James 2:14-26 – Works of Faith

An English schoolteacher was in Switzerland visiting a school, at which she would soon begin teaching.
  • While there, the schoolmaster showed her several rooms near the school that she could rent.
  • Upon her return to England, she remembered not seeing “W.C.’s” near any of the rooms.
  • “W.C.” is short for Water Closet – a bathroom.
  • She sent a letter to the schoolmaster asking if the rooms had “W.C.’s” nearby.

The schoolmaster, thinking “W.C.” was the Wayside Chapel, wrote her back the following letter:
Dear Madam:
I take great comfort in informing you that a "W.C." is situated nine miles from the house in the corner of a beautiful grove of pine trees, surrounded by lovely grounds. It is capable of holding 229 people, and it is open on Sundays and Thursdays only. As there are a great many people expected during the summer months, I would suggest that you come early, although there is usually plenty of standing room. This is an unfortunate situation, particularly if you are in the habit of going regularly. You will no doubt be glad to hear that a good many bring their lunch and make a day of it, while others, who can't afford to go by car, arrive just in time. I would especially advise your ladyship to go on Thursdays when there is an organ accompanist. The acoustics are excellent and even the most delicate sounds can be heard everywhere. It may interest you to know that my daughter was married in the "W.C." and it was there that she met her husband. I can remember the rush there was for seats. There were ten people to a seat usually reserved for one, and it was wonderful to see the expression on their faces.
The newest attraction is a bell, donated by a wealthy resident of the district, which rings every time a person enters. A Bazaar is to be held to raise money for plush seats for all, since the people believe it is a long felt want. My wife is rather delicate so she can't go regularly: it is almost a year since she went last. Naturally it pains her not to be able to go more often. I shall be delighted to reserve the best seat for you, if you wish, where you will be seen by all. For the children there is a special time so that they will not disturb the elders.
Hoping to have been of some service to you, I remain,
Sincerely, The Schoolmaster


Like “W.C.”, our text uses some words that need defining or mass confusion will ensue.
  • Look at James as England and Paul as Switzerland.
  • They use the same words and, in this case, mean different things.
  • Four words we need to look are:
  • Works – Faith – “that faith” – Justified

As we define these words, we hope to accomplish the following:
  • (1) Unpack the text itself and get at its meaning
  • (2) Reconcile James and Paul
  • (3) Figure out the “so what”.

The BDAG, WSNTDICT, and commentaries tell us the following –
  • In the context of James 2, “works” (ergon) means “that which displays itself in activity of any kind, deed, action”.
  • And we are told these are works “springing from faith”.

So, “works” for James is –
  • The deeds and actions that display faith.

So what is this faith being displayed?

As most of us know, “faith” carries with it the idea of “to believe in” and “to trust in”.
  • Biblically, of course, the belief and trust comes from the heart and is put in Jesus Christ.

Importantly, this trust in Christ also entails:
  • A submission to Him, and the facts and implications of the Gospel.
  • This is called Lordship Salvation.

Some examples:
  • Jesus is Lord.
  • We are sinners in need of salvation.
  • We fall short of God’s glory.
  • Jesus is exalted to the right hand of God.

Faith as “heart submission” to Christ and the facts of the Gospel appears all through the NT.
  • Romans 10:9-10 (ESV) — 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord [Gospel Fact that demands submission] and believe in your heart [trust and submission] that God raised him from the dead [Gospel Fact], you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes [trust and submission] and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses [what? – the facts of the Gospel] and is saved.
  • 1 Peter 1:3 (ESV) — 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again [from which we trust and submit] to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead [Gospel Fact],
  • John 20:31 (ESV) — 31 but these [Gospel Facts] are written so that you may believe [trust and submission] that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God [Gospel Fact], and that by believing [trusting and submitting] you may have life in his name.
  • 1 John 5:20 (ESV) — 20 And we know that the Son of God has come [Gospel Fact] and has given us understanding [a heart thing – disposition of the will], so that we may know him who is true [Gospel Fact]; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life [Gospel Fact].

Works and Faith together:
We can now put these two definitions together to get a full picture of James’ use of “works”.
  • Works are the deeds and actions that display our trusting in and submission to Jesus Christ.

I think right away this brings clarity to where James is headed.
  • To paraphrase James 2:14 –
  • What good is it, my brothers, if someone has faith but does not have deeds and actions that display his trust and submission to Jesus Christ?

“That Faith”:
James goes on to ask if a faith without works, “that faith”, can save him (vs. 14).
  • Or to put another way –
  • Can a faith that does not have deeds and actions that display trust and submission to Christ save?
  • The answer to the question is no, it can’t.

He goes on to show us why “that faith” is powerless to save.
  • (1) “that faith” Knows the Gospel facts and creeds – “God is one” for example
    • Something even demons know and fear (vs. 19)
  • (2) But “that faith” has no works.
    • In other words, “that faith” does not have deeds and actions that display trust and submission to Christ.

Therefore it isn’t saving faith.
  • It is all words and no action.

That Faith” – A Serious Problem:
This “that faith” without works is so offensive to James and the integrity of the body of believers that James describes it as follows:
  1. That Faith w/o works is of no “good” (vs. 14-16)
    1. Like telling the hungry and naked to “be warmed and filled” (vs. 16)
  2. That Faith w/o works “is dead” (vss. 17, 26)
    1. Like a body with no spirit is dead, so “that faith” is dead (vs. 26)
  3. That Faith “apart from works” is useless (vs. 20)
    1. So useless that to insist it is useful is to be the fool (vs. 20)
    2. As Lindsay says, these are harsh words – James isn’t playing around.

“For James, [that faith] means a bogus kind of faith, mere intellectual agreement without a genuine personal trust in Christ that bears fruit in one’s life” – Grant Osborne.

PET PEEVE – this text is not citing a problem with knowledge, but with the heart.
  • This text is not an excuse to be intellectually lazy with God’s word and theology.
  • It is not extolling the merits of action over knowledge.
  • They go together – inseparably.
  • Knowledge of God and His word planted in a submitting and trusting heart will produce fruit!

James then goes on to argue that justification is dependent on whether we possess a faith that works or “that faith”.
  • This sounds somewhat scandalous.

Three times James says a person is “justified by works”.
  • James 2:24 (ESV) — 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
  • This is an apparent contradiction of Paul’s teaching.
  • For Paul says in Romans 3:20 & Galatians 2:16, “by works of the law no human being will be justified”.

Paraphrase 2:24 for clarity:
  • A person is justified by the deeds and actions that display our trusting in and submission to Christ and not by “that faith”, which lacks trust and submission, having only knowledge.

Doing this, we see that James’ use of justification is referring not to the act of salvation itself.
  • It is referring to the “deeds and actions that display” a salvation we already have.
    • Deeds and actions that display we have already trusted in and submitted to Christ.

We know this not only from the meaning of the words.
  • But because this is precisely the argument James makes when he talks about Abraham and Rahab.

James affirms that Abraham was declared righteous by his faith alone (vs. 23).
  • James 2:23 (ESV) — 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God.

Yet, James says, we know Abraham’s faith was real because Abraham’s “faith was completed by his works” (vs. 22).
  • How? – His actions with Isaac demonstrated his trust and submission to God.
    • This is what James meant when he said, “I will show you my faith by my works” (vs. 18).
    • Abraham had a real faith because he actually trusted God with the future of Isaac – part of the promised offspring of Israel.

And in Rahab’s case, James points out the same thing (vs. 25).
  • Rahab’s trust and submission to Yahweh were made known by her works.
  • She aided Joshua’s spies – hid them and sent them out her window to safety.

James and Paul:
Contrast James’ justification with Paul’s use of “justification”.
  • When Paul speaks of justification he speaks of being declared righteous by God based on Jesus’ perfect obedience and atoning sacrifice.
  • Paul speaks of salvation itself.

In other words:
  • Paul’s angle – Whose works make us righteous in God’s sight?
    • Not ours, Christ’s.
  • James’ angle – Whose works demonstrate that we are righteous in God’s sight?
    • Our works.

For this reason, both James and Paul would agree with the following:
  • “We are saved by faith alone, but not by the faith that is alone” – Paul Mizzi.
  • “Faith is always obedient faith. Salvation by faith does not negate the necessity and importance of works” – John MacArthur.

Works of Faith and Us:
Abraham’s faith with works jeopardized the future of his promised offspring.
  • Rahab’s put her in danger of being found a traitor – probably a risk to her livelihood and life.

It is interesting that both of James’ examples of works of faith are sacrificial in nature.
  • The works display a willingness to jeopardize life, comfort and future.

For this reason, I always hesitate to list do’s and don’t’s.
  • We might see a list in Scripture and check it off in a legalistic fashion.
  • “I have no trouble with anger”; “I have no trouble with quarreling”; “I feed the hungry”; etc.

What we need to do is search our hearts for things we do struggle with – for example:
  • Idolatry of Comfort
  • Idolatry of Routine
  • Struggles with self-denial
  • Struggles with renewing the mind
  • Lack of right worship

The works of faith called for in your life may or may not be the same as the Christians to whom James is writing.


What is the Point?
  • Why is it so important for James to teach us about “that faith” versus a faith with works?

(1) The first point of importance is obvious (from James 1 and 2) –
  • Christianity w/o works of faith is “worthless”, “dead” “no good”, and “useless”.
  • It contains “filthiness” and “rampant wickedness”.
  • It is “unstable”.
  • It does not “produce the righteousness of God”.
    • It does not emulate His character.

And as a result of such a faith, those to whom James is writing, “have become ‘double-minded,’ wavering between God and the world (1:8; 4:8)” – Grant Osborne.
  • A “double-minded” church that wavers is an ineffective and dying church.

The second point of importance is less obvious, but fundamentally more important.

James tells the church he is writing so that they are not to be deceived by their desires.
  • Desires lead to sin and death (James 1:15-16).
  • But, he says, instead of from our desires, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father” (James 1:17).

(2) So the second important point has to do with origins.
  • Like “every good gift” comes from God, works of faith are powered by God.
  • Works of faith are possible because we are in Christ.
  • Since faith unites to Christ it cannot be lifeless. It works through love (Galatians 5:6). It seeks to do all the ‘good works, which God prepared beforehand’ for us (Ephesians 2:10) – Paul Mizzi.
  • And works that are powered by Christ WILLproduce the righteousness of God” (1:20).

Only those with genuine faith can deny self, and jeopardize future and comfort for Christ’s sake.
  • For in Christ, we are no longer slaves to sin and self.

Additionally, because works of faith point to the believer’s Union with Christ, they glorify God.
  • Abraham’s trusting God with his promised offspring, Isaac, points to:
    • God’s character
    • God’s covenant faithfulness
    • God’s love
    • God’s power to raise Isaac from the dead if need be.

A Final Thought:
An implication of James’ teaching is that faith without works is, in fact, a negation of the works of Christ!