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James 2:13-16 by Robert Dean
Series:James (1998)
Duration:59 mins 54 secs

Does Saving Faith Necessarily Produce Good?
James 2:13-16

What exactly is the relationship of faith and works in salvation and in the spiritual life? This is one of the most important questions facing the Christian in the evangelical community today, and sadly most theologians and pastors are getting the answers wrong. James addresses this issue in this passage and this is one of the crucial battlefield in coming to an understanding of the answer to that question. What is the relationship of works to salvation? Are works really necessary?

The way that the answer to the question is formulated today we can say there are basically two positions. Position # 1 is that justification is the result of faith alone—faith minus works; faith alone in Christ alone. Position # 2 is that justification is faith plus works. This second position is manifested in two ways. One is called front-loading the gospel: faith plus any number of things—faith plus giving, faith plus baptism, faith plus ritual, faith plus doing good, i.e. you need to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be baptized, etc. So there is this dual condition that is expressed right up front. It is faith-plus, the overt addition of something to the gospel. But there is a much more subtle form, and this is the idea that while we are saved by faith alone the faith that saves is never alone. Sounds good! But always look for adjectives. There is never an adjective in front of John's use of the word "faith" in his Gospel, it is always believe in Christ. He never says have genuine faith, true faith, or saving faith; the object is Jesus Christ. But what they do is add this phrase and say that if you have saving faith, a genuine faith, then it will always result in works, some kind of overt production that gives evidence and assurance that the faith that you have is saving faith. And if you look at your life and you don't see those works, that evidence, then perhaps that faith that you had when you said, I believe Jesus died on the cross for my sins, then maybe that faith that you had wasn't saving faith. You've had a head belief without a heart belief! It sounds good, it is good rhetoric, but it is not biblical. The Bible never makes a distinction between a head faith and a heart faith.

So this is the problem. We have the expression of faith plus works, and it is either front-loading the gospel with overt works or it is back-loading the gospel. In this case, when you say that genuine faith issues in works then ultimately assurance of salvation is based upon having these works. But what happens if you think you were saved, that you had genuine faith, and you go five or ten years and something happens in your life and you go through some crisis so you get mad at God, turn your back on God and spend the rest of your life as an atheist? Well then they would say you were never saved, so you can't really know that you're saved until you're almost dead because what happens if you turn your back on God and don't really persevere in good works, then you didn't have saving faith. The problem with that is that there is no assurance of salvation, you can't know, and the Scriptures say, "And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life," and, "these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name." Certain knowledge is promised by the Scriptures that you can know that you have eternal life. So they place assurance not in the promise of God but in the works of man, the fruit of man—overt morality usually.

When we ask this question we come to passages like James chapter two and see that there seems to be a contradiction. Ephesians 2:8, 9 says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, {it is} the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast." Titus 3:5, "He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit." Furthermore, in Romans 11:6 Paul says, "But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace." What Paul is saying is that if works are included, grace is nullified.

When we come to James 2:14 NASB "What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?" The implication from the way James formulates the question in the Greek the answer is, no, that faith cannot save him because he doesn't have works. Is this a contradiction? Yes, it is. We must be willing to say that it is a contradiction, that James seems to say that works are included. So since the Scripture in the Word of God and God doesn't contradict Himself maybe we don't understand the terminology that James uses. So we must begin when we come to this passage by carefully analysing the context of these statements to make sure that when Paul says that we are saved by faith minus works and James says that we are saved by faith plus works that they both mean the same thing when they both use the word "saved."

A little review of the context. James has been addressing these readers of his because of certain sin in their life. They have encountered a test, and as we have seen it is the test that God brings into our lives in order to challenge us to trust Him and to use problem-solving devices and stress-busters so that we can advance to spiritual maturity. After the point of salvation we will encounter various tests of doctrine and we can exercise either positive volition or negative volition at the point of that test of doctrine. A test of doctrine is simply any opportunity we have to either apply the Word or not apply the Word.  We either use human viewpoint to solve the situation or we use divine viewpoint and claim a promise, apply a doctrine, or utilize personal love for God the Father or impersonal love for all mankind; whatever it may be the test gives us the opportunity to apply the Word or not. If we apply the Word we produce divine good, we begin to develop capacity for life and experience the fullness of life that God promises us, and we produce evidence that the will of God is good and perfect. We develop steadfast endurance and we advance to the adult spiritual life. If, on the other hand, we are negative we produce sin from the sin nature and human good from the sin nature. The Bible calls this temporal death as opposed to life. It develops spiritual weakness and emotional instability in our lives, spiritual regression, hardening of the heart, and we continue in this cycle under the sin nature control. When we die and are face to face with the Lord we go to the judgment seat of Christ. Those who have spent a maximum amount of time under the filling of the Holy Spirit and advance to spiritual maturity will receive rewards and an inheritance. Those who spend most of their time under the control of the sin nature will produce wood, hay and straw, and they will lose rewards and experience temporary shame at the judgment seat of Christ.

What has happened with these readers is they have failed the test of persecution. It is a people test. They are coming under persecution by the rich, the wealthy in their area. These wealthy people have rejected the gospel and are dragging believers into court. In the midst of this they are responding to that rejection test by trying to curry favor with the very people who are hostile to them and rejecting them, and not only have they reversed the poles of their affection so that they are trying to curry favour with those who are persecuting them but they are rejecting and treating poorly and contemptuously the poor people who are coming into the congregation and are advancing believers. So James confronts them with their failure to apply impersonal love in the midst of this particular test. He is saying they need to apply impersonal love, and if they don't they are going to be judged by the perfect law of liberty.

James 2:13 NASB "For judgment {will be} merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment." This is the judgment of God in terms of divine discipline. This is the transition verse where he is moving from warning them about the need to utilize impersonal love and he is going to continue to use this and talk about an illustration of mercy in verses 15 and 16. Divine discipline will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy, and then mercy (the grace of God) triumphs over judgment. Even though we may be taken out to the woodshed and go through incredible divine discipline, as David did, God's grace is not negated by that. We don't lose our salvation and God's mercy, then, triumphs over judgment.

James 2:14 NASB "What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?"  This is a question phrased in the Greek in such a way as to expect a negative answer. So he anticipates and answer to the question as no, that faith without works is not able to save him. What does that mean? He repeats it again in v. 17: "Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, {being} by itself." The apparent position of James is that faith minus works isn't enough. But we have to ask the question: enough for that? What does he mean by saved, and what does he mean by works? We have to break down the words, they are very important. Words are the substance, the essence of thought; and words are not mechanical things that always mean the same things every time you see them. Words have ranges of meaning. They have core meanings and they have various connotations and nuances which shift with context. So we always have to look at these words. One of the problems is that in evangelicalism whenever we see the word "saved" we always think, "Brother are you saved?" And we think that automatically means, "Are you going to go to heaven?" So every time we see this word in churchianity we think it means going to heaven and being delivered from eternal condemnation; yet, that is not the way the Scripture always uses the word SOZO [swzw]. The root meaning of SOZO is to deliver. Deliver always implies some object. It is always important to note the object in the context. Sometimes it refers to health, deliverance in sickness. It means to heal in that context. In other contexts it is deliverance from eternal punishment, what we call phase one salvation but more technically it is justification, and it is salvation/deliverance from the eternal penalty of sin. Phase two salvation/deliverance we also call, technically, sanctification which is deliverance from the power of sin, the power of the sin nature. Then phase three, absent from the body and face to face with the Lord, technically known as glorification, where we are saved from the presence of sin in a glorified body and there is no more sin nature. So "saved" can be used in three ways and just because we see the word we should not jump to the conclusion that it means saved from hell.

First of all we need to recognize that James is addressing believers. The subject that he is addressing in this section of the epistle began in 1:19 and it concerns the quality of life, that abundant life, in phase two. It is important to understand in this context that hearing the Word is supposed to culminate in application. What is normally translated "doing" is the Greek word POIEO [poiew] and it means to apply what is heard. This is analogous to what we are going to see in this passage which is faith and works. Works is analogous to application; faith is the trust or hearing. So we must understand 2:14ff in the context of hearing and doing and explaining the importance of applying the Word of God.

When we look at this section we realize that James' thrust is that application is necessary to save the soul. That is what he says back in 1:21, "Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and {all} that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls." There we have to ask the question: Does that mean eternal salvation? The phrase "save the soul," which is SOZO plus the word PSUCHE [yukh] is used in Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9; 9:56, and is an idiom which means to save the life. So the issue here is, how do we want to save our life? This is physical life right here in time, temporal life. It is not talking about the future, it is talking about phase two, the quality of your life in phase two as a believer—saving the life as opposed to death. Cf. James 1:15, "Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death." So the issue is whether we want to live a life as a believer where we experience temporal death or carnal death where we are out of fellowship and under divine discipline all the time, or whether we want to have a quality of life and save the life by being in fellowship under the filling of God the Holy Spirit, receiving the Word which is able to save the life—that is the power in the spiritual life. It is clear from Scripture that throughout the Old Testament and New Testament that it is the application of doctrine that develops the capacity for life and happiness. It prolongs life, whereas a life given over to sin develops destructive patterns of thought and action which can result in an early and untimely death, even the sin unto death for the believer. Proverbs 10:27 NASB "The fear of the LORD prolongs life, But the years of the wicked will be shortened." Proverbs 11:19 NASB "He who is steadfast in righteousness {will attain} to life, And he who pursues evil {will bring about} his own death."  Proverbs 13:14 NASB "The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, To turn aside from the snares of death." Proverbs 14:12 NASB "There is a way {which seems} right to a man, But its end is the way of death." [27] "The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, That one may avoid the snares of death." So the issue for the believer is whether he wants to experience life, abundant life, or does he want to experience carnal death and destruction through the result of negative volition.

James comes here in this message to refute those who claim, apparently, that faith, i.e. just simple doctrinal knowledge, a lot of GNOSIS [gnwsij], is all that is involved in the Christian life. In essence James is saying what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8:1, "Knowledge makes arrogant." But you can't do anything in life without knowledge, and you can't know something unless you take the time and energy and discipline to learn it. We only apply a small part of what we have learned academically, but we have to learn it first academically before we can ever apply it. It is very important to notice the Greek of 1 Corinthians 8:1. The word "knowledge" is GNOSIS there, it is not EPIGNOSIS [e)pignwsij]. GNOSIS which doesn't come to fruition in EPIGNOSIS is simply academic knowledge, and academic knowledge without going to the conclusion of applicational knowledge just makes arrogant.          

So let us get into the exegesis of the text of James 2:14 NASB "What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?" The word "use" is the noun OPHELOS [o)feloj], neuter nominative singular. It pertains to that which is beneficial, benefit which is derived from some object, event, or state. It can be translated "advantage, benefit, value, purpose," and even "application." James is talking about application in this section. We could translate this, "What applicational value is it, my brethren," if he says he has faith but he has not works? Right away he is loading the question, it has no applicational value if there are no works. The word "faith" is PISTIS [pistij], meaning to trust, to rely on, to believe something to be true. The interesting thing is that this is anatharous, which means the definite article is absent. When the article is absent from the noun it can indicate that it is indefinite, it can indicate that it is definite, and it can also emphasize the inherent qualities of the noun. When the article is missing here the kind of verb that we have here is an abstract concept. Faith is abstract, an abstract principle. An abstract noun is inherently definite by definition, so the issue isn't a faith, it is the faith. But the word PISTIS can have an active connotation and a passive connotation. The active connotation would be what we call the faith-rest drill, the act of trusting God. The passive sense is what we believe, like the question: What faith are you? It is equivalent to what is a person's creed. So passively it refers basically to what we would call doctrine.

The noun PISTIS is used 16 times by James and this is the fifth time he has used it. But up to this point he has always used it with the article or with a preposition. Normally a preposition replaces the article in Greek, so it is just as if it is there. Now all of a sudden he changes and he drops the article with this noun, making it anartharous emphasizing the quality. Why does he drop the article? Because he is not talking about the faith-rest drill anymore as he has before, he is talking about what we believe, doctrine. What good is doctrine if it is not applied? That is the question. We know from the word SOZO here that he is not talking to believers about how to be believers.

When we have a test of adversity we have the choice of applying doctrine. The faith-rest drill is the application of doctrine; it is mixing faith with the promise of God. So if James is asking the question and is concerned about applying doctrine—Don't be a hearer only, but apply doctrine—and when he says, "What use is it if a man has faith?" Faith, if it is the faith-rest drill, is applying doctrine, isn't it? You are already mixing faith with the promises of God. Faith is the sense of the faith-rest drill is the application of doctrine, so he would be redundant and non-sensical if the meaning of faith he was trusting God, because trusting God is application of doctrine. So that means that he must be talking about doctrine here. Is it GNOSIS doctrine or EPIGNOSIS doctrine? Is it applicational doctrine or is it just academic doctrine? Let's look at the overview of the passage and plus that word in and see how it changes out understanding of this text: "What applicational value is it, my brethren, if someone says he has doctrine but he has no application? Can that doctrine bring him to spiritual maturity?"

Then he uses an illustration related to mercy and impersonal love. James 2:15 NASB "If a brother or sister [Another believer] is without clothing and in need of daily food, [16] and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,' and yet you do not give them what is necessary for {their} body, what use is that?" He hasn't applied impersonal love. Then he closes with an application, [17] James 2:17 "Even so doctrine, if it has no application, is dead, {being} by itself." When you see something dead you assume that it was once alive. Dead does not mean non-existent, it means no longer functioning. Then he introduces the words of an objector [18] "But someone may {well} say, 'You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.'" The bottom line of what this objector is saying in vv. 18 and 19 is that there is no real relationship and you can't demonstrate a relationship between faith and application.

But James has a rejoinder in v. 20, "But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?" It has no value. He uses different word there and it relates to value. [21] Was not Abraham our father justified [before men] by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?" The doctrine, what he had learned about God, was working with his application and with the result of the application his doctrine was TELEIOO [teleiow], brought to completion, v.22. That means it now has taken him further in his spiritual growth. [23] "and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,' and he was called the friend of God." So he has moved now from simply having positional righteousness by virtue of his union with Christ to applicational righteousness as he advanced in his spiritual life.

So getting back to our verse, we have seen that we understand faith not as faith at the point of salvation/justification, not as the faith-rest drill, but as what is believed as doctrine. We see that it fits the entire context of James, because James is talking about the issue of not being merely a hearer accumulating doctrine as GNOSIS doctrine but being an applier of the Word. Here he is saying that for that to have value in the spiritual life it must culminate in application, which is works. Verse 14 raises the question, and he gives an illustration in verse 15, but first a corrected translation of v. 14: "What applicational value is it, my brethren, if someone claims to have doctrine but does not have production? Can that doctrine deliver him from the destructive and deadly consequences of sin in the life?"

James gives a hypothetical scenario involving a people test, a test that is going to involve the utilization and application of impersonal love towards this destitute believer. He raises this question and this is the issue in the congregation there, that they have failed so far; they have failed to apply the royal law of impersonal love or unconditional love. So verses 15 & 16 are fairly easy to understand. "If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,' and yet you do not give them what is necessary for {their} body, what use is that?" So he concludes then by saying, "Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, {being} by itself." We understand that dead means non-functional because of the comparison and analogy and synonym used in v. 20. When James responds to the objector he says, "But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?" He uses the word ARGE [a)rgh] which means idle. It refers to idle workers in Matthew 23, and an idle worker is not non-existent. He is right there but he is just not working. So dead faith is not non-existing faith, it is non-producing faith. The terminology continues to emphasize production.

When we outline the passage we saw that verses 14-17 raises the issue of the importance of application of faith to have any value. But there is always somebody who is going to come along and raise an objection. Remember the problem here is that James has people out here who are apparently saying that faith, i.e. just knowing doctrine is enough; you don't really have to apply it, there is no connection between them. This is a rhetorical device that is common in Greek literature. We know from certain literary clues and the way certain terms are used in other literature, as well as Scriptural literature, that this is a tried and true formula in the ancient world. It is called a diatribe. One writer who has analysed all of the usages of this type of formula in Greek literature says that no case has ever been found where this type of stylistic introduction—i.e. Well come one may well say, and then usually found with a rejoinder, You foolish person—presents the viewpoint of an ally. It always introduces an opposing or disagreeing position. That is important for us to understand here, that we are going to introduce opposition. Whatever is said, whatever the meaning of these two verses is, it is presenting the oppositional viewpoint. James is saying that application in necessary to advance; the oppositional viewpoint says no, application is not necessary; I just need to learn it but I don't really need to apply anything.

The diatribe is also used in other passages of Scripture. Romans 9:19 NASB "You will say to me then, 'Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?' [20] On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, 'Why did you make me like this,' will it?" The same sort of thing is found in 1 Corinthians 15:35 NASB "But someone will say, 'How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?' [36] You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies…" So the words of the objector are introduced, and then someone says "O Man" or "You fool," and that introduces Paul's response to the one in opposition. James does the same thing.