The cults love this passage, while most Bible-believing Christians tend to avoid it. Isn’t salvation attained through faith and grace alone like Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 5 says? Isn’t the whole point of Christianity God doing the work for us? Then why does James state faith without works is dead? Is James contradicting Jesus, Paul, and the other writers of the Bible?
Actually, when exegeted (interpreted) correctly, there is no contradiction between James and the rest of the Bible. The verses which Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and many other cults bring up in an attempt to support their works-righteous systems are James 2:14-26 which reads (NIV)
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 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. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.25 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? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
As with any passage, context is everything. Cultists immediately want to jump to verses 17 and 24. But we must back up a step and see who these verses are talking about. The beginning of the passage in verse 14 says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?”
Notice the key word here is claim. James is talking about those who say they have faith but do not show it with their actions. He is not talking about how to receive salvation, but rather those who say they have received it but their life does not bear any fruit.
Another verse in this section which is often disputed is verse 17. Once again, context is key. Verses 17- 18 reads, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”
James is once again talking about those who claim to have faith but do not show it by their actions. In none of the verses we have reviewed so far is James explaining how to receive salvation. He is simply showing that if one actually has faith and is a Christian, they will do good works because they have been born again.
Lastly, verses 20-26 sum up what James had expounded upon earlier. He explains how Abraham’s faith was demonstrated by offering Isaac on the altar. Here, James is referring to an actual believer, one who has saving faith and shows it via their actions. This is why verse 24 says, “…a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” Once someone has received the free gift of salvation by faith through grace, their works will demonstrate how their faith is genuine, just like Abraham and Rahab.
In conclusion, when a Christian performs deeds, they show evidence that they have been saved by faith. Thus, James ends the passage by stating, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” Works is the evidence of our faith, not the means of salvation. Obviously no work could ever grant us salvation, especially since we have all fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) and are under a curse if we do not follow the law perfectly (Gal. 3:10). Praise be to God for redeeming us from this curse by keeping the law perfectly for us (Gal. 3:13-14, 2 Cor. 5:21).