What James means by “Faith without works is dead”
Paul famously writes that “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”
But James writes that “a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone” and that “faith without works is dead.”
Which is correct? How are we to read Paul and James together?
Does James really mean that our works save us?
Before we talk about how to read Paul and James together, let’s take a close look at what James really says.
James tells us that if someone claims to have a commitment—faith—and assumes that on this basis they will be saved or delivered in the final judgment, but they don’t have the works of charity or other forms of obedience to God, then they are deceived.
Commitment or faith in itself cannot save or deliver them.
But is that really true?
If so, James has made a profound theological statement, especially when read within the context of the whole of the New Testament.
James illustrates his point with the story:
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 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? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14–17 NKJV)
With this story James is clearly responding to three either implied or stated objections.
Objection 1: faith and works are separate gifts
First, could not faith and works be separate gifts? No, for without the appropriate actions flowing from it, faith or commitment cannot be demonstrated. Commitment to God and Jesus is accomplished through deeds.
Objection 2: a confession of faith is enough
Second, what about the sincere confession of faith: “I do believe!”
The reference to what is believed is to the basic confession of Judaism, the Shema. That is good, says James, for the unity of God is fundamental to the Jewish religion.
But then James reminds us that even the demons have gotten farther than this in that they both believe this truth and respond to this belief appropriately—that is, they “shudder,” presumably in anticipation of judgment.
The demons do something that shows that this confession is more than theory to them.
Objection 3: commitment is enough
Third, James argues that a commitment without appropriate deeds is worthless by bringing in two biblical narratives.
The first is the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. In this passage, Abraham is declared to be “in the right” or “justified” by God (although the term “justified” is not used in the Septuagint) after it is clear from Abraham’s actions that his commitment to God is such that he has obeyed God’s command to offer his one and only son on an altar and is about to complete that act. It is then that God says, “Now I know” (Genesis 22:12), and God therefore reaffirms the earlier promises of progeny and blessing on the basis of Abraham’s current obedience (Genesis 22:15–18). James relates this to Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (or, as an act of righteousness),” which Scripture, he states, was “fulfilled.” To James, Genesis 15:6 was proleptic insofar as Abraham was only declared to be righteous, or justified, after the deed of Genesis 22, for that is when God makes the declaration that “he knows.”
The result of Abraham’s act and God’s declaration is that Abraham was considered a special client of the divine patron, a friend, the most honored level of client. The conclusion based on the story of Abraham, argues James, is that “a person is justified by works, not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
The second biblical narrative James discusses is that of Rahab. He writes:
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? (James 2:25)
She was declared just on the basis of her deeds in that she hid the messengers and directed them how to remain safe when they left.
While the narrator of the Hebrew Scriptures never says that she had a commitment to or faith in God, Rahab’s speech in Joshua 2 certainly shows that she is convinced that Israel’s God is able to deliver Jericho into Israel’s hands. Her being declared just in James is a reflection of her deliverance in the Hebrew text and the connection that was made between that deliverance and her deeds in Joshua 2.
The point James is making is that all of Rahab’s conviction—conviction that the God of Israel was about to give Jericho into the hands of the Israelites, and conviction that YHWH was “God in heaven above and on earth below” (Josh 2:11)—all of it would have counted for nothing had she not saved the lives of the messengers and followed through on their instructions.
Rahab’s faith would have been empty without action based on it.
James ends with a pithy analogy that sums up his point. He accepts that the human being is body and breath/spirit; when the spirit departs, one has a corpse, a decomposing body. So also when deeds are separated from faith or commitment, one has, not just something that is defective, but something that is dead.
Is James contradicting Paul?
It looks like James is intentionally contradicting Paul. It’s as if he reads Paul and says, “No, it is not faith alone, it is faith completed by works. This is what results in justification.”
James uses the three terms Paul uses: faith, works, and justified. He uses the same example of Abraham, and, just like Paul, he quotes Genesis 15:6. There is enormous overlap between James and Paul:
Galatians and Romans
… we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
James 2:14 & 17
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? . . . So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Faith, Works of the law, Works, Justified
For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Justified, Faith apart from works, Works not faith alone
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness
Abraham, justified by works, Faith apart from works, Faith active with works, Faith brought to completion by works, Without works trusts (= has faith in) him who justifies, Faith is reckoned as righteousness, Gen 15:6 quoted
What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works.
Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
Basis of faith versus basis of works, justified by works, Faith without works is also dead
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It seems we have two equal voices in the New Testament contradicting each other. How are we to handle this?
It’s not so simple.
What Paul and James mean by “works”
When Paul talks about faith and works, he always refers to “works of the law.” But James never uses that phrase.
When Paul wants to illustrate the works of the law he opposes, he uses the example of circumcision, Sabbath, and purity regulations. But when James speaks of the law, he refers to charitable deeds, obedient sacrificial actions, acts of hospitality. (And Paul repeatedly commends acts of charity and hospitality elsewhere—he’s clearly not opposed.)
It’s clear that, even though Paul and James are both writing about works, they are writing about very different things.
What Paul and James mean by “faith”
To return to our phrase—“faith without works is dead”—what do Paul and James mean by faith?
Paul uses the word “faith” to mean commitment to Jesus (three times in Galatians 2:16 alone).
But James gives only one example of “faith,” and it refers to a kind of belief. He’s referring to the Jewish belief that “God is one,” the foundational statement of Jewish belief. He leaves “faith” undefined in the rest of the passage.
How Paul and James use the example of Abraham
Finally, James and Paul use Abraham as an example.
For Paul, the point is that Abraham’s work of circumcision came after he trusted God and God has already declared him righteous:
“Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)
But James never mentions circumcision. It’s not an issue for him. But he does mention Abraham’s attempted offering of Isaac. Only after bringing Isaac to the later does God say to Abraham:
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:12)
It is only after the telling of this story that James, like Paul, cites Genesis 15:6.
And the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. (James 2:23)
For James, this is a promise of justification more than a declaration of justification. And the promise isn’t fulfilled until after the near-sacrifice of Isaac.
In other words, both James and Paul appeal to the example of Abraham, but James and Paul appeal to different aspects of that example. Even though they both cite Genesis 15:6, they use the verse quite differently.
Are we reading Paul incorrectly?
As you can see, there is a clear linguistic overlap between Paul and James. If James had read Romans or Galatians and intended to reply to them, then it’s clear he misunderstood them. It’s also possible that echoes of Paul reached James—which would account for the similar phrases.
But if so, this was an already-distorted version of Paul that James would have heard—a distortion similar to Luther’s understanding of Paul that led to his condemnation of James.
Where does this leave us?
It’s hard to argue that James should be compared to Paul and found wanting. Instead, James gives us a canonical perspective from which we can ask: are we reading Paul appropriately?
If we read James and Paul as being in conflict rather than being two voices in a pre-systematic period of the church, then we may be reading Paul’s teaching on faith, works, and justification incorrectly.
Did James know about Paul’s writings about justification by faith alone?
The question remains: did James know about Paul’s writings about justification by faith alone in Galatians and Romans?
If these three aspects really are borrowed from Paul, then James must have been written later than Romans and Galatians. But did he?
Galatians is dated to as early as 49 CE and as late as the end of Paul’s life. And Romans is dated to the end of Paul’s final stay in Corinth in 56 CE.
The letter to the Romans was sent west from Corinth—where Paul wrote it—to Rome. It wasn’t sent east to Palestine, where James was located.
For James to have read Romans, the letter would have needed to reach Rome, become influential, and be copied. A copy, which would have cost perhaps $2,000 in current money, would have needed to be sent to Palestine before James could have reacted to it. It is unlikely that the historical James, who was martyred by 62 CE, could be responding to Romans.
If James is reacting to Pauline ideas, then he must be writing before Romans and Galatians became available to him, for he does not seem so ignorant as to have completely misunderstood those letters if he had had them.
So is faith without works dead? What James seem to say is that our works don’t save us, but they do reflect a saving faith.
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