Faith vs. Works

Faith and Works in the Book of James

The New Testament Book of James has had a significant impact on Christian theology in its claim that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26 [New Revised Standard Version]).  Although the Epistle of James has not always been well received throughout Christian history, it has served as a continual reminder to Christians that belief must be accompanied by action.  James’ message that faith and works are intricately woven together has been instrumental in motivating many Christians towards social justice, and this teaching is as applicable to our world today as when it was written almost two thousand years ago.

The Doctrine of Faith and Works in James

The theme of faith is prevalent throughout the book of James.  James tells his readers that “the testing of your faith produces endurance” (1:3) and that they should “ask in faith, never doubting” (1:6).  Prayers of faith will even “save the sick” (5:15).  James wants to make clear to his audience, however, that faith is not merely intellectual belief.  James’ message that works are an important aspect of faith begins in chapter one, where he admonishes his readers to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (1:22).  According to James, “religion that is pure and undefiled…is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27).  James’ view of religion is active, not passive.  Christianity is not just about avoiding evil.   Christian faith includes doing good works.

James uses five examples to illustrate that works are indispensable to faith.  The first example is a brother or sister who is naked or hungry.  James asserts the meaninglessness of telling them to “’keep warm and eat your fill’” (2:16).  In this situation, as with faith, words must be accompanied by action to have any significance.  James’ second example is that of someone who believes the statement that “God is one.”  James argues that this is something that “even the demons believe” (2:19), but the demons’ belief is not accompanied by the appropriate actions.  Next James points to the Scriptural examples of Abraham who “’believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’” (2:23) and Rahab who was “also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers” (2:25).  His final example is that of a human body, which “without the spirit is dead” (2:26).  These examples lead towards the culmination of his argument, that “faith without works is also dead” (2:26).

The interconnectedness of faith and works extends into the areas of economics and power. Throughout the book of James there are several references to the rich and the poor, as well as warnings against showing partiality.  Believers who are “lowly” are to “boast in being raised up,” while those who are rich are to rejoice “in being brought low.” (1:10). Chapter five includes a sharp condemnation of those who are rich because of the way they have treated the poor (5:1-5). Believers are warned not to show favoritism to the wealthy or discriminate against those who are poor (2:1-9).  While these passages do not explicitly mention faith and works, one can conclude that James wants his readers’ actions to match their beliefs in every area of their lives.  Their faith should not only influence how they relate to God – it should impact how they treat others.

James’ Doctrine of Faith and Works in Christian History

The early church questioned the apostolic background of the book of James, but “its powerful moral exhortation was greatly valued.”[1] Augustine saw no conflict between James’ emphasis on works and Paul’s emphasis on salvation through faith, stating “Paul said that a man is justified through faith without the works of the law, but not without those works of which James speaks.”[2]  Origen referenced the Epistle of James in his commentary on the Gospel of John, asserting “if faith is mentioned but it lacks works, such faith is dead, as we have read in the epistle which circulates as the works of James.”[3]

The book of James was rejected by some of the Protestant Reformers and celebrated by others. The sharpest criticism of James came from Martin Luther, who famously referred to James as “an epistle of straw” and declared that “it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.”[4]  On the opposite end of the spectrum, Menno Simons, an early leader of the Anabaptist movement, referred to the book of James as a “highly important, zealous, and earnest epistle.”[5]  A famous quote by Menno Simons echoes the theme of faith and works found in the book of James: “For true evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it…clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed.”[6]

In more recent history, the book of James has had a profound impact on several of the social movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[7] Quoting James 3:17, African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “I love the religion of our blessed Saviour.  I love that religion that comes from above, in the ‘wisdom of God, which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.’”[8] Liberation theology owes much to the book of James as well.  “From beginning to end James has his eye on abuse of the poor, the injustices of the rich, the pride of the merchants, and the need to show mercy to those who are in need.”[9]  According to Elsa Tamez, “a Latin American reading of the epistle…fixes its gaze on the oppressed and dedicates long pages to them, their sufferings, complaints, oppression, hope, and praxis.”[10]

The Book of James for Today

Unfortunately, today many evangelical Protestants have followed Luther’s lead in neglecting, overlooking, or outright rejecting the theological emphasis of the book of James, particularly when it comes to James’ doctrine of faith and works.  Evangelicals have often interpreted Paul’s teachings on justification through faith to mean that good works are an unnecessary part of the Christian faith.  Rather than understanding that Paul and James provide helpful balance to one another, they have rejected James’ theology all together.  The separation of faith and works has led to a generation of believers who see no connection between faith and social action.

Many Christians are so concerned with having correct doctrine that they neglect the more important aspect of faith – correct action.  “James reminds us that…genuine faith is more than a matter of simply acknowledging the right concepts; it is right living in accordance with those concepts.”[11]  Rediscovering James’ theological perspective that faith and works are intricately intertwined would have a profound impact on not only individual believers, but churches, society, and the whole world.  According to Chester and Martin,

[James’ theology] can serve as an important corrective to the many aspect of the contemporary emphasis in western Christianity on spirituality.  In contrast to the individualizing and detached attitude to the world that this can easily lead to, James points the way to the essence of authentic Christian existence, in the living out of faith, self-giving love, and communal concern for others, especially the poor, outcasts, and despised.[12]

The dichotomy between faith and works has spilled out over into the political spectrum, where prominent Evangelical Christians even state their support of political candidates whose values are in direct contradiction to Scriptural principles.  In contrast to this, “James sounds a powerful call to make Christian faith consistent with the practice of justice.  His sensitivity to the economically marginalized and the vulnerable, his insistence that words of love issue in works of mercy, his analysis of the relationship between greed and military action, will all be challenging to wealthy Christians.”[13]

While many Evangelical Christians may be concerned that an overemphasis on the place of works in salvation or faith may lead people towards a works-based righteousness, according to Chester and Martin, “the real danger in interpreting James for the present-day is not that we might promote a crude or naïve theology over against the profundity of Paul, but that we explain away or diminish the full force of James too easily.  Christianity and Christian theology ignore the message of James at their peril.”[14]

We need to rediscover the message of James.  We need to reunite faith and works, correct doctrine and correct action.  We must clothe the naked, feed the hungry, care for the widows and orphans, and stand up for those who are oppressed.  James reminds us that followers of Christ are called to be much more than hearers of the Word; we are called to be doers.[15]


[1] A. Katherine Grieb, “Catholic Epistles: Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, Jude,” in The New Testament – Introducing the Way of Discipleship (eds. Wes Howard-Brook and Sharon H. Ringe; Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2002), 177.

[2] Gerald Bray, ed., James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude (Vol. 11 of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture; ed. Thomas C. Oden; Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 31.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4] Martin Luther, “Preface to the New Testament 1546 (1522),” in Prefaces to the New Testament (trans. Charles M. Jacobs; rev. E. Theodore Bachmann; Rockville, MD; Wildside Press, 2010), 10.

[5] Menno Simons, The Complete Works of Menno Simons (Elkhart, Indiana: John F. Funk and Brother, 1871), 111.

[6] Simons, Complete Works, 246.

[7] Mark Allen Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2009), 459-460.

[8] Frederick Douglass, “An Appeal to the British people, reception speech at Finsburg Chapel, Moorfields, England, May 12, 1846,” in Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings (ed. Philip S. Foner; The Library of Black America.  Abridged and adapted ed.; Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999), 37.

[9] Scot McKnight. The Letter of James (NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), 46.

[10] Tamez, Elsa. The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works Is Dead (rev. ed. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002), 21.

[11] Dan G. McCartney, James (BECNT; Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 2009), 3.

[12] Andrew Chester and Ralph P. Martin, The Theology of the Letters of James, Peter, and Jude (NTT; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 59.

[13] Grieb, “Catholic Epistles,” in Discipleship (Eds. Howard-Brook and Ringe), 178.

[14] Chester and Martin, Theology, 60.

[15] James 1:22.


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