What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? (James 2:14)
That has been a question that people have argued over since God had James pen these words 2,000 years ago. It's a shame there is so much debate because the answer truly is simple. No, without works, faith cannot save a person. In the Greek language of the New Testament, when a writer asked a rhetorical question, such as James does here, he would tell the reader which answer he had in mind. There are two little words that we don't translate into English in these types of questions. One word meant the answer was yes, the other word meant no. In this passage the answer is clearly no.
That concerns a lot of people because elsewhere in the Bible, God emphatically states that we are saved without works. Here are just a couple of examples:
Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; (Titus 3:5)
and of course, the most famous Ephesians 2:8-9
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.
So, is there a contradiction in the Bible? Was there a division in the early church between James and Paul over faith and works? No, there wasn't. A lot of explanations have arisen from this passage. Unfortunately most of them are unhelpful and unbiblical. We will deal with the whole chapter over the course of several posts, but let's answer the most pressing question now. How can we be saved by faith alone and saved by faith plus works?
The answer lies where it always does when we study the Bible, context. The mistake that is often made with James two is that we divide the chapter into two different subjects and treat them separately. They are not separate. The chapter is dealing with one subject.
James begins by warning believers against favoritism. He sets up a scenario where a rich man and a poor man enter a church. The rich man is treated with enthusiasm and respect while the poor man is treated with indifference and insulted. This is a sin. James makes his case by anticipating the excuses we might use to justify such prejudice. "We are just loving others as ourselves", someone might say. That is fine, James answers, if it's true, but if you are playing favorites you will be judged by God's law, the Bible.
For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment. (James 2:13)
This Judgment James refers to is the chastening judgment of God. God does judge his children when they are in rebellion.
For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.
For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God...
(I Peter 4:17a)
This brings us to verse 14 which began our little discussion with the question can faith without works save you? Save you from what - eternal punishment in Hell? No, can it save you from the chastening judgment of God for your disobedience! The answer to that, is no, it can't. You can talk about your faith in God all you want but if you are not acting out your faith by loving all people without favoritism, you will face God's chastening. It's just that simple. People love to talk about what a great relationship they have with God while eagerly behaving in ways God condemns in HIs Word. You may be able to fool others with your spin job, but God is not fooled. You will be judged by His Word, not your feelings or intentions, not society or the latest "Christian" author/musician/movie. "Having faith" without acting out your faith in obedience to God is worthless in avoiding God's chastening. More on that, in another post.