Faith & Works in James











Mag. Claudia R. Wintoch











Hebrews & General Epistles

Mike Rogers







World Revival School of Ministry

Fall Trimester 2002





1. Introduction


2. Definition


3. Effective & Ineffective Faith

            3.1. Example


4. Dead Works


5. Examples of Faith

5.1. Abraham

5.2. Rahab


6. Conclusion


7. Bibliography


1. Introduction


The debate about the role of faith and works in salvation is one that has been going on for hundreds of years. While one camp goes to an extreme, claiming that works only can save, quoting James, another camp goes to the opposite extreme, claiming that only faith saves, relying heavenly on Paul’s teachings[1]. That way, the apostle Paul and James have been made opponents with opposite views that cannot be reconciled, which has played into the hands of liberal scholars who question the authority of the Bible as God's word. However, Moo (2000:121) puts it best, “James and Paul, when properly interpreted in their own contexts, are not opposed to one another on this point. They give the appearance of a conflict because they are writing from very different vantage points in order to combat very different problems.” While Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles, writing into a Gentile context, James is writing into a very Jewish context and must be understood from that perspective. Paul wrote to Gentiles, who considered circumcision, who wanted to become like their Jewish brethren, and explained to them that it is by faith they were saved. James, however, strived to enlighten his Jewish brethren that is it not simply the fact of being of Jewish origin that ensures salvation, but that your life must reflect your faith. Moo (2000:43) elaborates, “Works, claims Paul, have no role in getting us into relationship with God. Works, insists James, do have a role in securing God's vindication in the judgment. Paul strikes at legalism; James at quietism.”

This paper will focus on James’s perspective of the relationship between faith and works, enabling the reader to find a more balanced and biblical understanding from that Jewish perspective.


2. Definition


What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?

(James 2:14a)

The word faith occurs 11 times in James 2:14-26, the word works[2] 5 times. The Greek word translated faith here is πίστις[3] (pistis), which means “conviction of the truth of anything, fidelity, faithfulness”[4]. Stern (1992:734) notes that it is “usually rendered ‘trust’ in the Jewish New Testament” but that “the word ‘faith’ is used here because Ya’akov is really speaking about not all of trust, but just a part of it, the confessional, intellectual part.” The KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon’s definition for faith is therefore most accurate: “A conviction or belief respecting man’s relationship to God and divine things, generally with the included idea of trust and holy fervour born of faith and joined with it”[5]. While James wrote his epistle most likely in Greek, we must also look at the Hebrew thought that was behind the Greek term used. The Hebrew word for faith (the verb to believe) is !ma[6] (’aman), which occurs 102 times in the OT and is translated believe 44 times and faithful 20 times by the KJV. We can therefore see that the Hebrew mindset very much equates faithfulness with faith[7].

The Greek word translated works is έργον[8] (ergon), used in its plural form. The meaning it carries in this context is “an act, deed, thing done: the idea of working is emphasised in opp[osition] to that which is less than work” [9]. Moo (2000:123) notes that “the plural form we find here occurs often in the NT to denote behavior with ethical and religious consequences. The ‘works’ can be evil, leading to condemnation, or good, leading to commendation from God.” The Hebrew word James would have had in mind is ll[m[10] (ma’alal), which is translated 35 times as doings in the KJV, but does not shed any more light on the Hebrew idea of works[11]. We do know that Jews did works “in obedience to torah as the necessary response to God's election of the people of Israel” (ibidem).


3. Effective & Ineffective Faith


The word “faith” can be understood in many different ways, by different people and different cultures. As mentioned above, for the Jews faith was deeply rooted in their origin, their election by God as His chosen people. Faith in Yahweh was instilled into them from the day they were born, and their future secure by their Jewish descent. Works were not necessary, yet “Jews obeyed the law as a grateful response to God’s electing grace. They did not think that they needed to do the law to get saved – because they already were saved through the covenant. They did not do the law, then, to “get in” but to “stay in” (Moo 2000:39).

James lived in a Greek-dominated world, possibly writing his letter in Greek as it has been preserved. The Greek mindset had quite a different understanding of faith. Faith to them meant a mental consent to facts, “limited to one’s intellect, or merely agreeing in one’s mind that something is true” (Walters 1997:96). Today, we in the Western world have continued the Greek legacy and adopted their way of thinking. But is that the way James understood faith? Is that the Jewish understanding of faith? Should that be the Christian understanding of faith?

James gives us an answer that should pierce our hearts and consciences and instill the fear of the Lord: You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder (James 2:19b). James is referring to the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) which proclaims the one and only God of Israel. Every Israelite proclaims the Shema daily – but that alone is not sufficient, since even the devil and his demons know God and know the truth. As David Ryser[12] once said, “If the devil believes all the right things, why then is he not a Christian?” And what distinguishes Christians from the devil? Are we not self-centered, self-absorbed, proud and striving for power?

The difference should be that we submit to God, and our genuine faith in Him should make a big difference in our lives, as we live to please and serve Him. Faith alone – and the demons’ faith is probably more orthodox than ours – is not sufficient. James challenges his readers, Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do (James 2:19a). He is obviously implying that faith without deeds is impossible, which he strongly expresses in these verses: In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:17). As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead (James 2:26). The Greek word used for dead here is νεκρός[13] (nekros) which literally means “lifeless, deceased, … destitute of life, … inanimate” but metaphorically also means “destitute of a life that recognises and is devoted to God, because given up to trespasses and sins.”[14] That definition well describes deedless faith which is really sin; a life “destitute of force or power, inactive, inoperative.”[15]


3.1. Example

James does not only make a strong point, but he also gives us a practical example of contemporary deedless faith: Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:15-16). James is obviously asking a rhetorical question that must be answered with “nothing”. It is possible that James is referring to a specific incidence that has come to his attention, yet “the Greek construction James uses to describe the incident (ean with the subjunctive mood) suggests (though it does not require) that James is giving a hypothetical example. And the hypothetical nature of the situation is underscored by the indefiniteness of brother or sister” (Moo 2000:124). Hypothetical or not, James is shocking his readers with his example. The phrase, Go, I wish you well, is a part of the traditional good-bye greeting. It was unthinkable for a Jew to send away a needy brother[16] without meeting his need. He does not talk about Gentiles or strangers, but those who are a part of the Jewish community. Community was vital for the Jews. Jesus’ parable about getting bread at midnight gives us insight into the graveness of such an act. In Luke 11, the man’s friend would only get up to give him bread for visitor for one reason: to prevent shame for the whole community.

God loves the poor, and has commanded His people to help them, and to love them as themselves. Not helping a hungry and unclothed brother was in direct violation of that command. Never do we see Jesus have compassion on the needy and then comfort them with words only. Jesus always acted. When the 5000 were hungry, He gave them to eat. How much more should we! Yet, we have become so self-centered that we don’t even see the needs people have any more. Have we ever spoken words like these without meeting somebody’s need when it was within our ability? James writes in the first chapter: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (verse 27). What is the implication? Not caring for those who lack (whatever it may be) is impure and faulty before God. “Ultimately one’s future depends upon the way one responds to the needs of those one encounters daily. One cannot pretend to be unaware of their urgent cries for help and pass them by. Faith calls forth a response.” (Hartin 1999:157).

4. Dead Works


“Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone!” (Sweeting 1960:64). We have already seen that faith must be seen in actions (or works). Sweeting notes, “James uses the word works to mean fruit. The fruit of salvation is obedience. […] Works or fruits are the outward example, the proof of a true inward experience” (ibidem). The writer of Hebrews makes it clear that this is really the very basics of faith in Messiah; something which should not even be necessary to discuss any more: Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God (Hebrews 6:1). “Acts that lead to death” have “been understood to mean legalistic adherence to Jewish ways (works that could never bring life) or genuinely evil actions (actions that belong to death and not life). The latter seems preferable” (Morris & Burdick 1996:53), because less prejudiced. The author of Hebrews mentions “acts that lead to death” again in the ninth chapter: How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:14). Jesus has provided everything necessary for us to do acts that bring life – not evil acts or no acts at all. Our God is a God that acts, who even sent His only Son, and we are made in His likeness, to do the works prepared for us (see Ephesians 2:10). How tragic it will be on the last day for those whose faith was not expressed in actions:


By their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' (Matthew 7:20-23) [emphasis mine].


 Bryson (1985:63) brings it to the point, “Nothing negates a Christian’s profession of faith more than the conspicuous and consistent absence of works.”  Being a believer and not having works contradict each other.


5. Examples of Faith


James gives his Jewish readers two examples from their sacred writings for saving faith that expresses itself by works. The remarkable thing is that neither one is Jewish, and both of them are also mentioned in the letter to the Hebrews[17]. Abraham – a pagan – was called by God, and would become the forefather of the Jews. Rahab – a pagan – became a part of the Jewish nation and ultimately an ancestor of the Messiah. Yet, they set a great example by their extraordinary faith, being sure of what they hoped for and certain of what they did not see (see Hebrews 11:1).


5.1. Abraham

Abraham lends itself as an example, for he was known and revered for his faith. While the writer of Hebrews credits Abraham with faith in leaving his country and believing for a son[18], James talks about the offering of Isaac: Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? (James 2:21) [emphasis mine]. Abraham had believed God when He promised him a son, and “God pronounced Abraham righteous and recorded his righteousness. Over twenty-five years later, Abraham’s works justified on earth what had been announced in heaven” (Gregory 1986:59). However, Abraham’s faith in God's ability to give him a son would have meant absolutely nothing had he simply waited for the promise. He had to act on it, in his marital union with Sarah, which in itself was a miracle considering their age. Once the promise was fulfilled, God tested His faith again by asking him to offer his son to Him, as the writer of Hebrew makes plain: By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death (Hebrews 11:17-19). Abraham showed extraordinary faith when he lifted his knife to slay his son, believing that God would raise him to stay true to His word. James reminds his readers of this incident “because it represents the absolute depths of Abraham’s faith. Abraham was not prepared to rest on mere intellectual assent. His faith was vital and affected every aspect of his being, including that which represented the heart and soul of God's covenant with him – Isaac” (Walters 1997:101). James challenges his readers to have that kind of faith that expresses itself in radical actions with no backdoor to slip through “just in case”. In verse 22 of the second chapter, he says, You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. The words working together are a translation of the Greek word συνεργέω[19] (sunergeo), which means to “partner in labor, to put forth power together with and thereby to assist”[20], “producing through a partnership something that could never have been produced separately” (Walters 1997:101), and which is the root for the English word synergy. What was the result of that synergy? Abraham’s faith was perfected, and he was called God's friend (see James 2:23). Jesus Himself told His disciples that they would be His friends if you do what I command (John 15:14) [emphasis mine]. Hartin (1999:87) sums is up eloquently:

“As a friend of God, Abraham sees the world through the eyes of God. He sees the world in the way in which God sees it. God is the giver of all good gifts, of every perfect gift (1:5, 17). Isaac was God's gift to Abraham and in offering Isaac on the altar Abraham was in effect returning God's gift. In this way, his faith was being perfected: he was brought into the right relationship with God.”


Throughout the centuries Abraham has become known as a “friend of God” – not only by Jews, but also by Christians and Muslims (see Hodges 1994:70).


5.2. Rahab

After having brought the example of one of the greatest heroes of Israel, James gives the example of a Gentile woman who was a prostitute: Rahab. It is remarkable that he starts of by saying in the same way, while the contrast could not be greater. Moo (2000:143) suggests that James “implies that anyone is capable of acting on his or her faith – whether a patriarch or a prostitute.” Stern (1992:736) points out that tradition says that “she had been a prostitute for forty years from age 10, but then she joined herself to the Jewish people and became a proselyte.” Like Abraham Rahab also showed extraordinary faith that did not remain actionless: By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient (Hebrews 11:31). Interestingly, James does not mention Rahab’s faith at all, simply stating: 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? (James 2:25). Gregory (1986:60) states: “Her faith acted immediately, and with some degree of risk for her.” She was willing to risk her own life because of her faith in the God of Israel. And not only was her life spared, but she became part of the lineage of the Messiah, as seen in Matthew 1:5.


6. Conclusion


As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead (James 2:26).

A body without spirit is not good for anything; it is a lifeless corpse. “Whenever a Christian ceases to act on his faith, that faith atrophies and becomes little more than a creedal corpse” (Hodges 1994:72). We have seen that “James isn’t speaking of meriting or earning salvation by what we do. His interest is that we actually live out our salvation!” (Walters 1997:110). James is not in opposition to Paul, as so many have claimed over the past 2000 years. Moo (2000:120) states, “James, in a sense, proposes for us in these verses a ‘test’ by which we determine the genuineness of faith: deeds of obedience to the will of God.”

The great reformer Martin Luther is one of the most prominent theologians that struggled with the book of James, to the point that he wanted to remove that “right strawy epistle” (Walters 1997:109) from the New Testament canon. As part of the Catholic church he followed the common understanding of works to earn salvation until one day, “‘When,’ said Luther, ‘by the Spirit of God I understood these words, ‘The just shall live by faith,’ I felt born again like a new man; I entered through the open doors into the very paradise of God!’” (Sweeting 1960:63).

It is even more remarkable, therefore, to find these words from Martin Luther’s pen in his preface to the book of Romans, which shall be our closing words:

“O it is a living, busy active mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works” (Moo 2000:144).




7. Bibliography


Bryson, Harold T., How Faith Works, Broadman Press: Nashville, TN 1985


Burchard, Christoph, Der Jakobusbrief, Mohr Siebeck: Tübingen 2000


Cohen, Abraham, Everyman’s Talmud, Schocken Books: New York 1995


Draper, James T., Faith That Works, Living Studies, Tyndale House Publishers: Wheaton, IL 1983


Gench, Frances Taylor, Hebrews and James, Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY 1996


Gregory, Joel C., James: Faith Works!, Convention Press: Nashville, TN 1986


Harper, A. F., James. Does God Want Faith or Obedience?, Beacon Hill Press: Kansas City, MO 1980


Hartin, Patrick J., A Spirituality of Perfection, The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN 1999


Hodges, Zane C., The Epistle of James, Grace Evangelical Society: Irving, TX 1994


Jackson-McCabe, Matt A., Logos and Law in the Letter of James, Brill: Leiden 2001


Kent, Homer A., Faith That Works, Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI 1986


Moo, Douglas J., The Letter of James, William B. Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, MI 2000


Morris, Leon, and Donald W. Burdick, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Hebrews and James, Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, MI 1996


Motyer, J. A., The Message of James, Inter-Varsity Press: Downers Grove, IL 1985


Popkes, Wiard, Der Brief des Jakobus, Evangelische Verlagsanstalt: Leipzig 2001


Stern, David H., Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish New Testatement Publications: Clarksville, ML 1992


Sweeting, George, Faith That Works, Moody Press: Chicago, IL 1983


Tamez, Elsa, The Scandalous Message of James, Crossroad: New York 1990


Walters, J. Michael, James. A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, Wesleyan Publishing House: Indianapolis, IN 1997


[1] One famous theologian who wanted to remove the book of James from the Bible altogether was Martin Luther,  who went to the other extreme from the Catholic church, who taught faith by works, to be distinct from them.

[2] Or deeds in the NIV Bible, actions in the Jewish Bible.

[3] Strong’s number 4102.

[4] The KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon,


[6] Strong’s number 530.

[7] Even in the English language both words have the same root.

[8] Strong’s number 2041.

[9] The KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon,

[10] Strong’s number 4611.

[11] There is also another word for works (doings) which is hlyl[ (’aliylah) (Strong’s number 5949).

[12] In one of the classes he taught at World Revival School of Ministry in Kansas City in the Fall of 2001.

[13] Strong’s number 3498.

[14] The KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon,

[15] ibidem

[16] It is noteworthy that James even adds or sister, which is rather unusual.

[17] Abraham: Hebrews 11:8-12; Rahab: Hebrews 11:31.

[18] By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place… obeyed and went… By faith he made his home in the promised land… By faith Abraham… was enabled to become a father… (Hebrews 11:8, 9, 11).

[19] Strong’s number 4903.

[20] The KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon,