In verse 18, James introduces a hypothetical objector. And I've decided to name him "Newman." The KJV, NKJV, ESV and NIV all depict Newman's argument, which James is anticipating, as consisting of seven whole words: "You have faith and I have works." While the NASB puts those seven words, plus the balance of verse 18 into Newman's mouth. It reads, "You have faith and I have works. Show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works."
But the template that we discovered in Romans 9 and 1 Corinthians 15 shows us another possibility:
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. You believe that there is one God you do well even the demons believe and tremble.
But do you want to know, you foolish man, that faith without works is dead?
This breakdown follows the pattern of the Romans and 1 Corinthians passage, and when we consider the discussion that leads up to it, a much more coherent discussion emerges.
But now it's time to bounce back to James 2:14 and revisit the popular teaching on this passage:
"What [does it] profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?"We've already seen that popular teachers are fond of using this passage to teach that, well, you can't just say that you have faith. For example, Greg Koukl has this to say, and notice his reference to James 2:
"There are other passages which have to do with our behaviors and our works, and the classic one is James Chapter 2, but I see these as indicatives. In other words, the genuine Christian is going to display a change in life in some measure that's palpable, that's measurable… You can't just talk it. You've gotta walk the walk."But wait a minute, I have a question: Where are the teachers who are out there teaching that you can just say that you have faith? What are their names? I know of some Free Grace teachers that say that good works are not necessary for salvation, and that's certainly my view, but they're not out there teaching that anyone can "just say" that they have faith. Why would anyone think that "just saying" you had faith would save anyone? When Jesus says "He who believes in me has everlasting life," He doesn't give any hint whatsoever that you can "just say" that you believe in Him. That the belief has to be genuine is a given, is it not?
Here's an illustration which will connect up again with the metaphor for this blog: Suppose I write a book about how to skydive. And in this book I describe all things you need to know… what gear to buy, how to set it all up, etc. And suppose I also describe in the book when to pull the ripcord. Do you suppose I'd have to tell you "Oh, by the way, you can't just say you pulled the ripcord. You really have pull the actual ripcord. Just saying that you pulled the ripcord will do nothing at all, and you'll plunge to your death."
Why would I need to write that? This is exactly what these folks are saying that James is doing. But is that even reasonable?
And in addition, their remedy never really addresses the insincerity of the belief directly. Instead, notice that their remedy is works. That is how they aim to prove that the faith is sincere. But… can this be valid? Well, for that to be valid, we need to think that works are a reliable indicator that someone is saved. Right? And if works is a reliable indicator, and we actually mean "reliable," then wouldn't we have to say that anyone who exhibits good works is saved? That would be a problem, wouldn't it?
Fred Lybrand offers a powerful challenge to the notion that "works proves faith" in his book "Back To Faith." He describes talking to seminary students and asking them a question that goes something like this:
"When you see someone doing a lot of good things--for example, they're really active in the church, they participate in a lot of charity functions, they lead very moral lives--from that observation, is it possible to conclude that they are saved?"And when the students answer with "No, of course not… they might be doing that stuff because they think they have to earn their way to Heaven," Fred hits them with a difficult question:
"Well then how can you tell that someone's not saved by their lack of good works?"The bottom line is this: Works are not a reliable indicator of whether someone is saved.
To be fair, neither is what someone says. If someone says they're a believer, if they say they're saved, that isn't a reliable indicator either. Notice that "works" consist of anything you do. And speech is something that you do. So if what we say isn't a reliable indicator, then why would we think that what we do is a reliable indicator?
For a real-world example of what happens to assurance when you attach it to your own performance, please read here.
So that's all very interesting, but then what is James saying in verse 14?
"What [does it] profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?"Verse 14, if read all by itself, sounds like the popular teaching is right on the money, doesn't it? But if you zoom out the book of James, and if you bring into the discussion the things that James said, for example, in Chapter 1, then something very different emerges.
Earlier we mentioned that "save" doesn't always refer to eternal salvation from Hell. That understanding will be useful here. The word doesn't automatically have a religious, eternal salvation connotation to it, it simply means to be rescued or delivered from some danger, some impending threat, some unpleasant circumstance, the specifics of which should be determined by the context.
So the book of James starts out talking bout various trials and temptations… James 1:2-3 reads:
"My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience."And verse 12:
"Blessed [is] the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him."And verse 21:
"Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls."Hmmm. Save your souls? Is this talking about eternal salvation from Hell? There seems to be little debate over the notion that James' letter here is written to believers… people who are already saved in that sense. So what else could our souls be saved from? How 'bout various trials and temptations?
I think that verses 23-24 are recapitulated in James 2:14-20:
"But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was."Here again, I think many folks jump to the conclusion that this pertains to eternal salvation, and that "The Word" here necessarily means "The Gospel." But it's not that specific, is it? "The Word" here is most likely a reference to Bible Doctrine generally. That is, it is a compendium of precepts we learn and believe by studying God's Word, and these precepts are intended to be used and to be useful in our everyday lives. Things like, for example, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." And that's just one example.
So what is a "hearer only" of the Word? Isn't it obvious that this is someone who listens to these precepts but never actually puts them to use in their life? A doer of the Word would be someone who listens and also alters their actions and attitudes accordingly. And for that person, those precepts become useful.
"If you really fulfill [the] royal law according to the Scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one [point], he is guilty of all."Here James can be seen, perhaps, to be offering an example of what it would be like to be a hearer only and not a doer. James cites the "royal law according to the Scripture" as "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." So that precept is the example James gives of "The Word," or "Bible Doctrine" which these folks should have known. But in the example, the person doesn't fulfill this royal law and instead shows partiality. He has heard the precept, but he has not conformed his own actions and attitudes to it and so that precept doesn't benefit him nor does it benefit anyone around him.
Skipping ahead to verse 14, James still has in mind the same idea; the same problem. He asks,
"What [does it] profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?"Profit here has to do with benefit, with utility. And the word "faith" is a collective noun which is used here synonymously with "The Word" from James 1:23-24. It's that compendium of precepts and principles which we have learned. James is asking whether those precepts can benefit someone--either by delivering them through trials or by otherwise solving a problem--if they don't conform their actions and attitudes to those precepts and actually put them to work. In other words, if you've only been a hearer of those precepts and haven't been a doer of those precepts, what good are they to you or those around you? How will they solve your problems? How will they deliver you from trials? They can't, can they?
This is the idea in James 2. It has nothing to do with salvation from Hell.
And then in verses 15 and 16, James gives an example of this very phenomenon:
"If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 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?"Here, a brother or sister has a logistical problem, a logistical trial, which they need to be delivered from. But if you don't provide for them as you have been taught to do, then you are a hearer of the word only, not a doer, and you have rendered that word useless. It benefits no one. And then James summarizes again in verse 17:
"Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead."There is a question about the word "dead" here, because the popular teaching is that it means "not real" or "invalid"; that without works your faith (in Christ, so it goes) isn't genuine. But "dead" doesn't mean non-existent or fake. When you see a raccoon alongside the road, the raccoon is real… it's actually there. It's not a figment of your imagination. The problem is, since it's dead, it just lays there. It doesn't do anything. This is the idea behind "dead" here and we'll see further reinforcement of that a bit later.
So this takes us right up to verse 18, when James will now introduce the argument from "Newman." And perhaps with the understanding we've developed up to now, we'll be able to see what Newman's trying to accomplish with his argument (which we understand doesn't end until the end of verse 19) and, I think we'll see a conversation between James and Newman that actually makes a lot more sense… it might even be coherent!!