Pristine Grace

Exposition of James 2:14-26
by James Johnson
Exposition of James 2:14-26

     In James 2:14-26 the author talks about faith and works. There are several possible interpretations that should be considered.

  1. James is talking about demonstrating faith by works before God. (The Catholic interpretation, here is an example http://www.catholicintl.com/epologet...er-answers.htm )
     
  2. James is talking about demonstrating faith by works before Man. (The Protestant interpretation, here’s an example http://www.opc.org/new_horizons/NH05/02a.html )
     
  3. James is talking about demonstrating faith by works before both man and God. (I haven’t met any that hold to this yet)

     Catholic apologists’ exegesis of James 2 is why they hold to faith plus works for justification before God. However, I completely disagree with Catholicism and many of their doctrines; they are clearly against the Gospel of grace.

     Protestants in order to hold on to the pure Gospel have to hold that James is talking about faith before men. The text just doesn’t support this view. So the only option for those of us who love the Gospel of grace is to perform and utilize poor interpretation methods or reject James as scripture. I’d rather stay consistence in my interpretation and reject James than have to make Paul and James seem to agree.

     Verse 14 This passage starts off in verse 14 by using the phrase “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says...” making it a hypothetical condition and setting up an assumption that what follows is a real situation that could happen to his readers. James wants to point to a situation that his readers will relate to and possibly experience. The verse concludes by saying, “…he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” First of all who says that? Do the elect of God go around saying they have faith and not works? No of course not the elect have been predestined to walk in good works as a result of their salvation. (Eph 2:10, Php 2:13, Gal 5:22,23). This does not make sense to the true elect of God because it is not something that is even possible for the elect to do because the Holy Spirit causes them to do good works (Php 2:13). James is either setting up a straw man to be torn down or doesn’t really understand how the Holy Spirit works to create works in the Elect. When James says “can that faith save him?” there can only be one answer, no, because all Elect will do good works. However, James is making a wrong assumption about the place of works in the Elect’s life. Works have no place in salvation so mentioning faith without works is placing a wrong emphasis on works. It is important to note here that by using the word “save” in this verse drives the meaning of all the preceded verses. James cannot be talking about justification before men because salvation is not of men but of God. James is clearly setting up a statement on how we are justified by God through faith plus works. 

     Verse 15-16Here James gives an example on someone who does not have food or clothes and someone telling them “to be warm and filled”. James then asks the question “what good is that?” Of course the answer is “no good at all”. What is James’ point in this question? What Elect person would go to someone starving and naked and NOT offer them food and clothes. While not out of the realm of possibility most true elect would help the person. The Elect believer would first feed and cloth the person and then share the Gospel of Grace with them. James appears to be setting up another straw man so he can tear it down. Even most reprobate wouldn’t act like the person James is describing. The Holy Spirit would work in the elect believer to help the hungry and naked person and share the Gospel with them. James’ Straw man is used to get the reader to start agreeing with him, so when you get to the next verse you go on agreeing.


     Verse 17 This verse introduces the key point that James is trying to communicate to his readers. Namely that faith needs works or it is a dead faith. James at this point has gotten the reader to agree with him previously so when they get to this verse the natural tendency is to continue to agree. The whole concept of a dead faith is quite confusing to the Elect believer since faith is a gift of God (Eph 2:8). How can a gift of God be dead? This leads many expositors to say that James can not be talking about faith before God but demonstrating faith before man. However given verse 14 and the following passages this view is hard to hold on to.

     Verse 18 In this verse James again describes a hypothetical situation of someone making a statement saying “you have faith and I have works”. First off James is clearly trying to show a division of faith and works. In doing so he is setting up another straw man. When James says, “Show me your faith apart from your works” he is making a straw man because true believers never claim they don’t have good works. It is clear that the Holy Spirit will create good works within the believer and that they WILL walk it them (Phil 2:13, Gal 5:22-26). The elect have their works foreordained by God (Eph 2:10). The elect are encouraged many times to do good works (Heb 10:24, 1 Tim 6:18, Tit 2:7, Tit 2:14, Tit 3:8, Tit 3:14). All these good works are shown to be a result of the salvation that God has given to the elect. Never are good works referring to justification except in the book of James (Rom 3:28, Rom 14:23, Gal 2:16). James sets up his straw man and then opposes it by saying “I will show you my faith by my works” thus making works a necessary part of Justification before God. James is using very good literary skills to make his readers agree with him. The typical reformed response to this verse is to claim that James is referring to someone just claiming to have faith in God but really doesn’t. The person only has an outward profession of faith. This interpretation could work only if James is talking about Justification of faith by works before men, which is disproved by the surrounding context.

     Verse 19 This verse only makes sense if James here is talking about Justification before God. The point of the verse is to show that even demons believe in God and make a profession to the fact He is one but obviously they are still damned to eternal destruction. James wants to demonstrate that reprobate demons can claim faith in God but don’t do good works so they can not be saved. This verse is directly opposed to the view that this passage is talking about justification before men.

     Verse 20 This verse is setting up the next verses by asking if the reader wants to be show how useless faith without works is. James has successfully set up several straw men in the previous verses and is now going to make his main argument of justification before God by faith plus works.

     Verse 21-23 These verses are clearly teaching justification by works before God. When Abraham offered up Isaac on the alter it was just him and God alone, so this can not be claiming justification of his faith before men. James is using this example to make the point that Abraham was justified before God by this act. James’ point is to show that faith alone is not enough for God but that one must do works in order to be justified by God. This is in direct contradiction to what the Apostle Paul wrote about on this subject (Rom 4:1-3). Many expositors have claimed that James is speaking about Justification before men only. John Gill is a good representation of the common protestant view of this verse:

     “Paul and James, are not speaking of the same thing: Paul speaks of justification before God, James of justification before men; Paul speaks of the justification of the person, James of the justification of a man's cause, as the truth of his faith, or the uprightness of his conduct; Paul speaks of works, as the causes of justification, James of them as the effects and evidences of faith; Paul had to do with the self-righteous, who trusted in their own works for justification, James with Gnostics, who slighted and neglected the performance of them.”

     It definitely takes much explanation to make the two authors seem to agree. What the common interpretation does not allow for is that James is clearly not referring justification of faith before men. Several points can be made about this.

  1. There is no need for the elect of God to seek justification of their faith before men. This only leads to boasting and a man centered view of how the Holy Spirit performs good works through the elect of God (Rom 3:27, Rom 4:2).
     
  2. James is using the same example that Paul uses to demonstrate a totally different point. “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” This is a direct quote from Genesis 15:6 which is stated right after God says this to Abraham, "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be." All Abraham did was believe what God had said. The work that James is pointing to does not happen until Genesis 22 which is many years after Abraham had already been justified by God through his belief. A key point here is the beginning of verse 23 which says, “and the Scripture was fulfilled”. James here is saying that the passage in Genesis 15:6 wasn’t fulfilled until this Genesis 22 where Abraham offers up Isaac. James’ view is that this work of offering up Isaac was really when Abraham was justified before God.
     
  3. If James is talking about justification before men, saying that faith is completed by works doesn’t fit this view. It would be better to say faith is demonstrated or shown by works if James is talking about justification before men. The whole concept of faith being completed by works does not work with a faith that is being justified before men (Rom 4:5). However, this view does fit if James is talking about justification before God.
     
  4. Works are never a good measure of ones faith. Non Elect can and will do good works just the same as the elect of God will do. The elect of God are known by their profession of faith in the true gospel. (1 Cor 2:2. Rom 1:17, Rom 3:28, 2 Cor 5:7, Gal 2:16)

     Verse 24 This verse is a summary of the preceding verses and serves to sum up the whole argument above. This directly contradicts justification by faith alone. (Rom 3:28, Rom 4:5)

     Verse 25 Here James points to Rahab’s works as a means of her justification. He completely ignores her confession of faith in Joshua 2:11 when she says, “for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.” This was not something that she learned from the spies but was something that only God could have taught her. She was given faith by God (Hebrews 11:31). The Holy Spirit worked in Rahab to produce the good work of hiding the spies.

     Verse 26 James here compares the body without the spirit to faith without works and sets up a false comparison to make his intended point that both are dead. The reader would of course agree with the first statement and then be led to agree with the second. James is clearly a gifted writer in that he understands the varied uses of rhetoric in order to get his reader to agree with his points. James concludes this treatment of faith and works with this verse which sums up his entire argument.

     To conclude the main interpretive problem hinges on whether or not James is talking about Justification before God or Men. From looking at the verses above in context there is a strong case to say James is talking about justification before God. Holding to the view that James is talking about Justification before men is problematic because good works are NEVER a good indication of whether or not someone truly believes and holds to the true gospel of grace. Many unbelievers, false religions, and cults perform good works all the time and it is clear they are not currently saved.