Faith without works is dead?

I get verses from James fired at me like Bible bullets pretty often. The reason I get peppered with this "friendly fire" is due to the way that I talk about the Gospel. I'm unapologetic about the fact that salvation comes by faith alone. Jesus said it, the Apostles said it, and I'm saying it. However, there are a handful of misunderstood verses that get lobbed like grenades at those of us who claim that Jesus meant it when he said, "Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life." As if it's unthinkable that it could be that simple, a fistful of Bible shrapnel is packed into the canon of out-of-context contention and blasted at us constantly.

There are two verses that get tossed at us faith-alone folks all the time. So I decided to make an official response so that I would no longer have to repeat myself, but instead can just copy and paste.
The two verses that get thrown like a bucket of hot tar at free-gracers are James 2:19 which says, "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder." and the following verse "faith without works is dead."

These two verses are sighted as if they prove that Faith Alone is unable to save a person from Hell. So, yeah I want to respond to that.

I regularly talk about the fact that all someone needs to do to have eternal life is believe in Jesus. On this subject, I recently posted this statement.

"If you believe that Jesus can and will give you eternal life, before you can even ask, you have it."

Now, before you tar and feather me, you need to know that this idea is taken from the Bible. Here is just a short list of verses that clearly teach that belief is the one condition a person must fulfill to have eternal life.

Statements like the one I posted, bothers some people because they were taught that they needed to beg forgiveness for sins, repent, pray a prayer, walk an aisle, join the church, and about a dozen other things. Some of those things are biblical, but they are not conditions for gaining eternal life. It troubles me that this most basic and essential understanding of the gospel is being attacked from every side.

So, does the book of James really teach that salvation requires works. Let me save you a bunch of time and just tell the answer. No. Obviously, it doesn't. For those of you that are not convinced, keep watching.

Let's do the dirt work. What is the book of James about? The opening Chapter of James sets up a really important comparison between physical life and physical death. He defines his subject for the book and then expands for the rest of the book. He's speaking to believers. In other words, he's talking to people who have already believed in Jesus. They have eternal life.

So we find the first mention of his subject matter in chapter one. He says, "but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." - James 1:14

This is part of his thesis, so to speak. He's presented the problem. Sin, even for believers, can lead to death. Obviously when you read the verse you can tell that he's talking about physical death. He's talking about a life cut short by incessant sin. We have all known people who have proved this verse. I have had some friends who have passed away because they let their habits get the best of them. They were believers, but that didn't make them physically invincible. James is bringing light to this same point. If you drink a full bottle of Jack Daniels and climb behind the wheel of a car, you're probably going to kill yourself even if you have believed in Jesus for eternal life. You're eternally secure but physically you're going to be a grease stain on the asphalt. In a crude sense, that's what James is talking about. Sin can lead to your untimely death.

That's really dismal if it's all he had to say about it, but he offers hope for this situation a few verses later. He says, "Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you." - James 1:21. Here, when we read it as the opposite of what he has already said, there's no reason that we should think he is talking about being saved from Hell. In fact, the phrase he used here in Greek is "sosai tas psychas hymon." Some translations render this, "Save your soul" which further complicates the matter. However, it need not be complicated. This Greek phrase is used in other places in the Bible. Here are a few where we find this phrase, Gen 19:17, 32:30, 1 Sam 19:11, Jer 48:6, Mark 3:4, James 5:20 and Luke 6:9. There is not a single place in the entire Bible where this Greek phrase is used to mean "saved from Hell." Remember he's talking to believers who know how to get saved eternally because they already did it. Clearly, he means that someone can be saved from the death-dealing effects of sin in this life. I'm going to repeat myself because this is imperative if we want to understand James. This is the thesis chapter, and he's going to go on to explain how it works. Once more, "saved" in the book of James means "saved from physical death," Or said another way, "saved from an early death as a result of sinful lifestyle."

Let's jump to the spiritual mortal shells that I mentioned earlier. We'll find them in chapter two.
James 2:14 opens the subject of faith without works. To be clear what we are talking about is a person who has believed in Jesus, but does nothing to live a Christ-like lifestyle. James asks this famous question that many have misunderstood and stumble over even to this day. Here's what he says, "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?" - James 2:14. In Greek the implied answer is No. A faith without works can't save him. This sounds like a dead ringer. This sounds like it's clear cut. However, the original readers would not have gotten the same meaning out of it as a modern American. Why? Simple, the word "saved" doesn't always mean "saved from Hell." In our western churches, the Bible has been oversimplified. Preachers often flatten the words down that they can only have one meaning. The modern reader is preconditioned to think that anytime the Bible says "saved" it must mean eternal salvation. James' original readers would not have that problem. In fact, the word that James uses here, (Greek Sozo) is often translated as "delivered." So what would the verse sound like with this translation. "can such a faith deliver him?" Obviously, it opens up a wider range of meanings.

The question we need to be asking ourselves is, "save him from what." A moment ago we saw that James has physical death in his sights. He's trying to make sure that no one suffers the consequence of a physical death due to rampant sin. So when he asks if a workless faith can save him, that's what he's getting at. Still not convinced? Look at what he says next. "Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." -Jame 2:15 So, he uses the analogy of someone who is close to death. You pass a homeless person on the street who is in danger of starving and freezing to death. You do nothing about it. If you do nothing, that person will probably die. Notice that James says "In the same way." He reinforces the idea that he's talking about the physical consequences of sin, and lack of good works. Add to this the fact that we know that faith alone can save a person eternally. There are countless verses that tell us this like, John 3:36, 3:16, 5:24, 6:47 etc. etc. So, we are left with one conclusion. He is talking in practical terms about physical death. So faith alone can save someone eternally, as we see in Ephesians 2:8-9. but faith alone can't save someone from the effects of sin. To be saved from the effects of sin, you're going to need to take action.

Now notice James' words at the end of the phrase, "faith without works is dead." It's almost like saying, if you're unwilling to change your lifestyle, you're a dead man." That's only in the physical sense, not eternal.

For some reason a lot of people have gotten it in their minds that when James says that kind of faith is dead, he must mean it as a metaphor for eternal damnation. I'd challenge you to find that anywhere clearly spelled out in the chapter or in the book at all.  After all "dead" can mean a lot of things. Think about how many different ways it's used in English. "you're dead wrong." "His aim hit dead center." "He navigated by dead reckoning." and the list goes on and on. Greek is no different. It could mean a range of things. Even the Bible uses the word dead to represent a load of different ideas. It's ridiculous to say that James' use of "dead" can only mean eternal damnation. The book of James and the Bible as a whole just doesn't support that reading. In chapter one, here in chapter two, and in chapter five he's talking about real physical death as a result of sin. A faith that doesn't work is useless if your goal is to live a Christ-like lifestyle. Secondly, a faith that doesn't do work may put you in danger of actual death.

Now let's look at the "demons' tremble" verse. I think if most people realized what James was doing here, they would never use this verse to oppose faith-alone salvation. James 2:14 puts it this way. 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." You believe that God is one. Good for you! Even the demons believe that, and shudder! Notice where the quote marks are. Why is it in quotes? It's in quotes because James is speaking here as a hypothetical objector. It was a common rhetorical style of his time. It might be like a mother saying, "clean your room, Timmy. Now before you say, 'I don't have time' understand that I've been working all day and I don't want to hear it." That parent hypothetically predicts what her son will say when he's told to clean his room, and then she gives a rebuttal to the hypothetical objection. James is doing a similar thing. He is predicting what his opposition will say. Now remember that he's trying to convince lazy believers to get off their rumps and do something with their faith. The lazy believer responds with the words in quotes. It should be said that different English translations put the quotation marks in different places. What?!! You're probably thinking. They put the quotes in different places because the punctuation was not in the original Greek. The Bible translators had to guess where the punctuation goes. This is a case where many translators have guessed differently. In this case the place where you put the punctuation changes the meaning of the verse drastically.

So James is predicting what his opposition will say. If you guess wrong and end the quote too early, then it will seem as if James is speaking, when it's his hypothetical objector actually speaking. Secondly, if you end the quote too early, it confuses the entire section. So compare how it might change the meaning if we end the quote too early. I'll add names to the lines so that you can see whose speaking. This is how it is sometimes translated.

JAMES: But someone will say,
HYPOTHETICAL OBJECTOR: “You have faith; I have deeds."
JAMES: Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder."

Other translations render it this way.

JAMES: But someone will say,
HYPOTHETICAL OBJECTOR: “You have faith; I have deeds. Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds."
JAMES: You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

Even this reading, which many Bible translations use makes much more sense. There are yet other translators who have proposed this version.

JAMES: But someone will say,
HYPOTHETICAL OBJECTOR: “You have faith; I have deeds. Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder."
JAMES: O foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is worthless?

In the Greek manuscripts, there are no line breaks or punctuation. If we are going to guess on where to put the punctuation, then we ought to guess it in at the place that makes the most sense. The one that makes the most sense is the third one. Notice how it smoothly flows from the hypothetical argument, to James calling the hypothetical objector a foolish man. This quote break makes much more sense than the traditional two mentioned above. What this would mean is that this entire block of text, James is presenting as a "foolish argument."  So let's take a look at what James considers a foolish argument.

The hypothetical objector says, "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder." James immediately responds by calling the hypothetical objector a "foolish man."

Why is that a foolish argument? For one, there is no place in the Bible that says that angles or demons have a provision for salvation. Of course the outcome of their belief would be different. Secondly, the demons are immortal, they don't fear physical death as humans do, which is what James has his sights set on. Thirdly what he says the demons believe is not a saving faith. He says they believe God is one. Although monotheism is important, it's clear that the demons have not believed in the Savior and received eternal life. It's a foolish argument, James tells us. Certainly, he and the other believers he was writing to had heard this argument before. Here he is dismantling a tired foolish argument that was probably often quoted in their day. It's a surprise then that it's still quoted today.

So, here is the irony. The argument that is thrown at me for believing in a faith-alone salvation is actually an argument that James called foolishly. However, because of a few misplaced quotation marks, people have continued to use it. Their using it out of their misunderstanding, not because it's a good argument. It's time we put this argument to rest.

Now, if you're uncomfortable with moving quotation marks around, I understand. Though, you have to recognize that, in this case, it makes a HUGE difference depending on where the quote marks go. So, let's say you don't completely buy into my placement of the quotes, that's fine. We should at least agree that a verse whose meaning is unclear because of a grammatical confusion, should not be the one we base our theology on. If you can build a works-salvation theology on other verses, then I invite you to try, but I can't accept this verse as a support for works-salvation, since it's meaning, and the placement of the quote marks are disputed. I had a wise Bible professor once say, "We should not base a theology on a single verse, especially if that verse is not entirely clear." Since we don't actually know whether James is speaking this line, or his hypothetical objector is, it's safe to say that this verse is not entierly clear.

The last thing that I want to mention is that James clarifies what he means when he says, "faith without works is dead." He says it a second time in the following verses but the word "useless" replaces "dead." There are manuscripts that render it either way. So it is written this way, "faith without works is useless." Now, let's wrap up with this. What did we say one of James' main purposes for writing his book was? He wanted to warn believers away from the consequences of a life of sin, that is a life with no good works. He set the goal in the first chapter as "saving" the believer from the deadly consequences of a sinful life. Therefore, here, where we see him say, "faith without works is useless," a bell should be ringing. We should see that "faith without works is useless" in accomplishing the goal that he set out for the believers, that is to save their physical lives.
SO, I hope you can see that while these verses seem as if they are saying faith must be accompanied by good works for a person to have eternal life, which is not what they mean. Faith must be accompanied by good works if one wants to be rescued, delivered, or saved from the consequences of sin.  However, faith alone in Christ alone is the only way someone gains eternal salvation.