Four Reasons Why People Misinterpret James 2: “Faith Without Works is Dead”
Written by: Nathaniel Wall
James 2 is a key passage in the Bible. It is commonly misinterpreted. However, it can be easily understood. Here are 4 Reasons why people misinterpret James 2: “Faith without works is dead”.
#1. They forget about James 2:10 (this is crucial).
In James 2, the author is arguing against two forms of false Christianity:
A) Those who think Christians must earn salvation.
B) Those who claim to be Christian but act like the devil.
We will deal with the former now. In point #2 we will deal with the latter. When you approach James 2:10, it is important to remember James is addressing those who wrongly think a Christian must earn salvation. They believe they earn salvation by living religious law. However, James says…“For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” (James 2:10)
James wants us to recognize that it is impossible for you and I to earn our salvation. Why? To do so you would have to be perfect. To break one law is to be guilty of all of it. You can not earn your salvation. You can only be given salvation by faith through Jesus who paid for your sin (Ephesians 2:8-9). When you approach James 2, please do not forget about James 2:10. People who claim “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17) means that you must earn salvation often forget about verse 10. It is impossible to earn salvation.
#2. They overlook James 2:17-19 as about demonstrating faith, not earning salvation.
What evidence suggests someone is a Christian? James 2:17 starts to answer it for us: “faith without works is dead”. James 2:17-19 identifies that the only way you and I can determine if someone may be a Christian is based on what they believe and how they behave. While God knows what rests in every heart, you and I cannot examine a heart. We can only see the fruit of the heart. If you are a true believer in Christ, your life should give evidence.
This is exactly what James’ says. James 2:18 says, “Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” James isn’t saying you must earn salvation. James is explaining that people should demonstrate the evidence of their salvation. It is shown by what you believe and how you behave. He says “I will show you my faith” by how I live because it is a real faith. In the next verse, James wants us to understand our behavior flows from our belief. What you believe, you obey. James 2:19: ”You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.”
If you claim to believe in God but there is no evidence, do you really belong to God? There should be fruit from our faith. How else could you know I have trusted in God unless I show actions that demonstrate trust (1 John 4:20)? If point number two leaves you asking for clarity, James is with you. Look at the next point.
#3. They do not understand the example of Abraham.
When you read the example of Abraham, it is crucial that you understand all four verses (21-24). The first two verses show us how Abraham provides the evidence of his genuine faith. James 2:21-22: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected…” How did Abraham get to this place of Faith? By his works? No! James makes this point by quoting from Genesis 15:6 in James 2:23 “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,”
What is Genesis 15:6? This is the passage where the Lord makes a covenant with Abraham. God promises to make Abraham’s line into a people as numerous as the stars in the sky. How is God going to do this? Is it based on Abraham’s good works? Nope. In fact, if you read the story of Genesis 15, he gives Abraham this promise and then forces Abraham to fall asleep. God makes this covenant by himself without any good works from Abraham. Later, Abraham demonstrated his faith in God’s promise by obeying God.
James 2:21-22 reminds us of one-way Abraham showed the evidence of his faith. He offered up his only child as a sacrifice. He believed so much in God’s promise that he was willing to sacrifice his only child.
Now, I know this example of Abraham can open up all kinds of questions about sacrificing a kid. We will save that for later. For now, simply recognize Abraham’s faith. He did not earn the promise God gave to him. God gave it for free. However, he trusted it, and we know he trusted it by his actions. While God knows the heart, the only way you and I can see genuine faith is through action. If you don’t agree with my explanation, you should read the way Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 in Romans 4:1-5 and the next point James makes.
#4. They ignore the concluding example of Rahab the Harlot.
I am so glad James ends with Rahab. Why? If someone thinks James 2:17 means you must earn your salvation, all you must do is look at Rahab. How many good works did Rahab do? Verse 25: “In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” (James 2:25)
If you have gone through this blog and still think James 2 is teaching us to earn salvation, Rahab will cause you to think differently. Rahab makes it impossible to make “faith without works is dead” mean that you earn your salvation. The crowning example James ends with is a lady whose one good deed was that she stopped being a harlot for a night.
Please do not get me wrong. I do not want to degrade Rahab. I am a sinner too. When I get to heaven, my first suggestion will be that we change her last name. But seriously…. The Bible doesn’t give us an impressive list of good works for Rahab. Why? Because it does not take an impressive faith to save you. It just takes a small faith in a big and gracious God named Jesus.
No matter how small the faith, true faith will show evidence when it is in a God who so graciously gives us life. His love will change you for eternity.
I hope these points help all of us better understand James 2. We should all demonstrate our faith. We do not earn our salvation (James 2:10), but thankfully we can receive it through faith in a gracious God who died for us. Have you put your faith in him? PROVE IT! Lord willing, I too will show you my faith by my works.