James 2:17: Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Is James 2:17 teaching that works are necessary to have saving faith in Christ? Is this passage at odds with the rest of the Bible? Has this text been taken out of context? These are just some of the questions that surround this text and the discussion in evangelicalism regarding the relationship between faith in Christ and good works.
The book of James was written in Jerusalem around AD 48-50 by James, the leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:17), the half-brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55). He was late in accepting Christ as the Messiah (John 7:5) and was eventually converted by an appearance of the risen Lord (1 Corinthians 15:7). James identifies himself as the author in the opening verse of the epistle that bears his name.
The main idea of the book of James is practical Christianity, or what I like to refer to as “shoe leather Christianity.” Do you want to know how to live for Christ once you come to Him in saving faith? Read the book of James. There are over 25 allusions in James to Jesus’ Sermon the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount was given by Christ to instruct His followers how they should live as Kingdom citizens. The 108 verses of James contain 54 imperatives (commands) to explain the need for action upon the part of the readers. The book of James is all about action and how to practically live for Christ. James does not write primarily as a theologian but as a pastor.
James 2:14-26 is a major division within the book where the author wants to communicate that talk is cheap. James essentially says that anyone can say he is a follower of Christ, but are there good works in this person’s life which prove he is a follower of Christ? His argument is that faith in Christ is justified on a daily basis by behaving like Christ. Three times (v. 14, 15, 18) James creates a rhetorical argument on behalf of the person who “says” he has faith in Christ yet does nothing practical with that relationship. James decries such a nebulous Christianity.
James writes that a faith in Christ without good works as a result is a useless and demonic faith (v. 19). This type of faith is also described as “dead” (vv. 20, 26). James asks, “Can that kind of faith save him?” The answer is a resounding “No!”
To prove that good works should follow faith in Christ, James cites two Old Testament examples, Abraham and Rahab. One author remarked that James noted “a patriarch and a prostitute” as his examples. In 2:21, James asks the rhetorical question, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?” The word “justified” here can have two meanings. It can either mean “acquittal, declaring one righteous” (Romans 3:24, 28) or “vindication, proof of righteousness” (Romans 3:4; 1 Timothy 3:16). James’ question could be phrased this way, “Did Abraham not prove his saving faith when he offered his son Isaac on the altar at God’s request?”
James then asks, “Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?” (James 2:22). “Perfect” means “to complete.” The word describes something reaching its logical or normal end. Saving faith is to reach a goal and that goal is to produce fruit. The Apostle then argues that this type of action is a fulfillment or proof of Genesis 15:6, “And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” “Fulfilled” here refers to fulfillment of the principle that justification by faith results in good works and fruit. Paul uses this same text in Genesis to also show that Abraham was justified by faith alone (Romans 4:2-5). Hebrews 11:8-12 chronicles Abraham’s fruit of obedience to God. Abraham obeyed God because he knew God through saving faith.
Rahab had a saving faith that produced good works and fruit as well. In verse 25, James rhetorically asks if Rahab’s faith was “justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?” (James 2:25). James recalls an incident originally recorded in Joshua 2 where the Moabitess prostitute hid the Israelite spies who were doing reconnaissance work in Jericho. She hid the spies and kept them from harm because they agreed to spare her and her family from harm when the city was overrun. James argued that this act was prima facia evidence of her saving faith. The writer of the book of Hebrews argues this same truth. Hebrews 11:31: By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace.
What about the rest of scripture? Are we really made right with God through faith in His Son alone? The overwhelming testimony of the Bible is “Yes!” Paul quotes the 32nd Psalm in Romans 4:7-8 to argue for justification by faith alone. King David, possibly unknowingly, described this glorious truth in seminal form when he authored Psalm 32. Romans 4 is replete with quotes from Genesis concerning Abraham’s justification by faith alone. Hebrews 11 celebrates the faith, not the works, of Old Testament saints from Abel all the way to King David.
The Apostle Peter wrote that we “were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). This is a redemption apart from human good works. The Apostle John argues that the death of Christ alone apart from human merit placated the wrath of God against humanity (1 John 2:2, 4:10). Jude decries those who would pervert the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (Jude 4). Our Bible closes with the Apostle John reminding us that Jesus “loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood” (Revelation 1:5). This is a truth that the redeemed of the ages will celebrate for all eternity around the throne of Jesus (Revelation 5:9).
In summary, here are a few truths to note about James 2:17:
- Context means everything. The old adage “a text without a context is a pretext” is really true. If you want to teach human works contribute to salvation you can do so by picking a verse out of a paragraph. However, if you look at those verses in light of the surrounding verses, then you will not be able to do so.
- The witness of scripture is important. Immediate context is important, but canonical context is important as well. A text should be interpreted in light of the surrounding verses, but the student of scripture should also investigate what the rest of the Bible says about a theological issue. The biblical authors are united, not divided, on theological issues.
- “The plain things are the main things and the main things are the plain things.” I have heard Dr. Alistair Begg say this repeatedly regarding biblical interpretation. A clear, easily understood text should be used to interpret the harder passages. James’ argument on faith and works on the surface may appear to contradict what Paul wrote in Romans. However, the clear passages should interpret the “cloudy” passages.