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James now poses one of the most controversial questions. It is about the relationship between faith and works (law). James 2:14 says,
14 What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?
Those who have little understanding of the law often resolve this issue in their own minds simply by discarding James' letter altogether, thinking that it contradicts the teachings of Paul. However, such people also misunderstand Paul, thinking that Paul discarded the law. It takes a clear understanding of both Paul and James to arrive at the truth.
Like James, Paul honored and upheld the law, saying in Rom. 3:31,
31 Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.
Again, Paul says in Romans 7:12,
12 So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
Paul then confesses in verses 15-23 that he experienced a war between his flesh (old man) and his spiritual man (Christ in him). His flesh man desired to violate the Law, while his New Creation Man desired to be obedient to it. His conclusion is in verse 25,
25 ... So then, on the one hand I myself with my [spiritual] mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh, the law of sin.
Because sin is lawlessness (anomia), it is the old Adamic man of sin that desires to violate the law of God. It serves the law of sin. On the other hand, that holy seed residing in us, which has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, is perfect and, as Paul says, serves the law of God.
Paul had no intention of legalizing sin, as many have been taught. As Christians, who have died to the flesh and have been raised in newness of life, our works will be different from what we used to do in our past life of unbelief. Paul says in Rom. 6:19,
19 ... For just as you presented your members [body parts] as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness [anomia], resulting in further lawlessness [anomia], so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.
So Paul taught that after believers had received justification by faith, they ought to stop their lawless behavior. Their works ought to reflect their faith. This is called “sanctification,” and it is the next step after justification.
Is not this precisely what James was teaching?
If a man claims to be justified by faith, but there is no evidence of a change in his life, then his profession of faith is just empty words. The prophet Isaiah accused Israel of the same fault in Isaiah 29:13, which Jesus applied to the Pharisees of His own time in Matt. 15:7-9,
7 You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, 8 “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. 9 But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”
Those that Jesus called “hypocrites” are the ones Paul and James criticize as well. James then gives a simple illustration of such hypocritical behavior in verses 15-17,
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? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
Faith is necessary for justification; works (obedience to the law and the voice of God) are necessary for sanctification. Sanctification is the natural outworking of justification. Justification is the cause; sanctification is the result that provides evidence of a prior faith. Without the evidence of works, all professions of faith are hypocritical lip service. James issues this challenge:
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.”
Paul's concern was that men considered their works (including physical circumcision) to be a prerequisite to justification. James' concern was that men claim to have faith apart from any real evidence of sanctification in their lives. The two had no quarrel between themselves. The quarrel has been among their followers who have not truly understood either Paul or James.
19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.
The Jews were known for their belief in the great Shema that is found in Deut. 6:4,
4 Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God; the Lord is one!
This was and still is the great confession of faith in Judaism. James, bishop of Jerusalem, congratulates the people in his day for their confession of faith that God is one. Then he reminds them that “the demons also believe.” In other words, many in his day were making this great confession of faith, but they were being hypocritical about it (as Isaiah had prophesied and as Jesus had said). He was implying that their faith was insufficient, because it did not lead to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Even a demon can make a hypocritical statement of faith. Demons believe in God, too.
20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?
Every religion has faith, but only Christianity has faith in the value of what Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross. Faith with no object is worthless. Faith looks to someone or something to give it life. Faith in what? Faith in who? James understood that one must have faith in Jesus Christ, His death, resurrection, and ascension as the High Priest, King, and Heir of all things.
Many have had faith in Jesus as a prophet or a teacher or as a good man. Such faith is insufficient, regardless of their good intentions. James makes it clear that claiming to have faith in the God of the Bible is “useless” while rejecting Jesus Christ.
Before continuing with this discussion, we must comment on the word translated “useless” in the NASB. The Textus Receptus, from which the KJV was translated, uses the Greek word nekros, “dead,” both in verse 20 and previously in verse 17. However, other Greek texts were discovered later which consistently used the term argos in verse 20. The word means “barren, useless, idle, lazy, shunning the labor which one ought to perform.”
When there are textual differences, I use Panin's Numeric New Testament to resolve the difficulty. Ivan Panin checked the gematria of every word, paragraph, and book of the New Testament and saw that only the correct text retained the numeric patterns built into the text of Scripture. Any deviation destroyed these precise mathematical patterns.
Panin's text uses argos instead of nekros in James 2:20, so I believe that the NASB is correct in using the word “useless,” rather than “dead.”
In other words, faith without works is lazy, because it shuns the labor which it ought to perform.