James 2:14-26: Faith Without Works Is Dead (Part 1)

March 14, 2017



In this section James takes us to a subject that is at the heart, in practice, of our Christian experience, "faith". The Bible tells us that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). “Faith is key to salvation. “Faith” is believing. “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” (John 3:16). “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Philippians 16:31).

The key words in this passage are “faith” (believe) used some 15 times (including one pronoun, “itself” 2:17) and “works,” which is used 12 times. Most of the uses of faith and works are related to each other.

Verse 14a: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?”

James finds in incredible that person could be a believer, one who claims to have faith, but does not show works.  So, he asks the question: “Can that kind of faith save him?” He’s saying, “If you don’t live it, you don’t believe it.”

“The apostle had just before declared, that they who are unmerciful to men shall find God severe to themselves, and have judgment without mercy: but hypocritical professors boasted of their faith as sufficient to secure them against that judgment, though they neglected the practice of holiness and righteousness.” –Poole

This appears that James is contradicting Paul. The Apostle Paul's emphasis that that we are saved by faith alone and that works do not come into the process at all. “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28). “ knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Galatians 2:16). It is often argued that James is not simply differing from Paul but is flatly contradicting him. This is a matter we must investigate.

Paul affirms that we are saved by God's grace through faith apart from the works of the law; and James gives us the other side of this same coin, affirming that though we receive God's verdict of justified by faith alone, it's a faith that shows itself through works. As some have said, “we are not saved by works but by a faith that works.”

This brings up a valid question: Can a person be believer without corresponding works.


Several years ago a controversy erupted known as “Lordship Salvation.” Can a person accept Christ as Savior without surrendering to His Lordship?”

First let’s agree that our churches are filled with people who claim to be believers, but have not made a real-life commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. They have gone through the motions only, making a decision, praying a prayer, filling out a card, being baptized or joining a church. But they have not exercised genuine faith that produces Christian works. So much of Christianity is sham and shame. Easy-believe-ism has become the norm for much of today’s evangelism, and has been the determining factor in many books about Lordship.

What do true believers look like?

•True believer’s follow Christ (Matthew 4:19; Mark 11:34; 1 Corinthians 11:1).

•True believer’s desire God’s word (1 Peter 2:2).

•True believer’s desire to communicate with their Father through prayer.
•True believer’s feel excitement about worshiping their Heavenly Father.

•True believer’s love other believer’s and desire to fellowship.

•True believer’s desire to see others come to Christ.

•True believer’s realize it costs to be a disciple of Christ.

•True believer’s have truly repented.

•True believer’s bring forth fruit, at least 30-fold. Matthew 13:23 AMP, “And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands and grasps it; he indeed bears fruit and yields, some a hundred times (as much as was sown), some sixty (times as much), and some thirty.”

•True believer’s realize they are totally changed. 2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT, “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

•True believers have committed themselves to the Lordship of Christ.

In the New Testament the meaning of “Lord” is very clear, the Greek word is kurios, found 717 times in the New Testament, meaning, to rule, one who is above all others, a supreme master who has absolute authority, exercising absolute ownership rights, one possessed of absolute control.

Is this Jesus Lord of your life? You can only accept Him as He is! You cannot make Him Lord, He is Lord! “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36). So my job as a believer is to submit to his Lordship, allowing Him to exercise control over me! “Therefore submit to God” (James 4:7). In Greek this is, huppotasso, to place under, the deliberate act of placing oneself under the authority of another. “Since we respected our earthly fathers who disciplined us, shouldn’t we submit even more to the discipline of the Father of our spirits, and live forever?” (Hebrews 12:9).

So, what James is saying is, if a person has truly repented, truly accepted Christ as Savior and Lord then his life has changed, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). And James is sating this new person will have corresponding works

When Christ found me, I didn’t know about Lordship!    

•I didn’t know that I had to follow the Lord in believer’s baptism as a first act of obedience to Christ.

•I didn’t know that I needed to find a Bible teaching church and get in and serve Him.

•I didn’t know that I needed to read and study God’s word daily.

•I didn’t know that I was to communicate with my Heavenly Father.

•I didn’t know that I was to share my newfound faith with others.

All I knew was I was lost and needed to be found. I was like then blind man in Luke 9:25 who said, “But I know this: I was blind, and now I can see!” Did I know how to be a Christian? No! I was an avowed atheist one minute and a child of God the next. I didn’t know anything about anything in the Bible. I only knew that my life would never be the same again. I began on day one to grow into a Lordship relationship with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Becoming  Christian is no light matter. Oh, I know that God made it easy for us, we must just simply believe, trust in God and His word and repent! But it wasn’t easy for Jesus to purchase our salvation, it took a torturous execution on a cruel Roman cross.

But none of the ransomed ever knew

How deep were the waters crossed,

Or how dark was the night that our Lord passed through,

Ere He found His sheep that were lost.

– The Ninety and Nine: Elizabeth C. Clephane, 1868–

So if a person claims to know Jesus, but sees no growth toward the Lordship of Christ in his life, if he doesn’t pray, read the Bible, attend church, and tell others of his faith in Christ, he is not a true believer. Now I certainly realize there are babes in Christ, no one is born an adult, but God’s word tells us to “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen.” (2 Peter 3:18).

Verse 14b: “Can faith save him?”

The answer to that question is a resounding YES! But saving faith is a dynamic, productive faith!


This may be the most important question in all of Christian theology. This question was the cause of the Reformation, the split between the Protestant churches and Catholic Church. This question is a key difference between biblical Christianity and most of the “Christian” cults. Is salvation by faith alone, or by faith plus works? Am I saved just by believing in Jesus, or do I have to believe in Jesus and do certain things?

At the heart of this dispute is the question, “What is genuine saving faith?” This is not just an academic debate! The correct answer to that question concerns your eternal destiny! It relates to the eternal destiny of your family and friends. If my faith or the faith of my loved ones is not genuine, saving faith, I could be deceiving myself in the worst possible way. I might think that Jesus is my Lord and Savior, and even be active in serving Him, but be sadly mistaken. James is concerned that his readers understand the nature of genuine, saving faith so that they do not have to hear those fateful words from the Judge of all men, some of the most frightening words in the Bible when Jesus said, “Depart from Me, I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23).

Listen to the word from the most quoted verse in God’s word: “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” (John 3:16). It's clear that Scripture rejects any view of salvation that teaches salvation by faith plus works. The Bible teaches salvation by faith alone. All you have to do is believe, period. The Bible is very clear about that! “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9). Salvation is by grace through faith alone, not as a result of good works, so that God alone gets the glory. “Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will,  to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:4-6).

“Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone. It will produce something. After a person believes on the Lord Jesus Christ, he will want to “continue in His Word.” The proof of faith is continuing with the Savior. As the pastor of a church, I learned to watch out for the person who is active in the church but is not interested in the study of the Word of God. Such a one is dangerous to a church.” –J. Vernon McGee

“Faith that saves has one distinguishing quality; saving faith is a faith that produces obedience, it is a faith that brings about a way of life.” –Billy Graham

“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:9,10).

What are “good works?” Good works are not the root of salvation, but they are the fruit of genuine salvation. James defines “good works” in the next verses:

Verses 15:If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food…”

“Grace does not lie as a sleepy habit in the soul, but will put forth itself in vigorous and glorious actings. Grace can no more be concealed, than fire. Grace does not lie in the heart as a stone in the earth—but as seed in the earth. It will spring up into good works!  Our people must also learn to devote themselves to good works. The lamp of faith must be filled with the oil of charity. Faith alone justifies—but justifying faith is never alone. You may as well separate weight from lead, or heat from fire—as works from faith. Good works, though they are not the causes of salvation—yet they are evidences of salvation. Though they are not the foundation—yet they are the superstructure. Faith must not be built upon works—but works must be built upon faith.” –Thomas Watson (Puritan writer).

Titus 2:14, “Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.”

Verse 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?”

A pat on the back, “go in peace” and “Bless you” while you give them nothing, will profit them about as much as your professed faith, without those works which are the genuine fruits of true faith.

“This age aboundeth with mouth mercy, which is good cheap. But a little handful were better than a great many such mouthfuls.” –John Trapp

“…be warmed and filled.” The tenses here are interesting. Literally the verse would read, ‘keep on going in peace, get yourselves warmed and filled.’ Those with insufficient clothing are bidden to ‘Warm yourselves!’ Those in need of food to ‘Fill yourselves!’ And, with a wave of the hand and a dismissal of all responsibility, the poor are told ‘Farewell!’ Be off. Best wishes’” –Woods

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

“Is dead” void of that life, in which the very essence of faith consists.

“It is unresponsive, it fails to act, and it reveals a closed heart. It in practice ignores the One Whom it claims as Lord. What then is it faith in? It is a dead faith in an unknown god.”–Peter Pett


“The body without the Spirit is nothing but a corpse. Likewise, faith without deeds is as dead as a corpse. In case we haven't gotten it yet, James is not implying that deeds are the actual source that gives life to faith, but again reminding us that faith and deeds are inseparable. If there are no acts springing from faith, that faith is no more alive than ‘the body without the spirit’”" –eagleflight.org

If the works which living faith produces are not present in a person who claims to be believer, it is a proof that faith itself has no existence, it is dead. Faith is said to be 'dead by itself,' because when it has works it is alive, not in its works, but in itself. Even presumed faith, if not accompanied by good works, is dead, being by itself, just as the body would be dead if severed from the spirit (James 2:26).

Even the feeblest of Christians have a work to do, for the perfecting of their faith. God has given everyone a ministry,  “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do (John 14:12).

Ephesians 2:10 reveals that we have been ‘created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.’ This raises an obvious question: What are the good works God has prepared for me? we are created for good works, ‘which God prepared in advance for us to do.’ The Greek original reads more literally, ‘which God prepared in advance, so that we might walk in them.’ The language of walking was used by teachers in the time of Paul in the way we might talk of living or engaging in a certain lifestyle. In other words, the good works of verse 10 are not obviously religious activities scattered throughout an otherwise secular life. Rather, the good works encompass the whole of the Christian, all that we do by God's grace for God's purposes.” –theologyofwork.org

The church is not a democracy, it is the kingdom of God! It is not the Boy Scouts, Kiwanis or the Lion’s club and the same rules do not apply. We are not “volunteer’s” who can just pick and choose what we want to do in the kingdom. “Would you volunteer to teach a Sunday School class?” “Oh, I don’t know, what’s involved?” “Oh not much, prepare a lesson each week, watch after your students, and attend a teacher’s meeting occasionally.” If you answer, “I really don’t have the time, we go away a lot of Sunday, and family comes to visit us on Sundays. I have to work so hard, and well you know, Sunday is the only day I have to rest.” Then you really do not understand the kingdom of God and Lordship. In God’s church you ask, “What’s involved?” The answer is everything!”

The call of God for salvation always comes with the command, “follow Me.” This was never meant to be a request for volunteer’s to work in the nursery, or the pastor wanting someone to “help out” on work day at the church. Built into salvation is a command to serve and perform our gifts with joy!

God has gifted each of us and tells us to get busy and serve.

Discovering and exercising your God-given spiritual gifts allows you to experience maximum fulfillment with minimum frustration in your Christian life and ministry.

“Spiritual gifts are not innate, natural talents, like an ear for music or the ability to draw, but rather they are empowerments that the Holy Spirit gives to a believer to minister to the body in ways that were not possible by mere natural effort apart from the Holy Spirit.” –cmalliance.org

God needs people! People who will stand before Him and hear His voice daily; people who have no desire for anyone or anything other than God Himself; people who will stand alone for God in the world! God needs people who understand the nature of Lordship. In other words, people who understand, “It’s not about me!” It’s all about God and His kingdom on earth! It is about service to God and men! That is why God left us here!

“Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God's people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11,12 NLT).

To summarize James 2:14-17, he is saying that genuine faith, like a fruit tree will reveal its life by the fruit it produces. This fruit (or works) is not some added extra any more than breath is an added extra to a living body.

And here again we find that there is no disagreement between James and Paul. We need to remember that James is not saying that one is saved by good works but that good works are a natural and vitally important result of redemption. Paul spoke of judging any profession of faith in Galatians writing that the only thing that counts is “faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6). Saving faith proves its genuineness by works of love. The one who lives by faith is internally motivated by love for God and Christ. (Matthew 22:37-40).

Soren Kierkegaard tells the story of a make-believe country in which only ducks live:

“One Sunday morning all the ducks came into the church, waddled down the aisle and into their pews, and squatted. Then the duck minister took his place behind the pulpit, opened the duck Bible and read, ‘Ducks! You have wings, and with wings you can fly like eagles. You can soar into the sky! Use your wings!’ All the ducks yelled 'Amen!' and they all waddled home.”

Possibly some of you can identify with the ducks in the story. You have heard sermon after sermon, understood and even affirmed the truths as they were spoken. But you have never, or seldom, acted upon what you have heard.

James 2:14-26 contains a vigorous call for believers to put their faith to work. Rather than a phony Christianity that only evidences itself in mere words, James vigorously summons his readers to experience the reality of genuine faith, coming back to the bedrock principle set forth in 1:19-27. In that passage, hearing must be accompanied by doing. So in 2:14-26, faith must be attended by action. There will be no room for a religion that is mere mental acceptance of the truth. Come on, ducks, use your wings. No waddling allowed!

Unless otherwise noted, the New King James Version of the Bible was used. Also The New Living Translation (NLT); The New American Standard Bible (NASB); The Message (MSG); The New Century Version (NCV); The Amplified Bible (AMP); The King James Version (KJV), The New Life Version (NLV); English Standard Version (ESV); J.B. Phillips New Testament; Easy to Read Version (ERV); Common English  bible (CEB); NET Bible (NET) and The Living Bible (TLB). Contemporary English Version (CEV).

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