Notes on James 2:14-26

by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)

James 2:14, KJV What (doth it) profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?

Here James introduces a new topic, a discussion about faith and works (or, deeds). It is easy for anyone to simply use words to express faith. Deeds do not equal words and James now reminds the readers about the importance of faith and works, plus the balance between the two. James gives several practical examples in the verses to follow.

Recall that James is already speaking to believers, those who have already been saved. The question about “can faith save him” is probably not speaking of salvation—no one could ever earn salvation—but perhaps is speaking of false believers or misbelievers, those who may have expressed faith by words but there is no outward expression of that faith.

15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, 16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be (ye) warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what (doth it) profit?

This is the first example of faith versus works, or how faith is verified or validated by works. The example here has nothing to do with salvation, rather, believers helping meet another believer’s needs.

Again James is speaking about believers, “brother or sister”; some of whom may be in need of clothing or food. In Acts 6 a number of Hellenistic Jewish widows were receiving daily meals, perhaps by the Twelve Apostles themselves, but sharing of meals goes all the way back to the closing verses of Acts 2. Further, some believers may have lost their jobs, houses, livelihood, etc., all for following Jesus.

17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.

James is simply reminding the readers that faith, expressed only with words, is dead or accomplishes nothing. A dead body, for example, is not able to do or perform anything. There is no profit, nothing good produced, if—in this case—a needy brother or sister needs clothing or food and receives only promises or wishes of faith.

18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.

James is not demanding a “sign”, such as the Jews wanted—often—in the Gospels (Matt. 12:38, e.g.). Rather he seems to be asking for reasonable proof or evidence of any person who claimed to have “faith”. Compare this with the healing of a paralytic, where Jesus Himself asked, “Whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Rise up and walk?(Luke 5:23)" and then proved He had the ability to heal, and forgive, when He raised the sick man from off his bed!

Another example of faith and works could be drawn from the daily food ministration (Acts 6) in the early Church. The apostles, as well as other believers, could have had faith that these folks would receive daily care but that wouldn’t have put much food on anybody’s plate. They put their faith in action by taking action to meet these needs while the apostles were able to devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4, paraphrased).

19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.

Later Paul would write to the Corinthians that “ . . .the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord's table, and of the table of devils. 1Co 10:20-21 KJV”. This probably means that idolatry was nothing more than demon-worship, even though the demons themselves knew there was and is only One True God!

Think, also, of the prophets of Baal on the summit of Mount Carmel. The writer describes how they went through all kinds of physical activity to try and please that false god, and yet refused to repent even when the God of Israel burned up the altar built by Elijah plus the sacrifice—after it had been saturated with 12 barrels of water (1 Kings 18:19-40)!

20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

This may be a transitional verse, where James repeats an earlier statement (verse 17) in order to lead in to another pair of examples. Note that James calls the reader a “vain man” in this verse.

21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?

That story is told in Genesis 22:1-16. Abraham took Isaac and two other young men on the journey. He bound Isaac and laid him on the altar then lifted up his hand, ready to actually kill Isaac. God intervened and rewarded Abraham for his faith and his obedience.

Abraham had already believed in God and had been justified by his faith (Gen 15:6, if not sooner) but this was sacrifice was proof that he truly had faith, even that God could raise Isaac from the dead if it came to that (Hebrews 11:17-19).So he was justified by faith in God’s eyes; by works, in man’s eyes.

22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?

Abraham had enough faith to honor God by the works or deeds of obedience, a balance between faith itself (I believe God can) and works (I obeyed God’s commands).

23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.

Genesis 15:6 actually reads “And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” James may have used the Septuagint, or Greek translation of the Hebrew OT; logical, because the Jews scattered abroad may have spoken Greek more fluently than Hebrew (witness the dialects and languages spoken by the apostles on the Day of Pentecost).

Several preachers and Bible teachers have explained that “Impute” and “count” are both words to describe an accounting term, such as transferring money from one account to another. God had transferred His righteousness to Abraham’s account, so to speak.

24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

James might have had another example from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus had said that good trees produce good fruit (Matthew 7:17-18). Faith can be spoken, but it’s the actual use of that faith, resulting in works, or deeds, that proves the faith is genuine. As a reminder, James is not here speaking about salvation—he has called the readers “brothers” several times in this chapter alone.

[25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?]

Her story, of hiding the spies, is told in Joshua 2. She had, somehow, come to believe in the God of Israel by faith (and can one imagine the astonishment of the spies when they heard a pagan describing the works of God!) and proved it—being justified by her works—by protecting the spies from capture. She also gave them sound advice on how to avoid the search parties looking for them.

Her ultimate reward was to be an ancestor of Messiah Jesus!

26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

A final reminder of the need to balance faith and works.

Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV).

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