Salvation in James: Gift and Responsibility

Part 3 of 3


In this series of posts, we attempt to offer a rich and appreciative reading of James chapter 1 and 2 with an eye to James’ theology of human redemption—a Jacobian soteriology. In the previous post, we considered James 1:18 and 21 and concluded that this “word of truth” and “implanted word” thus is a new character, a new heart’s disposition created in us. It must be received (1:21) and, as the “law of freedom” it must be obeyed (1:22-25). Mercy must, it appears, be enacted in order to be efficacious. And thus the answer to the third question regarding this proverbial statement appears to be “yes,” mercy is a “work” required for salvation. But that is a misleading way to understand James. It is better perhaps to call the mercy that triumphs an appropriation of the divine concern (2:5, 8), proof of the reality of the “birth” (1:18) and the “implanted word” (1:21), and an accurate understanding of “faith” (2:14). This question of what constitutes “good works” will be explored now in this final post.


Salvation as Faith with Works: James 2:14-26

As already noted above, this is the one section of James that those who begin with a Pauline perspective actually read. And it is here we find the verse that people usually start with, James 2:24: “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Setting up this section of James with such a truncated context often leads to a reading that understands faith is set over against works—as if faith and works are an “either or” choice for the audience.

However, even on a cursory reading, this is not the primary contrast running through this section. The primary issue is the distinction between a “work-less” faith on one hand and a “working” faith on the other.  This seems quite clear when James asks in verse 14: “that faith is not able to save, is it?” This rhetorical question sets up the passage, clarifying James’ position that a faith lacking “works” is insufficient for salvation.

James immediately provides examples to support his claim against a “work-less” faith. While common examples, James highlights two of the tasks that Jesus depicted in Matthew 25: feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. James gives what seems an almost ludicrous scenario—a Christian confronted with the desperate physical needs of a brother and sister responds with a mocking blessing: “be warmed and be filled” (or “warm yourself and fill yourself”). What is particularly culpable is that this attitude fails to take into account that it is through his people that God supplies for the needy (e.g., Lev 19:10; Deut 15:7, 11). What is needed is clothing and food, but what is given are mere words—a perverse “blessing.” The example makes it clear: this is a “faith” that expresses the right sentiments but fails to clothe the naked and so is of no use—and James says as much in v. 16.

While he is willing to concede that this workless belief could be called “faith”, he sees absolutely no point to it (he rhetorically asks twice, “what use is it?”; 14, 16). Faith, with nothing to support it, proves useless for helping in the judgment: failure to feed and clothe the needy person is a failure at “mercy” (2:13), and a faith that does not lead to these actions does not “profit” in the judgment. James 2:17 summarizes the argument “faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself.” Work-less “faith” is declared useless for salvation; it is lifeless being by itself.

Just here we might need to make a comment about the works James deems necessary for “faith” to be effective. Taking into account the context of the entire letter, James never once mentions “works of the law.” Even following the “law of freedom” is not what Paul means by “works of the law.” Rather, works for James are acts of charity—as we saw above, acts of “mercy”:

“Works” here are not the Pauline works of the law, such as circumcision, but rather the works of love, such as caring for those who are in need, not showing favoritism, being humble, or being slow to speak. In essence, works are the sum total of a changed life brought about by faithJames emphasizes the absolute necessity of post-conversion works.[1]

After anticipating and responding to potential objections (v. 18) in 2:19, James is clearly unimpressed with mere claims to orthodox belief. After all, the demons “believe” and it does them no good—reinforcing James’ overall argument that faith “alone” is not effective in the judgment.

At this point James transitions his argument yet again, here drawing examples from the Old Testament. Specifically, James pairs Abraham with Rahab as his two examples of those who have a “working” faith. James uses these two particular examples because both characters are “justified by works,” an expression fraught with theological danger for the Protestant interpreter. This passage has the only three uses of δικαιόω (“justify”) in James. Most uncomfortably, James’ statement in 2:24 clearly sets the timeline as deeds first, then justification. But this begs the question, what does James mean by justification?

Δικαιόω appears thirty-nine times in the New Testament, three times in James, but fifteen in Romans and eight in Galatians, showing the strong preference Paul had for the term. The three uses in James pose the difficulty because it seems that James uses the term as either pronouncing justification by or through works or assuming a less common New Testament usage of “demonstrating x right.” Both of these usages are different from Paul’s use of the term, but the previous one is the most troubling.

Two uses of δικαιόω in Matthew 11:19 and 12:37 reveal a mixed use of the verb.  Matthew 11:19 reads: “yet, wisdom is justified by its works.” Here the term “justify” clearly means that wisdom is shown to be right—wisdom is vindicated by the deeds it produces. Matthew 12:37 reads: “for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Here judgment, which is clearly in the future, is dependent upon actions in this life—the use of the tongue is an indication of the direction of future judgment. Moo observes that Matthew follows typical Jewish uses of these terms where “‘righteousness’ is mainly, if not exclusively, the conduct expected of the disciple (Matt. 5:20) and ‘justify’ refers to the verdict pronounced over a person’s life at the last judgment, a verdict based on what a person has done.”[2]

Likewise, Ralph Martin finds no contradiction between James and Paul on this issue, “for in vv. 21-24 Abraham’s works … are the evidence that God declares Abraham as ‘righteous,’ …[or “faithful”]. This suggests that a mainly demonstrative sense lies behind δικαοῖν.”[3]

Removing the Pauline lens from δικαιόω, it seems best to render it here as simply “shown to be righteous,” faithfulness demonstrated. Davids argues for such a separation, concluding, “The point of James’s argument, then, has nothing to do with a forensic declaration of justification; the argument is simply that Abraham did have faith . . . but he also had deeds flowing from that faith.”[4] Thus, one cannot claim faith unless such a claim can be justified by how one lives when tested or when faced with other’s needs.

The example of Abraham demonstrates this faithful response. In his actions Abraham brought to fulfillment what Scripture had already declared of him: he believed God. Πιστυἐω refers to an intellectual belief brought to perfection through the synergy of faith brought to its maturity or perfection by works (1:22). Using the example of Abraham, who did not simply intellectually “believe” God but put his son on the altar. Thus, James concludes in 2:24 that we also can see (ὁρᾶτε) it is by works (ἐξ ἔργων) a person is judged righteous.

To the example of Abraham, James adds one final illustration: that of Rahab in 2:25. He links her to Abraham by the adverb “likewise,” indicating that this model does not necessarily add something new but serves to drive the same point home. In contrast to the demons in 2:19, Rahab proved her faith by her actions of rescuing the spies. James calls her a prostitute, but “even”(καί) she was justified—and quite physically saved—through her faithful actions that demonstrated her belief in YHWH’s sovereignty.

Ultimately, James summarizes his position on faith once again in 2:26, echoing the language of 2:17. Faith without works is just like a body without a spirit—well intentioned but in the end of no use. “Works are not an ‘added extra’”, Davids notes, “any more than breath is an ‘added extra’ to a living body.”[5]

So “faith”—gift—and “works”—responsibility must come as a package deal.



Some very brief conclusions can be drawn from these two theologically-laden chapters. First, the “word/law” together form the long-awaited transformative New Covenant, now internalized in those who humbly receive it, shaping an obedient people, the “doers of the word.” The “word” comes freely as a gift from God, initiating the relationship as his “firstfruits” people. As such, obedience is not a matter of doing the right things alone; rather, it reveals a renovated character shaped to the will of God. The one renovated by the “word/law” written on the heart, keeps the “law of freedom”, shows “mercy” to others by keeping the law of neighbor-love. For such a one, there is no need to fear the judgment, for by nature this one will act out the mercy of God and will, in the end, “boast” over judgment. In James’ theological vocabulary, this reception of the “implanted word,” this renovation of the heart, this merciful living in light of the “law of freedom” are all “works” which demonstrate the fact of God’s salvation.

In contrast, the one who fails to act “mercifully” ought to fear the judgment, for this one’s “works” reveal that he has not received the “implanted word” (1:21) and is not among the new creation people. Though claiming a “faith apart from works” (2:14), this “work-less” faith is of no use—a dead-body masquerading as a living faith! James forcefully warns this “work-less” faith individual that the measure of their mercilessness will be the measure of God’s final judgment and that without mercy.

This human mercy, then, is essential for divine forgiveness. James’ conclusions in 2:12-13 make sense if God’s mercy in the final judgment depends upon human actions of mercy because of the prior statements in 1:18 and 21 regarding God’s initial mercy. Here, more than anywhere, we hear echoes of Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant and his reiteration of Hosea’s affirmation that God “desires mercy more than sacrifice.”

In other words, James is not alone in insisting on “works” as evidence of true faith:

For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then shall render unto every man according to his deeds (Matt 16:27, ASV).

For he [God] will render to every man according to his works (Rom 2:6).

And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne…and the dead were judged out of the things which were written in the books, according to their works (Rev 20:12, ASV).

Behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me; to render to each man according as his work is (Rev 22:12, ASV).

Jesus himself said “And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating…Everyone to whom much is given, of him will much be required…” (Luke 12:47-48).

And, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him” (John 3:36).

James, and the rest of the New Testament teaches that the final judgment will be according to works—works of the “law of freedom.” Even though salvation comes through faith in Christ and is never earned by works, we learn by reading James closely that there is an intimate connection between “faith” and “works”—between human “mercy” now shown to others, and God’s future judgment. Faith, if it is real, must demonstrate itself in “works”, and “works”, in turn, are the evidence of true faith. As John Calvin once put it, “It is…faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.”[6]


[1] Blomberg and Kamell, James, 132.

[2] Moo, James, 134.

[3] Martin, James, 91.

[4] Davids, James, 127.

[5] Davids, James, 121.

[6] Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote, Sixth Session, on Canon 11; in Tracts and Treatises in Defense of the Reformed Faith, trans. H. Beveridge, III, 152.