Is Faith Without Works Is Dead? (An explanation of James 2:17)

James 2:17 (NKJV)

17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Paul says in
Romans 3:27-28 (NKJV)
27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith.28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.

Also in the 4th chapter of the same book

Romans 4:1-8 (NKJV)
1 What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” 4 Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. 5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, 6 just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
And whose sins are covered; 8 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.”


We see here Paul tell us that what is needful for a man to receive righteousness (justification) is faith and faith ALONE. Nothing more! This is the Gospel. No works from the man except faith in God’s Word. This is CONSISTENT throughout the Scriptures, particularly the Pauline Revelation. So, what is going on in James 2? Is James negating Paul? Well, we know that the Bible thoughts don’t negate one another. The knowledge therein is progressive but consistent nonetheless. So whenever we see portions of Scripture which seem to contradict one another, the issue is in our minds. We have not understood them as we ought. So now, let’s do a verse by verse analysis of the whole chapter (James 2). What EXACTLY is James discussing?

James 2:1-7 (NKJV)
1 My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. 2 For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, 3 and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” 4 have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? 7 Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?

We see CLEARLY here that James is discussing the CONDUCT of believers amongst themselves, how saved men ought to behave. He is not discussing salvation in this chapter but the CONDUCT of the New Man. James teaches against partiality and encourages showing love to the poor in the Church.

James then says

James 2:14 (NKJV)
14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?

Now, this has caused a lot of issues in the Church today due to the last sentence: “Can faith save him?”

But the issue, really, is simply reading out of context of the flow of thoughts from verse 1. It is conduct that James is discussing. The works of the believer and not faith for salvation. This removes already ANY possibility of James 2:14 being used as a proof text to imply that faith alone in Christ is not enough to save.

John 3:16 (NKJV)
16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that WHOEVER BELIEVES in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

That whoever believes! That’s all that is required — faith in Christ minus your works! Minus your efforts!

Ephesians 2:8-9 (NKJV)
8 For by grace you have been SAVED THROUGH FAITH, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 NOT OF WORKS, lest anyone should boast.

Not of works!

Titus 3:3-7 (NKJV)
3 For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, 5 NOT BY WORKS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS WHICH WE HAVE DONE, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit,6 whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Not by works of righteousness which we have done. So, IN SALVATION, our works don’t matter! It’s all Christ and what HE did. The work of the Saviour from start to finish.

James 2:14 (NKJV)
14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?

Now, who is the “him” being referred to here? Well, “him” in the Greek is poorly translated. It makes it seem as though James is saying that “can faith save the man who believes?” That’s absurd! SEVERAL corroborative texts shout a resounding “yes!” to that. Faith in Christ ALONE is what saves. “Him” is “autos” in the Greek. It carries the force of a simple personal pronoun of the third person. Third person refers to an EXTERNAL individuals. Hence the subject of this verse is not the believer but someone/some people the author would explain soon. Now, follow closely.

He tells you,

James 2:15-16 (NKJV)
15 If a BROTHER OR SISTER is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?

The faith without works would not save a brother or a sister in need! “Save” is “sozo” in the Greek. Contextually, it means “to make well, heal, restore to health.” These brethren are destitute of daily food. They need the basic things in life. If your faith toward such ones is passive, it CANNOT restore them! Faith without works, IN THIS INSTANCE, is what is dead, that is, unproductive. Such faith is not helping the other brother in need! Such a one does not need your “prayers,” he needs food and clothing! Your faith exercised in prayers without corresponding actions of generosity towards such a one profits him NOTHING!

Hence James says,

17 Thus also faith BY ITSELF, if it does not have works, is dead.

Notice “by itself.” It is not faith that is dead (unproductive). But faith BY ITSELF (that is, faith that is not a blessing to the other)

James 2:18-24 (NKJV)
18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says,“Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

Notice, what James is discussing is not faith for salvation but faith that men can see. This faith is showcased in good works. Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness. This happened WAY BEFORE he offered Isaac (Genesis 15). So the justification BEFORE GOD came first. That before men (him offering up Isaac) came later on. A man is justified by faith before God and works before men. Men cannot see your faith, but they DEFINITELY can see your works.

James 2:25 (NKJV)
25 Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

Rahab also was justified by works before men, she rescued the spies from her people. But we see in Joshua 2 that her faith in God is what came first, not her works!

Joshua 2:8-13 (NKJV)
8 Now before they lay down, she came up to them on the roof, 9 and said to the men: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of you. 10 For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were on the other side of the Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. 11 And as soon as we heard these things, our hearts melted; neither did there remain any more courage in anyone because of you, for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath. 12 Now therefore, I beg you, swear to me by the Lord, since I have shown you kindness, that you also will show kindness to my father’s house, and give me a true token, 13 and spare my father, my mother, my brothers, my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our lives from death.”

Her faith prompted her actions. In both cases James uses (Abraham and Rahab), their faith is what came first BEFORE any works were performed. Their works were NOT for GOD but for MEN.

James then ends by saying
26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

Faith without works is unproductive. Faith PRODUCES works. It’s meant to. But NEVER mistake those works for a prerequisite for salvation or justification before God. Salvation is by what Christ did and what Christ did ALONE. James’ explanation in the second chapter of his Epistle is to simply teach good conduct amongst believers. So, simply, faith without works BEFORE MEN is dead, that is, unproductive. I trust this helped you. Let me know. Share with a friend too.


© Josh Banks Ministries. 2017.


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