Another King James Bible Believer


James 2:20 "Faith without works is dead" - What does this mean?



James 2:14 “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? CAN FAITH SAVE HIM?”


James 2:20 “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that FAITH WITHOUT WORKS IS DEAD?”


The Bible cannot contradict itself. If my understanding of a passage of Scripture ends up contradicting other clear passages of the Scriptures, then it is my understanding that is wrong; not the Bible.


The Bible is clear that we are not saved by works, but by faith. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: NOT OF WORKS, lest any man should boast.”  Ephesians 2:8-9


“But to him THAT WORKETH NOT, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” Romans 4:5


There are those that affirm that James Chapter 2 is talking about false professors of the Christian faith who do not show by their works that they have true, “saving” faith, and are thus not among the redeemed and will end up in hell.


But is this really the intent and meaning of all these passages in the book of James?  Is James speaking in absolute terms of “saved” and “condemned” or in relative terms that have to do with our Christian walk, the judgment of others as they look at our lives, and the ultimate rewards we will receive from God?


I believe that to properly understand the verses we are looking at, we need to consider the use of the words “saved” and “dead”. They are not always used in the same way, nor with the same meanings in Scripture.


The verb “to save” is the Greek word sozo.  It is a very common word that actually has several meanings in English. 


It usually means to “save”, but it also is translated as “to be made whole” (Matthew 9:21, 22 - “if I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole”; Mark 10:52 “thy faith hath made thee whole”) and “to be healed” (Mark 5:23 “lay thy hands on her, that she may be healed”), and “to do well” as in John 11:12 “Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well.”


Even when it is translated as “to save”, it does not always refer to ETERNAL salvation, but to a physical deliverance or “salvation” from danger or harm or even from false teaching.  


We see this in such passages as Acts 27:20 “And when neither sun nor starts in may days appeared, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope that WE SHOULD BE SAVED was then taken away.”


And in Acts 27:31 - “Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, Except these abide in the ship, YE CANNOT BE SAVED.”


Then we have the passages in 1 Timothy 2:15 and 4:16 that use the word “saved” in the sense the normal course of life for a married Christian woman,  and of the progressive growth and deliverance from doctrinal error in the Christian life.


“Notwithstanding she SHALL BE SAVED in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.” 1 Timothy 2:15


“Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them; for in doing this thou shalt both SAVE thyself, and them that hear thee.” 1 Timothy 4:16


In the book of James we find the word sozo - “to save” -  used 5 times, and I believe that in most, if not all them, he is using the word “to save” in a relative way to describe Christian growth and maturity. 


He is not speaking about the eternal salvation of the soul.  The word “save” is found in James 1:21; 2:14, 4:12; and in 5:15 and 20.


The same applies to the words “dead” and “death”.  The adjective “dead” is used 4 times - James 2:17, 20, and 26 (twice) and the noun “death” is found once, in James 5:20.


I believe one of the keys to understanding the book of James what he means by  the words “save” and “death” is how they are used in the last two verses of this epistle. 


Look at what he says in 5:19-20. “BRETHREN, IF ANY OF YOU do err from the truth, and one convert him (turn him around); Let him know, that he which converteth (turns around) the sinner from the error of his ways shall SAVE a soul from DEATH, and shall hide a multitude of sins.”


This is A BROTHER IN THE FAITH who errs from the truth and is turned back by another brother to the right way of the Christian life. Though he was a redeemed BROTHER, when he was going in the wrong way, he was walking in what James calls “DEATH”.


This is not the ETERNAL salvation of his soul, but the relative, in time deliverance from the wrong way of living or belief, which here is called “death”.


“DEATH and LIFE are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.”  Proverbs 18:21


Notice how many times in this little epistle James uses the word “brethren”. He is speaking to his fellow Christians in the faith. He is not writing to unbelievers. The word “brethren” is used 19 times in these 5 short chapters.


It is in verses 1:2, 9, 16 - “Do not err, my beloved BRETHREN”, 2:1 “MY BRETHREN, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.”, 2:5.


Notice how the word "DEATH" is used in the context of James 1:14-16. He is speaking to the BRETHREN and he tells them: "But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth DEATH. DO NOT ERR, MY BELOVED BRETHREN."  


Is this "death" in its absolute sense of "eternal death, the second death in the lake of fire"?  No, not at all. It is referring to the results of committing sin in the walk of the BRETHREN who err. If it were impossible that the born again believer could do these things, then there wouldn't be any need for the apostle to tell MY BELOVED BRETHREN not to do these things.


James 2:14-16  “What doth it profit, MY BRETHREN, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a BROTHER or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, AND ONE OF YOU (this is a BROTHER he is talking to) say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding YE (the BRETHREN!) give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?”


James 3:1 “MY BRETHREN, be not many masters, (teachers) knowing that WE shall receive the greater CONDEMNATION.”


He is not talking about eternal condemnation here, but of the condemnation from others who recognize he is teaching wrong things or from God when He gives out rewards for faithful service.



James 3:10 “Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. MY BRETHREN, these things ought not so to be.”  


Once again, these are BRETHREN who are guilty of cursing men who are made after the similitude of God. See the context.


James 3:12 “Can the fig tree, MY BRETHREN, bear olive berries?”


Then he cautions these same BRETHREN in verse 14 “But if YE (the brethren) have bitter envying and strife in YOUR hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth.”


James 4:11 “Speak not evil one of another, BRETHREN. He that speaketh evil of his BROTHER, and judgeth his BROTHER, speaketh evil of the law”


James 5:7 and 9 “Grudge not one against another, BRETHREN, lest YE be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door.” 


Again, this is NOT eternal condemnation that is in view here, but one of reward or loss.


James 5:10 and 12 - “But above all things, MY BRETHREN, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth; but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest YE fall into condemnation.”


Same thing here. This is not speaking of eternal condemnation.


When we look at how James uses the word “TO SAVE”, I think we can see that he is using it in a relative way that refers to Christian growth, rather than in the absolute sense of ETERNAL salvation.


James 1:18 tells us of their new birth in Christ that made them Christians to begin with. “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth.”  Thus, he is clearly speaking to those who have already been born again and are his BRETHREN in the faith.


He then exhorts them, as his born again brethren, to be swift to hear and slow to speak, and to lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and to “receive with meekness the engrafted word, WHICH IS ABLE TO SAVE YOUR SOULS.”


They had already been born again and were secure in Christ. But he goes on to speak of receiving the word that had already been engrafted into them, and was able to save their souls.


They already WERE SAVED ETERNALLY in Christ, but the words of God continue to deliver us from error and make us whole and to heal us as we grow in grace and knowledge.


Throughout this epistle he cautions the BRETHREN against evil speaking, having respect of persons, asking in faith and not wavering, being doers of the word and not hearers only, and of helping out the brethren who are in need. 


But in every case he makes it clear that THE BRETHREN can be guilty of NOT doing what is right.  That is why he tells THE BRETHREN what they should do instead of the wrong things.


When we get to Chapter 2, he is still speaking to THE BRETHREN and he says “IF ONE OF YOU merely says “be warmed and filled” but you don’t give to them, then this “faith, if it have not works, is dead, being alone” James 2:17.


If the people James is speaking to were his BRETHREN (and they were) and they had FAITH (which they did) then they were among God’s redeemed and born again people.  But their faith without works was a dead faith. 


Does this mean that it was non-existent? No, of course not. But their faith was not producing anything of value for others who were in need. 


Just as we read in Romans 4:19 about Abraham (the father of us all) and of Sarah - “And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body NOW DEAD, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet THE DEADNESS of Sarah’s womb”.


“Dead” doesn’t mean Abraham and Sarah were actually DEAD, but there was no fruit, no offspring. But they both were very much alive.


James goes on to tell us in 2:26 “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”  The fact that there was a body, means that there once was life. But the spirit enables this body to move and express itself. You cannot SEE my faith, but you can see the things I do that express this faith.


The two examples James lists in this very context are Abraham being justified by works when he offers his son Isaac on the altar, and the harlot Rahab justified by works when she betrays her own country and sides with the invading Israelites.


Are “killing your own child” and “treason” works that justify (show to be righteous) and prove the reality of the faith that they had?  Yes, that is what God’s word declares.


Both Abraham and Rahab believed God and it was counted to them as righteousness. But later on they showed to others that their faith was active and not a “dead” faith. 


But Abraham was declared righteous (Genesis 15:6) long before he was called to offer his son Isaac on the altar of sacrifice many years later, as we read in Genesis 22.  


Our works have nothing to do with our being redeemed by the blood of Christ or our righteous standing before a holy God. 


“Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.”

Romans 4:6-8


“To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.”  Ephesians 1:6-7


Will Kinney


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