assent, of a barren profession of belief. With Paul faith is a living principle; but James deals with a dead faith. Nor do they speak of the same works. Paul speaks of works antecedent to faith; James of works which follow faith. Paul is thinking of works which involve external service and the ceremonial law, which could never save. James has in mind works of righteousness, apart from which faith cannot be effective faith.
In chapter 1:22-27 James has been pointing out the value, the necessity, of good actions. This time he is addressing his "loveable brethren." "Now keep on becoming word-doers, and not only listeners." The mere word-listener, who is not a doer, is likened to a man who looks into a mirror and coming away immediately forgets what particular kind of face nature gave him. James is evidently much concerned about the formal worshipper, the ritualist (v. 26), who does not bridle his tongue, but whose ritualism is vain. Clean and undefilable ritual with God consists of kindly actions towards others and keeping oneself unspotted from the world.
We must bear in mind that James had to deal with people who were misled into thinking that the mere profession of a covenanted religion was enough. As God's own chosen people they thought that as custodians of the Law, the divine ritual and the ceremonies, there was no special need for them to exhibit a lively faith. In ch. 1:5-8 James shews the necessity for a real faith. Lightfoot and others have shewn that James deals with the empty boasts of the Pharisaic dogmatists who avowedly relied for salvation upon their monotheistic beliefs, their circumcision, and the externalities of their religion, with the advantages which their national birthright brought them through the supposed favouritism of God.
James was obliged to warn his brethren that they must exhibit a true faith, and as proof of this faith, must produce good actions. How vain and ridiculous it was that they should believe Jesus was the Messiah, yet continue to shew partiality towards the wealthy, and disdain to the poor.
When the Israelite declared (James 2:18), "I shall shew thee out of my works the faith," he did not mean, "I shall shew thee out of my works my righteousness, or my salvation." He meant that his actions would prove that he was moved by his faith. Yet one of the propounders of the false doctrine which we oppose states that James teaches that "justification is attained by works rather than by faith." What James does say is that Abraham's faith co-operated with his actions, but these faith-actions declared him righteous.
True faith in God can never stand stagnant. In the case of Abraham, his faith was dynamic within him, he was invigorated by faith (Rom. 4:20).
While Paul opposed the error of Legalism, James was combating the error of Antinomianism—usually the weakness of the "empty" vain man whom James addresses, that holiness of life may be laid aside, as though mere mental assent to the truths of the Gospel, or a conviction that one is certainly a believer, releases him from the obligation to live soberly and righteously.
Does faith declare one righteous, or do works? Paul's answer is, faith alone. But if one asks further, Does ALL faith or belief declare one righteous? James replies Faith alone without works is DEAD, it does not declare one righteous. Faith alone declares righteous, but not the faith which is alone.
What is dead faith? Faith which accomplishes nothing. Paul insists on the need for believers exhibiting their faith by good works (2. Cor. 9:8; Eph. 2:10; Col. 1:10; 2. Thess. 2:17, etc.). In fact, Paul devotes one half of nearly all his Epistles to moral exhortation to accomplish good acts, not in order that we might attain salvation or "justification," but as proof that we belong completely to the Lord, and as an incentive to further good actions.
The very same scriptural examples are adduced by Paul to demonstrate the doctrine of "justification" by faith alone, and by James to prove "justification" by works. Does not this make it clear that they both wrote in order to correct the grievous errors which had sprung up among believers, Legalism and its opposite, Antinomianism?
It is well-nigh incredible that those writings which we controvert should declare that "The salvation to which James refers does not include justification, hence there is not the necessity for grace." James insists that dead, barren, lifeless faith cannot save, and argues that faith must be lively to save. If the salvation to which he refers does not include justification, why does James refer to Abraham's faith, which co-operated with those actions of his which declared him righteous? These actions completed or perfected his faith. As for grace, was it not a gloriously gracious act on the part of God to reckon Abraham's humble yet grand faith as righteousness? The humbler a man or woman is before God, the mightier is his or her faith.
The attempt to exclude from the salvation with which James was acquainted "the necessity for grace" is due to that ultradispensationalism which is determined to make Paul and James as diametrically opposed as possible in every way. It is true that James does not use the Greek word for grace often (charis), but might he not speak of that same quality under different terms? That Greek word never signifies "undeserved favour," but means a kindly, friendly goodwill or agreeableness. Any concordance will soon demonstrate this fact.
What a volume does James write when he states that Abraham was called "Friend of God"! One of whom Jehovah was fond (philos), and one who was mutually fond of Jehovah. Such a friendship was a royal manifestation of God's grace, and can still be so, to each one of us now. Again in ch. 5:11 James writes of the Lord's compassion and pity—qualities which are inextricably bound up with love and grace and holiness.
Even John writes wonderfully little about grace, only in the first chapter of his Gospel, and once in 2. John 3. Yet the same John wrote a volume about the grace of God when he gave us John 3:16. He who summed up in these words in that verse the Good News could not for a moment have doubted that salvation comes through faith alone. Yet the faith must be real and living, as John says, "everyone who is believing into Him should not get lost, but have eonian life." (Or, we might more literally read, "everyone who is having faith reaching Him.").
"It will not do to say that such faith (i.e. sheer, unaided faith) is vital and must manifest itself in works. This is true, yet such works are in no sense the root of righteousness. They are the fruit. To add works to a dead faith would not vivify it."
Where does James ever write that works are the root of righteousness? Is not the argument of James that faith, to be effective, must shew its fruit? Otherwise it is a dead faith. True, to add works to a dead faith would not vivify it; but to add works to a living faith would surely prove the faith was alive.
Says Schaff's Commentary: "A tree in winter may not have signs of life, but is not dead in itself. It will put forth shoots and leaves in spring. But faith has no winter; if it has not works, it has no life in it, and ought not to be called faith, for dead faith is no faith. James distinguishes between theoretical and practical faith. Justification cannot be ascribed to the former."
The argument of James in the former part of ch. 2 is that faith cannot exist without love. In the latter part of ch. 2 he proceeds to shew that faith cannot exist without works, and that by works a man is declared righteous and not by faith alone.
Wordsworth, in his Greek New Testament (1860) says it was asserted by Augustine (354-430 A.D.) in his book "On Faith and Works," that the Epistle of James is in some ways supplementary to Paul's Epistles to the Galatians and to the Romans. Wordsworth agrees with this, and says James and Paul both provide a reply against different spiritual maladies, while James completes the work done by Paul in his Epistles. Augustine shews how Abraham was declared righteous by faith. Then he continues, "But here is a whirlpool, in which we may be swallowed up if we are not On our guard. Abraham was not declared righteous by Works, but by Faith. Another man listens to this statement and says, ' Well then, I shall live as I wish; and then, although I have not good Works, and only believe in God, yet it will be counted to me for righteousness.' If a man speaks thus, and makes up his mind to go on living thus, he will be drowned in the whirlpool. I therefore take the case of Abraham, and cite concerning him what I read in the Epistle of another Apostle, who wished to set right those who had misunderstood the Apostle Paul. I refer to James and his Epistle, which he wrote against those who presumed on their faith, and would not do good Works; and in which he commends Abraham's Works, as Paul had commended Abraham's Faith. The two Apostles are not opposed to each other. James commends Abraham's work—a work known to all—the offering of his son Isaac. 'Magnum opus, sed ex Fide.' A "great work" indeed that was, but it was a work growing "out of Faith." I praise the superstructure of the work, but I see the foundation of Faith. I praise the fruit of the work, but I recognize the root of it in Faith. If Abraham had done this work without a sound Faith, it would have been of no use, whatever the work might be. On the other hand if Abraham had faith in such a sort, that when God commanded him to offer up his son, he had said, 'No, I will not do it, and yet I believe that God will save me, although I slight His commands,' then his Faith, being without Works, would have been dead, and would have remained barren and dry, like a root without fruit.
Abraham then, was declared righteous by Faith; but although works did not go before Faith, yet they came after it. Shall your Faith be barren? No; it will not be barren, unless you yourself are barren. 'Tene ergo fidem.' "Hold fast therefore Faith"; hold fast Faith as one who is about to work. But you may say, This is not Paul's doctrine. Yes, I reply, it is. I do not appeal from Paul to James; but I do appeal from Paul to Paul. What says he? He says, 'In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is availing anything, but Faith working through love.' Again, 'The aim of the Law is Love.' Again, 'Although I have Faith, all the Faith, so as to remove mountains, yet have not Love, it profits me nothing.'"
Farther on Augustine says, "Let no one boast of his works done before Faith. On the other hand, let no one be slothful in good works, after he has received Faith. Good works do not go before him who is yet to be declared righteous by Faith, but they follow him who has been declared righteous. And the Faith described by Paul is not any kind of Faith, but is that healthful, evangelical Faith, whose works spring from Love."
What we have stated above demonstrates the great importance of the Greek Definite Article, which usually indicates the dominant thought present in the mind of the writer or speaker. Through neglect of this the damage done to James by the foolish exegesis which we have been condemning has resulted in the tendency to lean upon Paul's teaching as though it permitted what is practically Antinomianism (Hold on to your Faith, but do what you like; what you "believe" is more important than your actions). Because Luther stoutly insisted on "Justification by Faith alone," anything having the appearance of "Works" was looked upon with suspicion, and came to be shunned and condemned. Had Luther only put Works in their proper place, as the fruits of Faith, the whole Reformation would have taken a different course.
Now-a-days it is often the case that the believer's "Faith," on which he relies, has become the most important thing, his chief work.
The result comes to be the neglect of good works, indifference towards other believers and other sects, indifference to sin, a feeling that his own faith has saved him—as works could not save him, and as his works could not save him, neither can wrong actions harm him or damn him.
How can we mend matters? Supplicate God for all the saints we know, by name, individually. Call down the special blessings of heaven upon them. As Paul writes in 1. Cor. 7:21 of him who is able to become a free man, in the beautiful Greek Middle Voice form, "Rather make yourself useful!"
Good actions will build up faith. Good actions should become our practice, because it is our habitual practice, not our sins, which will count before that august tribunal or dais of the Christ, at which Paul states all of us, the whole of us (emphatic) must be made manifest, in order that each one may get back for himself or herself, or be requited for, through the body, corresponding with what things he puts into practice, whether it be good or bad. (2. Cor. 5:10).
God makes ready beforehand good actions or works that in them we should we walking (Eph. 2:10). In every one of these we ought to be fruitful (Col. 1:10). These are the things which will establish us (2. Thess. 2:17).
ALEXANDER THOMSON Last updated 28.12.2005