This chapter has been used by many to teach an array of false doctrines such as “salvation by works” or “hyper dispensationalism”. Some, which are unlearned and unstable wrest these scriptures to their own destruction bringing upon themselves damnable heresies such as the belief that salvation is attained or kept by works. Others knowing the truth that we are saved from hell by faith come to this chapter and assign the whole book of James to a different “dispensation”; and thus lose the blessings God has for them in this book. Therefore, I believe God would have me explain this chapter to those who look for a better way! Thus, with the Lord’s help we will give a few introductory remarks and then look at the verses in this chapter that have been used to lead many astray.
Let me begin by making clear that this book is not just to be assigned to the Jews who will be living in the tribulation due to the first verse of the book saying “…to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad”. The reason we say this book is not just aimed to the Jews in the tribulation is because of the fact that this book was written directly to the Jews living in the first century; Jews who were living during the church age. As a matter of fact, those to whom James was writing are identified in Acts 8:1-4.
Acts 8:1-4 “And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison. Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word.”
The Jews that were scattered abroad whom James was speaking to were part of the church as Acts 8 shows (see also James 5:14). These Jews were Jews who were saved from hell the same way as everyone else in the church has been saved from hell, by grace through faith! The Bible is clear, there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek (Romans 3), all are sinners, all must be saved by the grace of God through faith in the fact that Jesus Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose from the grave. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek for the same Lord is rich unto all that call upon him. Thus, James cannot be teaching something contrary to the gospel of the grace of God. Otherwise, there would be contradictions in the Bible (which we know there is not) or James would have to be considered accursed (Galatians 1:6-9).
Furthermore, just because James wrote to a certain group of people, Jews that lived during the first century, that does not mean we are not to apply it to our lives. Otherwise, if we use the reasoning that we should not apply a book doctrinally to our lives if it is not written to us directly, then we would not apply to our lives most of the Bible. E.g., we would not apply any of 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter; 2 and 3 John etc. to our lives for none of them were written directly to the church but rather to specific groups of people or individuals. Thus if we go by that reasoning we would have a very small portion to apply to our lives. Moreover, that would be heresy, for the Bible is clear “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:”
So, yes! We are to apply the book of James to our lives. It is for us doctrinally and practically. It does not contradict Paul’s writings but rather compliments them!
Now at this point let me hasten to say that the book of James does not teach a man saves his soul from hell by works. Instead, it actually shows very clearly that no one can work their way to heaven (see James 2:10).
Actually, the Bible is very clear on the matter. No one has or ever will be saved from hell through their own works (e.g. Psalms 130:1-4; Romans 3:19-20; Ephesians 2:8-9). Furthermore, the Bible is also clear that no one is saved from hell by a mixture of faith and works (see Romans 11:1-6; Galatians 2:16; etc.). In fact, the Bible is clear that a person is saved from hell by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 15:9; 26:18; Romans 3:19-5:2; Galatians 3:1-11, 22-24; Ephesians 2:8-10).
So what is James talking about in James 2?
James is simply showing us that real faith will produce real fruit. Faith will work! A man can say he has faith all he wants but if a man does not have any works to accompany that so-called faith, that man’s faith is vain (empty, dead, not real).
James is simply showing us that WHAT A MAN BELIEVES WILL AFFECT HIS BEHAVIOUR. Notice in James 2:14, 17, 18, 20, 24, etc. that he uses the word “works” without using the adjectives good or bad. James is simply pointing out the fact that if you really have faith then you will work. In other words, if you want to see what a man really believes watch how he behaves. A man may say he has faith God is going to help him get a job but if he does not get off the couch and go look for one, then he really does not have faith; he is lying. That “faith” is dead. It is not alive. It is not real. It is worthless.
Now with the above introductory remarks, let us comment on some of the verses in James 2 that some have twisted unto their own destruction.
James 2:14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
That verse is simple to understand. He is asking the question, what good is a man saying he has faith when he does not have any works? Can faith save the man who says he has faith but does not have any works? The answer is understood as, NO! Faith will not help that man (the “him” in the passage) because that man does not have faith. That man is all talk. He does not have any faith to save him for if he did then he would have works.
The Bible is clear, a man can be saved by faith without works. However, we know that faith that saves is faith that serves (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 5:6; Ephesians 2:8-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11; Titus 3:5-8).
James 2:15-16 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
Here James gives the illustration of a man who says to a brother or sister that is in need to depart in peace and be warmed or filled, and yet does not do anything to help. He then uses that illustration to ask, “what doeth it profit?” In other words he is saying, “What good is it? Did it help?”
The answer is obviously no, it was worthless chatter! Then, in the next verse, he uses that to point to the man who says he has faith but does not have any works.
James 2:17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. It is all talk. It is worthless chatter!
James 2:18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
The verse is clear. A man is trying to run James down saying “I have faith, I am spiritual, and you, James, are doing everything in the flesh, you have works. Your God is small and you have to do everything. I simply have faith.” James responds with, “shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” James is basically saying, you can proclaim you have faith all you want but proclaiming and possessing are two different things. Shew me! Let me see it! You cannot show it without works! Furthermore, your faith is worthless, what good is it. Whereas my faith can be seen in everyday life.
James 2:19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
The verse is clear. So what you believe there is one God, so do devils. So! The belief in one God does not mean anything. It is one thing to say you believe that there is one God; it is another thing to come to the one true God and put your trust in the gospel, receiving Christ as your Saviour.
Just because a man says he believes in God does not mean he is saved from hell, for the devils also believe and tremble. If a man wants to be saved from hell, then he must put his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; and then at that moment, that man is saved “BY” faith! And that faith WILL PRODUCE FRUIT!
James 2:20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
Again, this verse is clear. He is talking to the “vain man”. The man is vain because he is empty. He does not have the Holy Spirit. He does not have any faith. He is a liar. You can say you have faith all you want but your faith is dead if you do not have works. You are vain! You are empty!
James 2:21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
This verse is not saying Abraham was saved from hell by works. Rather this verse is saying Abraham was justified by works, when he had offered up Isaac his son upon the altar.
What does that mean? It simply means that Abraham was proven by works when he had offered up Isaac his son upon the altar. The word “justified” in this text means “proved” (see Luke 7:24-35 for another place where the word “justified” means “proved”).
Abraham was justified (meaning cleared of all his sins) in the sight of God by faith without works (Romans 3:19-4:8). However, he was justified (meaning proven) by works (James 2:21).
Romans 3-4 and James 2 are using the word “justified” in two different ways. In Romans 3 and 4, Paul is using the word “justified” in reference to being saved from hell. Whereas in James 2, he has in mind the thought of someone proving they are saved by their works.
All right, let us continue looking at the next few verses in James.
James 2:22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
When James says “Seest though how faith wrought with his works” his is simply saying Abraham’s faith worked with his works. Abraham’s faith influenced his works.
When James says “and by works was faith made perfect” he is simply saying that Abraham’s faith was made perfect (matured, see James 1:4 for a bible definition of the word “perfect”) by his works. The faith and the works walked hand in hand. What he believed affected how he behaved and vice versa.
James 2:23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.
In Genesis 15 Abraham’s soul was justified (cleared of sin and imputed righteousness) in the sight of God. Then, many years later, in Genesis 22, God tested Abraham to see what was in his heart; and Abraham passed the test with flying colours and was thus justified (proved and accepted into a place of special fellowship and blessings) by his works. The works did not save his soul rather the works proved he loved God and thus brought him into favour and fellowship with God and man. Faith brought the relationship whilst works brought the fellowship.
James 2:24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
He is simply saying that a man is proved by his works, not by “faith” only.
James 2:25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?
Rahab’s faith was proven when she received the messengers and sent them out another way.
Rahab had already believed before the messengers came. Then her actions proved her believe. See the verse below.
Joshua 2:9-11 “And she said unto the men, I know that the LORD hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed. And as soon as we had heard these things, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man, because of you: for the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath.”
James 2:26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
He ends the chapter where he started. Faith means nothing if you do not have works. In fact, faith without works is dead. It is not living. Dead faith cannot save anyone or anything because it is not alive and working. Just saying you have faith means nothing. A man may say he believes (has faith) but if his behaviour does not match his so-called belief, then he is a liar. E.g. if a man, who is in his right mind and does not have any desire to harm himself, says he believes a glass of water has cyanide in it and then picks it up and drinks it, he lied. The man did not really believe the water had cyanide in it, he only said he believed it. That belief was dead. It was not alive. It was not real. That man’s “faith” was a pretence.
In James 2, James is not bringing forth a new doctrine or another gospel. Rather James is identifying the faith that saves. He emphatically declares unto us that faith that is alive is faith that works. Yes, a person is saved from hell by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and not by any kind of works that is performed before or after a person is saved. A man is justified (cleared of their sin and imputed righteousness) in the sight of God by faith, and not by works. However, works will justify a person (prove a person and cause that person to be accepted into a special place of fellowship and blessings) to both God and man. Moreover, what you truly believe will manifest itself in your behaviour. And though a man may say he has faith, if he does not have works he is lying.
Galatians 5:6 For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.
2 Corinthians 5:17 Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.