5. A sermon on faith and works, 2:14-26
Faith without works is a dead thing
James now gives us his second sermon, again establishing the content of his subject in the first verse; "what good is it for a person to claim to have faith when their actions do nothing to show it", REB. James asks, "can such faith save?" He goes on to answer the question, arguing that such faith cannot save because it is not authentic.
The argument developed by James in this passage is unified and devoid of the usual lightly attached sayings. The argument addresses the issue of true faith. The faith/works debates comes to the fore in this passage, see James Introduction, faith and works. The nub of the problem seems to be that James and Paul are dealing with two different issues. Paul is dealing with believers who think that the promised blessings of the covenant are appropriated by works of the law. He therefore makes the point that a believer's full appropriation of the blessing of new life in Christ is a matter of grace through faith and not works. James, on the other hand, is dealing with those who devalue the law while at the same time affirming their religious faith, a faith that may be little more than a belief that God exists. James therefore makes the point that a faith which does not issue in love is a pretence; it is not genuine faith.
It is virtually impossible to determine the life-situation that James addresses. Have some believers misunderstood Paul's teachings and so proclaim a slogan-like "by faith alone" coupled with ethical indifference and unbridled license? The tension between the indicative and the imperative in the scriptures is easily lost. A reliance on the indicative, while ignoring the imperative, results in a form of libertarianism which discounts the need for ethical endeavor. For James, genuine faith shows itself in kindness toward the poor and afflicted. Bo Reicke suggests that James is arguing against those Christian leaders who have adopted a Pharisaic way of dealing with new converts where "if anyone finds it difficult to accommodate himself to the practice of true Christian piety, it will suffice for him to make a confession of faith, while others assume the responsibility for deeds." Such suggested life-situations are interesting, but are mostly guesswork.
This passage is not the RCL reading for Sunday 24B, although in the history of the three year series of readings, some lectionaries have used James 2:14-26 as the epistle of the day. It is a controversial passage and extremely difficult and for this reason it has been bypassed.
Faith without works is a useless thing, v14-26: i] The proposition - a workless faith cannot save, v14. "Friends, do you really think you will get anywhere in life, claiming that you rest on the faithfulness of God, but not in any way applying his guidelines for a fulfilled life. I hope you don't think that a reliance on God that is devoid of deeds of love can achieve for you wellbeing and happiness here and into eternity."
ti "What" - Interrogative pronoun. "What ......?"
ti to afeloV "good is it" - [what] gain, value, advantage. "What use is it", Phillips.
adelfoi mou "my brothers" - In James, often used to start a new unit of teaching. "Brothers and sisters", NRSV.
ean + subj. "if" - Introducing a conditional clause, 3rd class, where the condition may be a reality (hypothetical); "if, as the case may be, ..... [but] then ..."
tiV "a man" - a certain. An imaginary someone, stylistic; "If someone".
legh/ (legw) pres. subj. "claims" - says. The present tense is durative so possibly "keeps on claiming."
ecein (ecw) pres. inf. "to have" - to have. The infinitive forms a dependent statement; "says that he has faith"
pistin (iV ewV) "faith" - faith. The options: i] The most likely option is "faith" as in 2:1, dependence on, reliance on the faithfulness of God realized in Christ; ii] Even though anarthrous, possibly "the Christian faith to which every Christian convert belongs", a sense "indicated" by "claims to have faith", Dibelius (although "claims/says" probably only indicates that "James questions the reality of the faith", Moo); iii] Possibly the OT sense of "loyalty to God"; iv] Finally, the outside possibility that it means "piety".
de "but" - but, and. Here adversative.
erga (on) "works" - For Paul "works" is usually understood to mean "works of the law/Torah", although Paul may have in mind NT ethics as well, ie. "the whole law of God". The "works" James has in mind may just be "deeds/actions/conduct", "acts of mercy and kindness", Martin, but it is likely that they are deeds done in line with God's will. This is certainly how a 1st century Jewish believer would tend to understand the word, ie. "works" = "deeds done in compliance to the Torah", but as a Christian it is now not just the law of Moses, but rather the totality of NT ethics summarized in the law of love; "works of love".
mh dunatai (dunamai) pres. pas. "can" - not is able. The negation expects the answer "no" to the question; "Is it to be supposed that such faith is able .....? (Certainly not)"
hJ pistiV (iV ewV) "such faith" - the faith. The article is particularizing the faith, namely, the aforementioned faith (anaphoric - referring back), the faith that has no works, as NIV. Note how the AV/Barclay misses this; "Can faith save him?" Better, "could that sort of faith save ...", Phillips. The answer being "no". James has possibly already explained "what is able to save their souls", namely "the word of truth" implanted by God, so Johnson, but in 1:18 it is likely that James is not speaking of our eternal salvation.
swsai (swzw) aor. inf. "save" - to save him. The infinitive is complementary, completing the sense of "is able", while the aorist, being punctiliar, may express the idea "achieve for him", Adamson. Save in what sense? A faith without deeds is likely to be a spurious faith and certainly will not save a person on the day of judgment, but is James using "save" in this sense? James may be thinking more in OT terms of "rescue, deliver" = "achieve wellbeing and safety", cf. 5:15, certainly not just in a physical sense, but also spiritual (as of a relationship with God), along with an eschatological fulfilment. "Saved" in the synoptic gospels will often carry this sense and if James is pre Pauline such a meaning would be expected. Most commentators do take "is able to save" in the sense, "has the power to bring him to salvation", Cassirer, particularly in eschatological terms, so Dibelius, Moo, Davids, Adamson, Martin. These notes adopt the wider sense "achieve wellbeing and safety under God here and in eternity", since it best suits a "wisdom" approach to the treatise, ie. as a work which serves to instruct believers on how to live in a corrupted environment. "Can a reliance on the faithfulness of God, apart from deeds of love, achieve wellbeing and safety (make for happiness) now and forever?"
ii] James uses an analogy to illustrate his point - believers who fail to help a brother in need, v15-16.
ean + subj. "suppose" - if. A conditional sentence, 3rd. class, where there condition is assumed a possibility, "if, as may be the case ... then ..". The apodosis is formed in v16, "[then] what good is it?"
uJparcwsin (uJparcw) pres. subj. "is" - exists [unclothed].
leipomenoi (leipw) pres. pas. part. "without" - lacking [of daily food]. The participle functions as a substantive, limited by the adjectival genitives, forming an object clause. "Short of daily food", Moffatt.
eiph/ (eipon) aor. subj. "if [one of you] says" - says. Continuing the protasis of the conditional sentence.
uJpagete (uJpagw) pres. imp. "go" - go [in peace be warmed and fed]. The present tense = "departure in a state of peace", Moule IB. "Go in peace" is a formalized farewell where the person is wished the best; "I hope all goes well with you", while the "warmed and fed" gives substance to the hope, which for us is a kind of "be happy".
de "but" - Adversative/contrastive.
ta epithdeia adj. "needs" - [you do not give to them] the useful things [of the body]. James is drawing out the incongruity of wishing a person the best, but then walking off and leaving them in a mess.
ti to ofeloV "what good is that" - what the profit. "What on earth is the good of that", Phillips, ie. it is pointless, even stupid, so "what good is it to say this unless you do something to help", CEV.
iii] James again restates his proposition: "without works faith is no faith at all, any more than a corpse is a man", Adamson, v17.
kaq (kata) + acc. "[faith] by itself" - according to itself. Given the position in the Gk. sentence "by itself" could qualify "dead", as AV, but more likely "faith", as NIV. "Faith alone / left to itself", Cassirer.
ean + subj. "if" - Another conditional clause, 3rd class. "So also faith, if it does not have works, then it is dead." A faith that does not bear fruit is essentially dead, cf. Mayor.
iv] A debating point, v18-26; a) Faith and works are independent of each other, v18. James continues to develop his argument by addressing a proposition put forward by an imaginary interlocutor, namely, that faith and deeds are unrelated, that one person may express their piety in a religious faith and another in religious deeds. That is, the objector holds the view that both pathways are a valid expression of discipleship, or certainly at least, that faith of itself is saves. Not so, says James. Faith without mercy, forgiveness, love.... is worthless; for true faith will always show itself in the fruit of good deeds. Therefore, a life lived without deeds demonstrates a life without true faith. So, Mitton, Ropes, Dibelius, Davids, Moo, ... This interpretation of the verse assumes that the su ..... kagow ...., "you ... and I ....", clause represents the words of an interlocutor/opponent which are then answered by James, although as Moule notes alloV ...... alloV would have been a better way to express a "one believes this .... another that" statement.
alla "but" - Adversative. Adamson and Mayor think that in v18 James expands of v17 and that therefore the conjunction here functions as an emphatic particle. Most commentators disagree (as NIV), but Adamson's take on the verse should be noted: "You claim to have faith and I claim to have works (behavior, actions). I can prove the existence and quality of my faith by my works, but I defy you to prove (to me or any of the rest of mankind) the existence and/or quality of your faith. For I do not believe that without works you can possibly have any genuine faith."
tiV "someone" - Ref. an imaginary objector.
erei (eipon) "will say" - "The future here Denotes a merely supposable case", Ropes, re. Winer.
deixon (deiknumi) aor. imp. "show [me your faith]" - show [me the faith of you]. "Show", in the sense of reveal, make visible, and often translated this way, as NIV, but the word can mean "prove / demonstrate", such that James is "challenging the objector ...... to prove that he has faith by what he does", Moo. "I challenge you to prove to me that you have faith in any other way than by actions", Barclay.
ek + gen. "by [what I do]" - from [the works of me the faith]. "I am perfectly willing to prove to you my faith by my actions", Barclay.
b) James now answers the challenge he gave in v18 with an argument which is profusely illustrated, v19-26. First, a "faith" which is little more that a verbal profession is next to useless. Even the demons know that God exists and shudder at the thought of their coming judgement. So, faith by itself evidences nothing.
pisteueiV (pisteuw) pres. "believe" - As already noted, Dibelius argues that James' concept of faith is primarily the acceptance of Christian doctrine, and certainly this is the way he is using "believe" here. Yet, this is the objector's faith, not James'.
oJti "that" - that. Introducing a dependent statement, what they believe.
ei|V estin oJ qeoV "there is one God" - Either expressing monotheism, as NIV, or God's unity, "God is one", NRSV. Either way, orthodoxy cannot protect us from the coming judgment, nor is it evidence for a person's standing with God.
kalwV poieiV "Good!" - you do well. "This is good as far as it goes", Ropes.
frissousin (frissw) pres. "shudder" - bristle up / tremble, shudder. "Shudder in fear of judgment", Moo.
Although orthodoxy evidences nothing, works evidences a faith that saves, which evidence supports the proposition that "faith without deeds is a dead thing." This evidence is illustrated in the life of Abraham in v21-24, and in the life of Rahab, v25-26.
kene adj. "foolish [man]" - empty, hollow, defective [man].
gnwnai (ginwskw) aor. inf. "[do you want] evidence" - [are you willing] to know. The infinitive is complementary, completing the sense of the verb "willing". "Do you desire a proof", Ropes.
argh adj. "useless" - unproductive, idle, unprofitable. Variant nekra, "dead", probably imported from v17 or v26, cf. Metzger. Note the play on words: "deeds/works" as opposed to "idle/inactive"; "a work-less faith is a use-less faith", cf. Davids.
We come now to one of the most controversial passages in the treatise. With the example of Abraham's work-full faith, James produces the "evidence" that a work-less faith is a use-less faith. He begins in v21 by summarizing 1 Maccabees 2:51-52 which states in full: "was not Abraham our father found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?" (cf. Gen.22). In v22 James explains the essential role of faith in Abraham's "works" (his obedience to God's command to offer up his son) and then in v23 he points out that these "works" are a consequential realization ("fulfilment") of Abraham's justification on the basis of faith, Gen.15:6, and then in v24 he summarizes his argument which has sought to establish that both faith and works are integrally linked through justification. The implication of the argument is, of course, "faith without works is a dead thing".
It is the suggestion of these notes that the quotes "justified from/out of works", v21 and 25, are but a technical ploy on the part of James to force a recognition that works evidence true faith. The quotes, v21 and 25, prove the integral link of works to justification, which justification is out of faith, v23, thus establishing that "faith without works is a dead thing", v22 and 26. We do need to note that there are a number of other ways of handling this problem: i] It is possible to argue that James is not up on Paul's use of the word. Martin has a short excursus on the subject which is worth studying, but he is honest enough to admit that "no final resolution of some exegetical matters appears in sight"; ii] James is speaking of a justification in the sight of man rather than God. That is, Abraham's contemporaries saw the outwarkings of his faith in his deeds, and thus, he was seen by them as a man justified in the sight of God; iii] Although justification here refers to a righteousness in the sight of God, it is a righteousness that will be ours in the day of eternal judgement. Sanctification is included in this righteousness, and thus James is not speaking of the right-standing which is ours, by grace through faith, at the time of our conversion.
ouk "was not ....?" - Taken as introducing an interrogative sentence expecting the answer "yes". A negated statement is possible, although unlikely, "although Father Abraham prepared to offer his son, Isaac, up as an offering to God when God chose to test him, he was not justified by works", Junkins. Junkins certainly solves our theological problem, but he doesn't do justice to the text. None-the-less, he is right in trying to rework the passage because as it stands it is very deceptive. It seems very likely that the question here is actually a quote from Maccabees, see above. So, we would be better served with something like, "Consider the case of Abraham found in a question posed by the writer of first Maccabees, namely, `was not our father Abraham justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac upon the alter?'"
Abraam oJ pathr hJmwn "our ancestor Abraham" - Abraham the father of us. A reminder that James is, and is writing to, Jewish believers.
edikaiwqh (dikaiow) aor. pas. "considered righteous" - justified, vindicated. The word means "covenant-acceptance / a recognition of covenant inclusion - judged in the right with God", Dumbrell. "Count/treat as right/righteous" Barrett, "judged right /set right / covenant compliant", so "set/judged right with God". A theological/divine passive, ie. God does the justifying. It is often argued that Paul and James differ in their understanding of justification, but it seems unnecessary to promote this argument, eg. "God's final declaration of a person's `innocence' before him at the time of the judgment", Moo. Note how the NIV is trying to differentiate between James' use of "justify" and Paul's use of the word, ie. being politically correct. Yet, NIV didn't need to cover itself this way since James goes on to explain himself adequately.
ex + gen. "for [what he did]" - out of, [works]. Often treated as instrumental, "by", but origin/base is better, "on the basis of". "On the strength of his deeds", Cassirer.
anenegkaV (anaferw) aor. part. "when he offered" - having offered up (a sacrifice). The participle is adverbial, probably temporal, as NIV, although that Abraham was justified "having offered his son" does not necessarily mean "when he offered his son".
Note the chiastic structure of the verse: ".. faith .... works ... , .... works .... faith ..."; "faith helped works, and works completed (proved) faith", Ropes. Note, Dibelius argues that faith "assisted" works and works "perfected" faith toward a common goal, namely "the righteousness of Abraham", but surely faith produces righteousness, which faith assists works, which works prove faith.
blepeiV (blepw) pres. "you see" - From this quote "it must be obvious to you that ..", Barclay; "isn't it obvious that ...", Peterson.
oJti "that" - Introducing a dependent statement expressing what should be obvious in the quote from 1st Maccabees.
sunhrgei (sunergew) imperf. "were working [together]" - [faith] was working, assisting, cooperating [with the works of him]. The imperfect is durative, expressing ongoing activity, ie. Abraham's faith was constant. Literally, "faith was working with the work". For a person to be willing, even able, to offer their son as a sacrifice, it should be obvious that something was "working" behind the scenes to prompt such an extreme "work". For James, the conclusion is obvious, "faith was active along with the works", TEV.
eteleiwqh (teleiow) aor. pas. "was made complete" - was made complete, perfect, consummate, mature. "Complete" in what sense? Suggestions abound. Surely not that "by works was faith made perfect", AV, so also "complete / mature". so Ropes ("supplemented - so, enabled to do its proper work" - ouch!) Davids, Johnson, Martin, Laws, Mitton, but possibly "brought to its intended goal", TH, ie. "it reached its intended goal when the patriarch did what God was asking him to do", Moo. In the works "faith was consummated / expressed itself", Adamson. Possibly, but unlikely, "by these actions the integrity of his faith was fully proved", NEB, following Calvin.
ek + gen. "by [what he did]" - out of, from / on the basis of [the works the faith was made complete].
kai "and" - Possibly "as a result", as a result of faith assisting works and works proving faith the scripture, as quoted, is fulfilled, so Ropes, Moo, .. ; "thus the scripture was fulfilled", NRSV, in that Abraham was judged covenant compliant and regarded as God's friend. Yet, surely James is referring to v21. "It was in this act of obedience, recorded in Gen.22, that James claims `the scripture (Gen.15:6) was fulfilled, which says .....'", Mitton. This interpretation fits with James' overall argument; Abraham rests in faith on God's promises, which faith justifies him, and which faith is later realized/fulfilled in his act of obedience in the offering of his son, ie. faith produces works / faith without works is a dead thing.
eplhrwqh (plhrow) aor. pas. "was fulfilled" - The fulfilment of scripture is not Abraham's justification (Ropes), but rather Abraham's act of obedience.
hJ legousa (legw) pres. part. "that says" - saying. The participle is adjectival, "which says".
episteusen (pisteuw) aor. "believed [God]" - Followed by the dative, "believed in God."
elogisqh (logizomai) aor. pas. "it was credited [to him]" - reckoned, calculated. The aorist is punctiliar. "Reckon" serves "to express one thing as being equivalent to or having the same force of another", Adamson. So "the object in question [here Abraham's faith] supplies the place of that for which it answers [righteousness]; it is substituted for it", Cremer's Gk. Lexicon. This does not mean that "faith equates with righteousness", Hunter, "faith itself is not righteousness", Kasemann. Faith is but the means by which God freely sets to our account, as a gift of grace, the righteousness necessary for salvation, cf. Rom.10:10. Dibelius argues that "reckoned" is understood differently by Paul, James, and Judaism in general, cf. p168, although a distinctive difference between James and Paul is unlikely. "It was put to his account for righteousness", Wuest.
eiV "as [righteousness]" - to, into. Turner notes this as an example of the use of eiV + acc. "in place of the predicate nominative owing to the Hellenistic tendency towards greater expressiveness", MHT III p.253.
eklhqh (kalew) aor. pas. "he was called" - he was summoned, called. An active translation is clearer; "God called him his friend", TH.
filoV qeou "God's friend" - friend of God. Meaning "beloved of God", a description commonly ascribed to Abraham and probably derived from Isaiah 41:8, cf. Ch.20:7, where God says "Abraham my friend". It is likely that the recognition of Abraham as "beloved of God" is not part of what is "fulfilled", but is a consequence of the fulfilment; "and so God regarded him as his friend". "It was that mesh of believing and acting that got Abraham named `God's friend'", Peterson.
James now directly addresses his readers and summarizes his argument so far, namely, that "works", as an integral element of a person's justification, serve to evidence genuine faith. The summary identifies the key statements of the two quoted passages, namely, justified by works, v21, and justified by faith, v23, thus establishing that faith and works are integrally linked to justification. This argument serves to support James' contention that faith, where genuine, produces works and that therefore "faith without works is a dead thing". The linkage i] of faith and works to justification and ii] between faith and works, can be illustrated as follows:
faith = justification = works = life
With this verse we reach an interpretive crescendo as commentators work overtime trying to rationalize what, on the surface at least, is a direct contradiction to the apostle, cf. Rom.3:20. We have to marvel at Luther's honesty in facing the issue square on by simply downgrading the worth of James - it doesn't fit, so that's it! Those who try to preserve the integrity of James often do so by developing specific meanings for the words "works", "justified" and "faith". "Works" become "good deeds / deeds of charity" rather than "works of the law"; "justified" becomes "considered righteous", or "vindicated", or "God's final declaration of a person's innocence", Moo ....., rather than "judged/set in the right with God / covenant compliant"; "faith" becomes "intellectual ascent" rather than "reliance/dependence on God". This seems a rather perverse exercise given that the difference between James and Paul comes down to little more than expression and purpose. The issue for James is faith without works and so he contends that "works are inseparable from faith", Laws. The Paul/James dichotomy can be illustrated as follows:
James: faith = justification = works = life
Paul: faith = justification = works = life
Paul's opponents: faith = justification + works = life
James' opponents: faith = justification - works = life
oJrate (oJraw) pres. "you see" - As a direct appeal; "you will thus perceive", Cassirer.
oJti "that" - that. Introducing a dependent statement of what should be perceived.
anqrwpoV (oV) "a person" - a man. A general reference, so "person" as NIV, identifying the following statement as a general proposition which applies to everyone.
dikaioutai (dikaiow) pres. "is justified" - "Is set right / judged right". The present tense is possibly gnomic, although not just to give justification the unlikely meaning "future vindication".
monon adv. "[not by faith] alone" - [not from / out of faith] alone, only. Emphatic, qualifying "faith", so "faith alone" not "faith by itself", RV.
This second illustration, v25-26, again serves to demonstrate that works and faith are integrally lined through justification. As a justified person, her faith is evidenced in her deeds. Rabab's faith is implied in Josh.2:11 and often referenced in Jewish midrash, cf. Ropes. As with v21 and v24, James' stark statement "justified by works" has the potential to mislead a Bible student. Although James is wanting to establish the integral link between "works" and "justification" in order to prove that "genuine faith" produces "works", he does leave the modern reader open to the error of nomism/legalism. We may have to compromise and accept translations like: "In the same way, too, was not even Rahab, the prostitute, shown to be righteous by what she did, when she cared for the messengers and sent them forth by a different route?" Adamson.
oJmoiwV "in the same way" - likewise.
de kai "-" - and also.
ouk "[was] not" - This negation, used in a question, expects the answer "yes".
ex ergwn edikaiwqh "was ........ considered righteous for what she did" - was justified out of works. As already noted, the prime motivator "faith" is not denied because it is not mentioned, ie. Rahab's "works", "friendly reception", Ropes (is that a euphemism of some kind? Surely "neighborly love at the risk of her own life"), was prompted by her faith; "I know that the Lord has given the land to you ......", Josh.2:8-12? In passing, it is often argued that James could not have used these words if he were aware of Paul's justification language. This argument then suggests a late date for James, although an early date would be more likely, even before Paul's letters. Yet, the stark contrast with Paul's words may well be intended, a kind of "poke the cocky" as we call it in Australia - an overly stark statement designed to prompt reaction.
uJpodexamenh (uJpodecomai) aor. mid. part. "when she gave lodging to" - having received, welcomed, entertained. The participle is adverbial, temporal, as NIV.
touV aggelouV (oV) "the spies" - the messengers.
ekbalousa (ekballw) "sent them off" - having sent out. Sometimes meaning "cast out", but obviously not with that sense here. The participle, as above.
eJtera/ dat. pro. "in a different [direction]" - by a different [way].
This verse is often taken as James' concludes argument, a restating of his proposition, although it seems more likely that it rounds off v25. "Faith without action is as dead as a body without a soul (breath)", Phillips.
gar "-" - Missing in some manuscripts, and certainly treated by many translations as redundant on the ground that this verse restates v17, Martin, Adamson (v20 Moo). Of course, an expression of cause/reason is to be expected if the verse is explaining the role of faith in Rahab's "works", so Davids.
pneumatoV (a atoV) "the spirit" - spirit. Without the article spirit means "life-principle", Johnson.