Faith and Works: James 2:14-26
Many LDS refer to this passage – and most bring it up sooner rather than later. They especially like to cite verse 24 to support their belief that works are necessary for salvation: “Ye see then how by works a man is justified, and not by faith alone.”
This verse has caught many a Christian completely unawares. Some have never heard it, while others have heard it but have never understood it. The majority, therefore, are troubled by this verse or at least are uneasy when Mormons refer to it.
The goal of this post is to help you understand this passage so that you don’t miss a beat when Mormons introduce it. Before anything else it would be good to read James 2 in a modern translation. Have that translation handy as we work through this chapter. We have used the KJV because that is what Mormons use.
As always, the context is vitally important. Make sure to explain the importance of looking at a passage’s context to properly interpret it. Especially enlightening is verse 18: “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” These words plainly spell out that James is talking about, not how God recognizes who believes and who doesn’t, but how we recognize faith each other. It’s talking about how we show, or make apparent, our faith to other people.
It’s in that context that works are important because, unlike God, we can’t see faith. Faith resides in the heart and thus is invisible to humans. All we can see are evidences of faith. That’s the point of James’ illustration in verse 26: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” James compares faith to our spirits because both are invisible. Just like we know the spirit is still in a body if the body shows signs of life, so it is with faith. Faith makes itself visible through signs of life, through works.
But what is crucial to remember is that, although faith always produces works and thus faith and works go together, they are two separate things. It’s a matter of cause and effect. Spirit-worked faith in Jesus’ sacrifice for us is the cause of our salvation, while works are the result of our being saved. To put it another way, faith is the root and works are the fruit. And it’s devastating to mix the two. Paul brings this out in Romans 11:6: “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.” Mixing works with grace as a cause of salvation does nothing less than destroy salvation.
James does not contradict that in this second chapter of his letter. In fact, he reinforces that as seen in his use of Abraham as an example. In verses 21-23 he mentions two incidents from Abraham’s life. It is very important to see that he does not mention them in chronological order. He first talks about Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac – something that occurred decades after the event mentioned in verse 23. In verse 23 James quotes Genesis 15:6 – the significant verse that tells us when God justified Abraham (declared him righteous). By quoting Genesis 15:6 James is emphasizing that God had already declared Abraham righteous decades before his sacrifice of Isaac. In other words, God didn’t wait until Abraham had done this work to declare him righteous. He justified Abraham when he first believed decades before. Because God can see faith and because faith alone saves, God could do that. But we can’t see faith. Therefore Abraham’s subsequent sacrifice of Isaac made his faith complete in the sense that now Abraham himself, his contemporaries, and even we today, have this wonderful evidence that he believed God.
A good example is how an apple makes an apple tree complete; how it makes it easy for us to identify the tree as an apple tree. But the apple doesn’t make the tree an apple tree. Likewise we easily see that Abraham was a believer by his great act of faith.
The bottom line is that James agrees with the rest of the Bible. God declares us righteous or justifies us, on the basis of faith alone. Faith alone saves but faith is never alone. It always bears fruit. That is the testimony of Paul, James, John, and all the biblical writers.