Living and Dead Faith – James 2:17


“Living and Dead Faith”

VII. Texts that Transform

James 2:17


So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.


The spiritual environment in which I lived as a college student was one in which one could receive Christ as Savior and yet not as Lord; one in which a third class of persons was created, persons who were neither proper Christians, nor non-Christians, but carnal Christians, and as such saved, going to heaven, though perpetually worldly (Campus Crusade for Christ literature featured the “carnal Christian” prominently);1 one in which repentance was not thought to be necessary for salvation; and one in which the law of God had nothing to say to the believer (denying its “third” use). These views were thought to be necessary to guard the grace of the gospel from any intrusions of “works” or legalism. If we are saved by faith alone, it was said, it cannot be that commitment to the Lordship of Christ, or repentance, or obedience could in any way be required. To demand anything more than bare faith was thought to introduce works and destroy the gospel. 


This view came into open conflict when John MacArthur published his The Gospel According to Jesus in 1988. A debate erupted known as the “Lordship Controversy” and resulted in considerable blow-back, for example, MacArthur being dropped by the Bible Broadcasting Network.2 The roots of the controversy go back at least to Lewis Sperry Chafer’s (1871-1952) He that is Spiritual (1918), his Systematic Theology (1948), and was perpetuated in more recent times by Dallas Theological Seminary professors Charles C. Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life (1969), his widely utilized Ryrie Study Bible (1976) and Zane Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege (1981). This “Savior but not Lord” scheme, J. M. Boice maintained, “reduces the gospel to the mere fact of Christ’s having died for sinners” and “requires of sinners only that they acknowledge this by the barest intellectual assent.”3


During my senior year (1977), I found myself in a heated argument with a Fuller Seminary student about whether or not obedience could serve as a test of the authenticity of faith, as I had become convinced from 1 John 2:4. It was my first encounter with what I would one day call a “grace boy.” He would not allow any tests of faith at all. Neither could he countenance repentance as part of the saving response to Christ nor the Lordship of Christ. He refused to recognize any New Testament concern for those who might be self-deceived, who might be the rocky or shallow soil in whom what appears as healthy growth proves to be superficial and temporary, who fall away under the pressure of “tribulation or persecution,” though initially they received the word “with joy” (Mt 13:20, 21); or who might be thorny soil, soil overrun with weeds, who also initially receive the word but for whom “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Mt 13:22). 


In the course of the argument, I invoked James: “faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:17). All he could hear was the compromise of the gospel. Each time I insisted on good works flowing from true faith, he heard salvation by works. Round and round we went. He went away angry and I frustrated, but determined. A few days later I drove my undergraduate self over to the Fuller Seminary library in Pasadena and pulled off the shelves multiple commentaries on James.  I took notes, went home, typed up a multi-page response proving my position (or so I thought) and mailed it to my foe. 


James, the brother of Jesus, was a “pillar” of the Jerusalem church, says the Apostle Paul, and in this debate he was my friend (Acts 15:13ff; Gal 2:9). His second chapter put the final nail in the coffin of my confusion about grace and works. Though James 2:14ff was at first troubling, ultimately it led to a more coherent and full-orbed understanding of faith.


The tension

James encountered the same sort of problem with which I was wrestling. At first blush, he compounds our confusion by seeming to contradict the Apostle Paul. Remember, the Apostle Paul said:


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 counted to him as righteousness.” (Rom 4:2, 3)


Yet, James says of the same Abraham,


Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? (Jas 2:21)


The lesson he draws from the life of Abraham is this:


You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (Jas 2:24)


He also enlists Rahab in his case:


And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? (Jas 2:25)


Leading to his conclusion:


For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (Jas 2:26)


What is one to make of this? Does the Bible contradict itself? Do Paul and James teach different gospels? Paul says Abraham was not justified by works. James says he was. One can understand (but not endorse) why a frustrated Luther would refer to James’ letter as “an epistle of straw.”


Differing definitions

Yet the contrast between the Apostle Paul and James is not so great as first appears. The key is found in verse 14:


What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 


The issue addressed by James is what “someone says.” A claim is being made. What claim? The claim to have faith and yet lack accompanying good works. The question being raised is, “Can that faith save him?” What faith? A faith that is fruitless, a faith that “does not have works,” a faith that does not produce change, a faith that is no more than intellectual assent to doctrines. The key, then, is that James is utilizing a different working definition of faith than the Apostle Paul. Whose definition? The watered-down version of his opponents, the “someone who says.” “In this whole discourse,” says the Puritan Thomas Manton (1620-1677) in his classic exposition of James, “the apostle’s intent is to show, not what justifieth, but who is justified; not what faith doth, but what faith is.”4 What, then, are the qualities of true, that is, justifying faith? James provides three tests.


Demonstrated by good works

First, true faith may be demonstrated by works. Good works such as love, charity, and morality are the “fruits and evidences” of true faith, says our Westminster Confession of Faith (XVI.2). “The drift of the context,” says Manton, “is not to show that faith without works doth not justify, but that a persuasion or assent without works is not faith.”5James presents a case study on merciless generosity:


 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (Jas 2:15-17)


James utilizes an analogy to demonstrate the futility of a “faith” that lacks works. A destitute fellow believer lacks clothing and food. Your response is words: “Go, be warmed and filled.” Will your words put clothes on his back and food in his belly? Have your words done any good? Of course not. Just as we don’t count what Manton calls “cheap words and charitable wishes” as generosity, God doesn’t count mere words or bare assent as faith. “A naked profession of faith is no better than verbal charity.”6 A faith that lacks good works is “dead,” James insists. Manton cites the Protestant principle, sola fides justificat, sed non fides quae est sola: faith alone justifies, but not faith that is alone. We find the same principle in the Apostle John’s first epistle:


17 But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:17, 18)


True love, like true faith, will produce good works. “True faith,” says William Gurnall, citing James 2, “is of a working stirring nature.”7 Love that merely consists of “word or talk” is not love “in truth.” It is counterfeit love. True religion, religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself

unstained from the world (Jas 1:27). Good works, says Manton, “are a proper, perpetual, and inseparable effect of faith.”8


But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. (Jas 2:18)


James envisions a third party seeking clarification asking, “You have faith and I have works.” That is, can we say that we each have our gifts and no sense getting in a fuss about it? You have a gift for unshakable trust, I for works of mercy.9 No, the problem is that all true believers have saving faith and all true believers have good works which are the fruit of that saving faith. “Show me your faith apart from works,” is “a kind of ironical expression,” says Poole.10 His point is clear enough. “I will show you my faith by my works. Causes are known by their effects. Works are the fruit, the sign, the evidence, the testimony of saving faith while not themselves meritorious. Faith can be, and must be, demonstrated to be present, active, alive and real by the fruit of good deeds. 


James does not stand alone in insisting that good works must flow from true faith. The Apostle Paul concurs, insisting on “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Faith works. Those who are saved by Christ, saved by grace through faith “are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works (Eph 2:10). Believers are devoted to good works (Titus 3:8). The Apostle Paul connects grace, atonement, and good works in Titus 2:11-14. 


11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)


“Grace,” he says, trains us “to renounce ungodliness” and so on. Christ “gave Himself to redeem us” from what? From “lawlessness” and to “purify” us and create a people who are “zealous for good works. James and Paul agree. True faith produces the fruit of good works. Jesus says, “I chose you and appointed you” to what end? He continues, “that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (Jn 15:16). Jesus teaches, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Mt 7:20). 


15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Mt 7:15-20)


We don’t go to lemon trees and expect to pick apples from them. We know by the fruit the nature of the tree. If apples, an apple tree. If oranges, an orange tree. If healthy fruit, a healthy tree. If unhealthy fruit, an unhealthy tree. Behavior reveals the person’s nature, whether a sheep or a wolf. The assumption in James is the same as we saw in 1 John. A believing encounter with Jesus Christ is life-transforming. The fruit of good works inevitably grows.11


More than mere assent

Second, James goes on and presents a second case study, this one of mere assent to propositions. He identifies one who believes “that God is one.” Is that enough to save?


You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! (Jas 2:19)


His answer is a devastating rebuttal of “faith” as mere mental assent to doctrine. Believing that “God is one” is a foundational biblical truth. The Hebrews called it the shama (from the verb to hear): “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4). This is a fundamental article of monotheistic faith. “You do well” to believe it, says James, again using irony. “The demons believe,” he says, “and shudder.”


Yet believing it saves no one. The demons believe the shama. They were among the first to acknowledge Jesus’ true identity (e.g. Mt 8:29). Yet faith, by that definition, won’t save them. Their belief is not saving belief. It is but intellectual affirmation. “There is not only assent in faith,” say Manton, “but consent; not only an assent to the truth of the word, but a consent to take Christ.”12


Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? (Jas 2:20)


A faith that doesn’t result in good works is “useless.” It is no more than assent to the obvious. It is not genuine faith. What’s missing? Trust. Commitment. Surrender. Repentance. The person who attends church each week, who walks in, takes a seat, affirms the creed, repeats the Lord’s Prayer, listens to the sermon, and walks out at the end of the service and remains unaffected does not have true faith. Nominal assent is not faith.


Put it this way. If I believe that bridge is going to collapse, will my behavior not be affected? If I truly believe it cannot sustain my weight, my “faith” will be demonstrated by my decision to not attempt to cross it. If I have faith that a chair can bear my weight, I will not hesitate to plop down into it. What we believe always determines how we act. Belief that Jesus is the pearl that is of “great price” will lead to selling everything in order to buy it (Mt 13:45, 46). If I believe that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world and Lord of heaven and earth, the result will be a faith that consists of total abandonment to Christ, consent to have Him, not merely assent to the doctrine in such a way as to leave behavior unaffected.


Historical examples

James strengthens his case by pointing to two examples of working faith from redemptive history: Abraham and Rahab, representing two extremes of the redemptive spectrum; the father of the faith and a pagan prostitute.


21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 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. (21-23)


Verse 23 cites Genesis 15:6, quoted by the Apostle Paul in Romans 4 (as we’ve seen), proving that Abraham was justified by faith. So in what sense was the offering of Isaac an example of justification by works, as claimed by James in verse 21? This is a difficult question, yet it is simplified by remembering that Isaac was offered decades after Abraham was “counted” righteous. Abraham’s justification occurs in Genesis 15:6. Isaac was offered thirty years later in Genesis 22. What, then, was the justification of Genesis 22? It was the justification not of the person, but of the faith.13 “His faith itself (was) justified,” says Poole, “as his person was before.”14 Abraham’s claim of faith was justified in the sense of being legitimized or even of verified. The reality of Abraham’s faith was proven by Isaac’s offering, confirming that it was true or justifying faith. We might paraphrase verse 21, “Was not Abraham our father shown by his works to be a man justified by faith? His faith was “completed” by works, meaning “made… more fully known and apparent,” says Manton, or even “bettered and improved.”15 His faith was an “active” faith, a living and transforming faith, his works completing his faith in the sense of being faith coming to full expression through action. His faith, says Poole, was by works “approved as a true, lively, justifying faith.”16 Indeed, “The design of the apostle is not to show how sinners are justified in God’s court, but only what kind of faith it is whereby they are justified.”17


The pieces of the puzzle were for me fitting together. Those troubling carnal, worldly Christians with whom I was contending probably were like those James combatted. We are saved by faith alone. Yet what is faith? Their claim of faith was spurious. How can we know? Because faith without works is dead!


You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (Jas 2:24)


“Not by faith alone,” we repeat, means “not by faith that is alone.” We are not justified  by a faith that has no fruit, no works, and that brings about no change.


And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? (Jas 2:25)


Rahab, James’ second historical example, the other end of the spiritual spectrum, confessed to the Hebrew spies, “As soon as we heard it,” that is, of the exodus and the early conquests in Canaan, “our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath (Josh 2:11). On the basis of this profession of faith in the God of Israel, she hid the spies. “By faith Rahab…” (Heb 11:31). Her doing so demonstrated that her words were more than mere words. Her faith was not spurious, but real and risky. So the conclusion:


For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (Jas 2:26)


Whether one is father Abraham or a mere harlot, justifying faith, living faith, saving faith will result in good works. Faith in the absence of good works is “dead.” “A carnal Christian,” Manton insists, “is the carcass of a true Christian.”18



The Apostles’ concerns, and our concerns, are pastoral: that souls not be put at risk by mistaking true faith for its counterfeit. James urges us to be “doers of the word and not hearers only,” adding this warning, “deceiving yourselves” (Jas 1:22). This is the pastoral issue. Concern is for those with unwarranted assurance or what Manton calls “careless security.” He warns: “To a loose, carnal spirit, an absolute promise is as poison.”19 Self-deception is a problem among professing Christians which must be guarded against. A true believer is “a doer who acts” (Jas 1:25). He honors what James calls the “perfect law, the law of liberty” and “the royal law” (Jas 1:25; 2:12; 2:8). He isn’t picking and choosing among commandments because he knows that


whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. (Jas 2:10, NASB)


Rather, he is “a doer of the law” (Jas 4:11). “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it,” Jesus insists (Lk 11:28). Doing is contrasted with mere hearing, genuine faith with mere assent, and both aim to awaken the self-deceived, one Manton calls “the secure carnalist.”20


Remember, the Apostle Paul primarily was dealing with Judaizing Christians and self-righteous professing believers, “whereas,” says Poole, “James (was) having to do with carnal professors, and such as abused the doctrine of grace to encourage themselves in sin.”21 “Paul pleadeth for saving faith, “says Manton; “James pleadeth against naked assent.”22 Consequently, their respective emphases are different. Yet even Paul can warn those who would “use (their) freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal 5:13). After listing a number of the “works of the flesh” such as sexual immorality, idolatry and drunkenness, he warns, Just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:21b). Similarly, Jude warns of “ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ. He classifies them as “designated for condemnation (Jude 4). The Apostle Peter likewise urges us to “live as people who are free,” yet “not using (our) freedom as a cover-up for evil” (1 Pet 2:16). There have always been those who would turn grace into cheap grace, and consider the gospel a license to sin with impunity (see Rom 3:8; 6:1, 2). 


Can one receive a divided Christ, one who is Savior and not Lord? Of course not. Can one receive salvation from Him and still stubbornly cling to one’s idols and lusts, refusing to relinquish them? Of course not. Can one be a true Christian and yet remain worldly, carnal, defiant, living a life characterized by disobedience and rebellion? Certainly not. That kind of faith is not living but dead. That kind of knowledge is a lie (1 Jn 2:4). The gospel is not just words believed, bur power received (Rom 1:16). “The kingdom of God does not consist in talk, but in power, says the Apostle Paul (1 Cor 4:20): transforming power, Holy Spirit power, new creation power, newness of life power. 


James and the Apostle John help us to clarify what the Apostle Paul himself teaches. True faith results in surrender to the Lordship of Christ. True faith lays hold of Christ at the same time as it turns in repentance away from sin. True faith makes permanent carnality impossible. True faith results in obedience to commands. True faith bears the fruit of good works. Believers may be found all along the spectrum from carnal to holy. However, no believers may rest passively and contentedly in carnality, and all true believers strive to grow in that holiness without which no one will see God (Heb 12:14). If this is not my faith, it is best that I know it now while there is time to get right with God.


Bottom line: we are not saved by works but for them; we are not saved by obedience, but if we love Christ we will keep His commandments (Jn 15:10). We are not saved by law, but we are meant to fulfill its just requirements (Rom 8:4). Faith, if genuine, works. Insisting that works follow faith guards the church from false claims of faith and guards the saints from the self-deception about which Jesus and the apostles were so concerned (Mt 7:21ff; 13:1-23; Gal 5:13ff; 1 Jn (all); etc).



*          *          *          *          *


Works are not a ground of confidence, but an evidence; not the foundations of faith, but the encouragements of assurance. Comfort may be increased by the sight of good works, but it is not built upon them; they are seeds of hope, not props of confidence; sweet evidences of election, not causes; happy presages and beginnings of glory; in short, they can manifest an interest, but not merit it. We have ‘peace with God’ by the righteousness of Christ, and ‘peace of conscience,’ by the fruits of righteousness in ourselves.23



 What we called the “bird book,” the booklet on the Holy Spirit, featured two diagrams of the human heart in which there was a throne, Christ on the throne of the Spirit-filled believer, self on the throne of the carnal Christian.


 John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988). Both J. I. Packer and James Montgomery Boice provided forewords.


 Ibid., xi.


 Thomas Manton, A Commentary on James, A Geneva Series Commentary (1693; Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1988), comments on James 2:18, 232.


 Ibid., 232.


 Ibid., 235, 237.


 Gurnall, Christian in Complete Armour, I:59.


 Ibid., 243.


 See Motyer, The Message of James: The Tests of Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 112.


 Poole, Commentary, III:887.


 Using similar language, John Owen (1616-1683) asserts “the necessity of good works, notwithstanding that we are not saved by them” (“Of Communion with God,” Works, III:182). Indeed, the “whole work (of the Holy Spirit) upon us, in us, for us, consists in preparing of us for obedience; enabling of us thereunto, and bringing forth the fruits of it in us” (183). While these fruits are only possible in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, he speaks not merely of the necessity, but “the indispensable necessity of our obedience, good works, and personal righteousness,” not as “the cause, matter, nor condition of our justification,” yet as “the way appointed of God for us to work for the obtaining of salvation” (186-7, my emphasis). Again, “We are neither justified nor saved without (good works), though we are not justified by them, nor saved for them” (“A Vindication of ‘On Communion with God,’” Works, II:321).


 Manton, James, 240.


 So Manton: “The justification he speaketh of is not so much of the person as of the faith” (James, 232).


 Poole, Commentary, III:887 (my emphasis).


 Manton, James, 253, 254.






 Ibid., 270.


 Ibid., 250.


 Ibid., 253.


 Poole, III:888; “Justification in Paul is opposite to the condemnation of a hypocrite in particular” (Manton, James, 246).


 Manton, James, 264.


 Manton, James, comments on James 2:18, 239.