With the disappointing behavior of supposed Christians showing partiality in mind, James warns the recipients of his letter that those who talk the talk of faith, but do not walk the walk should have no expectation for their salvation.
14 What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?
Verses 14 to 26 are some of the most misquoted and historically most misunderstood verses of the Bible by Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups who try to shoehorn works as a needed requirement for salvation in addition to faith.
Or example, those who teach works-based righteousness posit that there are two kinds of faith: 1. Real faith which includes works. Both faith and works here a mutually exclusive, as God will require one’s works, apart from Christ’s, to be good in order to grant salvation to the believer. 2. There is “that faith,” otherwise known as a nominal faith that does not have any works alongside of it.
Reformed believers take the view that nominal faith really is not faith at all. Catholics, and other works-based righteousness groups, cannot take the Reformed view as such a view allows for salvation by faith alone. Yet, such a view has a basis in history and is invoked by Salvian the Presbyter in his work On the Governance of God:
Good works are witnesses to the Christian faith, because otherwise a Christian cannot prove that he has faith. If he cannot prove it, it must be considered completely nonexistent (p. 30).
Further, Andreas assumes the idea when he exegetes the same passage:
If someone does not show by his deeds that he believes in God, his profession of faith is worthless. For it is not the one who just says that he is the Lord’s who is a believer, but the one who loves the Lord as much that he is prepared to risk even death because of his faith in Him (p. 28).
Yet again, Origen invokes the same idea in his commentary on John in such stiring language he unequivocally says that those with “dead faith” never “truly believed in Christ:”
If someone dies in his sins he has not truly believed in Christ, even if he has made a profession of faith in him, and if faith is mention but it lacks works, such faith is dead (p. 29).
Another commentator, Oecuminius, appears aware of only one kind of faith in his commentary on James:
It is not enough to believe in a purely intellectual sense. There has to be some practical application for this belief. What James is saying here does not contradict the apostle Paul, who understood that both belief and action were a part of what he called “faith” (p. 28).
Ambrose likewise appears to assume that faith, by definition, consists of works:
Faith is profitable, therefore, when her brow is bright with a fair crown of good works. This faith—that I may set the matter forth shortly—is contained in the following principles, which cannot be overthrown. If the Son had His origin in nothing, He is not Son; if He is a creature, He is not the Creator; if He was made, He did not make all things… (Exposition of the Christian Faith, Book II, Intro, Par. 14).
Catholic apologists, like Joe Heschmeyer, claim that “James repeatedly treats the claimed faith (absent works) as being existent, but useless.” We can see that the Catholic position is invested in the dichotomy of there being two faiths, one that saves if it has works and one that does not because it does not have works, because such a dichotomy allows for salvation by faith and works. Yet, as we have seen in the preceding, the historical teaching of the Church is the Reformed position. There is no such dichotomy as the modern Catholics claim. Rather, the faith that saves by necessity includes works, and this faith, which is the only true faith, saves.
Certainly, for rhetorical purposes, James treats “that faith” as if it were to exist. However, we have no reason to disregard the historical consensus that there are not both a purely intellectual faith and another faith that is both intellectual and experiential.
Hence, James is not seriously positing two kinds of faith. Rather, he is arguing that there is only one kind of faith–you either have it or you don’t.
What textual reason do we have for this? In James 2:14 he is asking a rhetorical question after all. Rhetorical questions do not expect a response, rather, they intentionally make a point. James knows that you already understand what the answer is before he asked it. It would be interpretatively negligent to read into the rhetorical question that James is referring to Catholic faith (with works) versus Protestant faith (without works) as he would have been completely unaware of such a paradigm.
James simply wants us to affirm that faith without works cannot save. This is the obvious answer to the rhetorical question.
15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?
James asks another rhetorical question, because again he expects you to know the answer. What use is well wishing without doing something to help the person in need? It is of no use at all, of course, as such behavior could not be constituted as actual well-wishing! Then, by that standard, why would you cling to a supposed faith which does not meet the barest criteria of actually being faith?
Bede understood the rhetorical effect James was going for. He writes:
It is obvious that words alone are not going to help someone who is naked and hungry. Someone whose faith does not go beyond words is useless. Such faith is dead without works (p. 28).
Hillary of Arles in his commentary on James writes on this passage that faith, with its adherence to intellectual truths, results in a more profound love of the brethren:
These [verses 15 and 16] are the words of faith, spoken to those who know that there is only one true God, who is the Father of all His children (p. 28).
As we quoted before, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). It is by our works of love that we know the we have the faith that effected our spiritual resurrection from death to life.
17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
We may all affirm, that no one goes to heaven claiming that he has faith but not producing fruit of the Spirit. Why? Such faith is not faith at all and cannot in any proper sense appropriate the name.
However, as we discussed before, Roman Catholic apologists argue that James is decrying nominal faith versus actual faith, and both may be rightfully considered kinds of faith. On nominal faith Joe Heschmeyer writes, “This same faith is considered ‘useless’ and ‘dead,’ not ‘nonexistant.’ (There’s an important distinction between a dead body and an imaginary body, as any detective will tell you).”
Obviously, not only would Salvian, Origen and Andreas (and Bede, Cyril of Alexandria, and Oecuminius as will cover later) would disagree with such a reading such as Joe’s, but James does as well by mitigating against it in the very next verse:
18 But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
We can see that James scoffs at the idea that you can show him faith without works. Why? Because such faith does not exist! Hence, the importance of works is that they make faith visible.
Heschmeyer concedes, “James refers to proving our faith publicly in James 2:18.”
However, verse 18 is hardly the only verse making this point. Isn’t it exceedingly obvious this is what James is talking about all along? Verse 14 states, “What use to it…if someone says he has faith?” The implication is that saying one has something and actually having it are two different things. This is why, in verse 17, faith without works is dead. It cannot be alive and real, doing everything faith does, if it has no visible reality.
In light of verses 17 and 18, Symeon the New Theologian in his commentary makes the same observation as we do here: “Faith is shown by deeds like the features of the face in a mirror” (p. 30).
19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?
Faith is not merely an intellectual ascent, as the demons intellectually know Christ is the Son of God. Intellectual ascent alone is useless. It is in this sense that James will later speak of “faith alone” in verse 24.
Bede’s comments that “you can believe in Him” but that “means you love Him so much that you want to do what He tells you.” Obviously, true faith is not merely a mere knowledge of a fact in Bede’s eyes. True faith changes one’s desires, from demonic to Godly: “[S]omeone who is not just a nominal Christian but is one in deed…do[es] what He commands. Faith with love is Christian, but faith without love is demonic” (p. 30).
Let us not deceive ourselves that we can share the same belief as a demon and that such belief, in of itself, suffices. Chrysostom warns us, “For although Jesus says, ‘This is eternal life, to know you, the only true God,’ we must not think that merely uttering the words is enough to save us” (p. 29-30).