James 2:14

Thursday, 11 July 2019

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? James 2:14

James is now going to discuss several verses on faith versus deeds. How these verses are interpreted sets the stage for how you believe your salvation is accomplished and completed in Jesus Christ. Also, these verses – in particular – provide a dividing line between Roman Catholicism and Protestant theology.

Did Jesus accomplish everything on our behalf in order to be saved, or do we need to “participate” in our justification before the Lord? And further, is “faith” considered a deed or not? The Roman Catholic Council of Trent in 1546 put their side firmly in writing. Here is one of the applicable canons –

Canon 24:  “If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.”

Roman Catholicism states that we can only preserve our faith by deeds. It implies that Jesus’ work was insufficient in and of itself to justify us and maintain our justification.

Protestants hold to biblical doctrine which states that man is justified by faith in Christ alone, but Roman Catholicism says that works are a cause of the increase of justification – without which one who has come to Christ can still be lost (“the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works”). In other words, and this is clearly stated by the Roman Catholic Church, that one must participate in their salvation – be it initial or continued salvation. As in everything dealing with the RCC, it is a “plus” religion – Jesus, plus Mary; faith, plus works; the Bible, plus the church decisions; etc.

Understanding this, attempts are made by protestants to weasel out of the words of James as well. They equivocate on the meaning of “works” in order to justify that James isn’t saying what he is saying. For example, the Pulpit Commentary says –

“The two apostles use the word ἔργα [with] different senses. In St. Paul it always has a depreciatory sense, unless qualified by the adjective καλὰ or ἄγαθα. The works which he denies to have any share in justification are ‘legal works,’ not those which he elsewhere denominates the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:22), which are the ‘works’ of which St. James speaks.”

This doesn’t resolve the matter at all. It further confuses it. This is because the issue at hand is not “works” but of someone being saved, which James states is what then justifies in verse 2:23. Whether these are legal works or so-called “fruit of the Spirit” works doesn’t change the matter of justification at all. Comparing Paul’s words with what James will speak of from now until the end of the chapter comes down to one thought, and one thought alone – “Is man justified by faith alone, or is he justified by works?” Or can it be that they are referring to two sides of one coin, faith being equated with the work?

If by faith alone, then what is James speaking of when he says, “works?” Because “fruit of the Spirit” works doesn’t really mean anything in justification. The reason for this is that if one has the Spirit, that person is saved (Ephesians 1:13, 14). So how can “fruit of the Spirit” works be the basis for justification – meaning being deemed righteous before God and thus saved?

And so James begins with, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” The word “profit” is found only in 1 Corinthians 15:32, here in James 2:14, and again in James 2:26. It signifies something heaped up or increased and thus, “cumulative advantage.” Can a person saying “I have faith” without there being some type of work to support it be a means of increase? From there, James defines what that “increase” or “profit” is – being saved. This is seen in the question, “Can faith save him?”

The question is, “Who is ‘him’?” It is almost universally accepted that “him” is referring to the person who has the faith. However, the Greek allows for it to be another. Instead of the individual with the faith, it is rather more likely speaking of the person who is in need of mercy. James 2 is speaking of the relationship of one towards another (verses 2-4; verse 6; verse 8; and then verse 13). The person in verse 13 failed to show mercy to another and thus gets no mercy.

Further, the word sózó, translated as “save” here does speak of salvation quite often, but it is also used in the gospels concerning healing (Matt 9:21, 22; Mark 5:23, 28, 34, etc). James will next speak of one who is in great need, and he asks if our faith alone can correct that need. When James says “profit” here, who is it that he is referring to? The answer is found in verse 2:26. It is not speaking of the profit of the one with faith, but the one who has the need. And so, in essence, James is saying, “Can my faith profit another? Or, do I need to demonstrate the faith I have in order for another to profit?”

James cannot be speaking of the profit of faith for the one with the faith because he himself has already told us that it does in Acts 15. Peter rose to address the council at Jerusalem and he stated, “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.”

Peter called out openly what Paul proclaims in Ephesians 2:8, 9. That a person is saved by grace, and that is through faith in what Christ did, not in our own works. James agreed to this and sent out a letter to the early church that the Gentiles were not bound to the law of Moses. He also gave several recommendations to the churches in order to keep the congregation out of a greater dilemma, but these were not points of salvation. Rather, they were things to be done because of salvation until the time that they could be more fully explained by the epistles.

Life application: If we are (as Paul says) justified by faith alone apart from deeds of the law (Romans 3:28), but James says that “a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24), then the answer to this issue must be based not on the type of works, but the impetus behind them. Consider this as you do your deeds before God. What is it that impels you to accomplish certain things, and what are you looking to obtain as a result of your works?

Heavenly Father, give us wisdom in discerning the truth of difficult passages in Scripture. At times, there are things which arise which are really tough for us to understand. May our doctrine be pure and may our hearts be in tune with living out the truth of Your word. This to Your honor and glory and to the saving of our souls. Amen.

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