Can Faith Without Works Save?
by Bob Wilkin
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?
This one little verse is used possibly more than any other by Lordship Salvationists to advance their case. In this article I will show why the arguments they use from this verse simply are not persuasive.
Professing Without Possessing?
Some argue that the word says in the concessive clause if someone says he has faith indicates that a false professor is in view. Someone says he has faith, but he does not.
The problem with this suggestion is that it has no support in the text. James nowhere indicates that the person lacks faith. In fact, James concludes v 14 by saying that although the unproductive brother has faith, his faith can't save him (v 14b).
Some will counter by saying that what James means is that the person claims to have genuine faith, when in reality what they have is false faith.
Some translations of the end of this verse read, "Can that faith save him?" (NASV) or "Can such faith save him?" (NIV).
MacArthur writes concerning this verse, "James describes spurious faith as pure hypocrisy, mere cognitive assent, devoid of any verifying works-no different from the demons' belief. Obviously, there is more to saving faith than merely conceding a set of facts" (The Gospel According to Jesus, 1st ed., p. 170).
Actually James did not use a demonstrative pronoun before the word faith. The Greek merely has the definite article. The noun faith occurs 11 times in vv 14-26. Of the 11 uses, 8 times James uses the definite article. Yet clearly in none of the other 7 places does it make any sense to translate the noun and article as that faith or such faith. For example, v 17, if handled the same way as some translate v 14b, would read, "Thus also that faith by itself, if it does not dead." Is there some kind of faith, then, that is not dead when devoid of works? Hardly. James's point is that faith without works is dead. Not some special kind of faith. So, too, in v 14 James's point is this: faith without works can't save. It is to this point that we now turn.
Faith Can't Save from Hell?
When Lordship Salvation advocates see the words save or salvation, they are often too quick to conclude that it must be talking about eternal salvation from hell. That is the case here.
There is no question but that James is asserting that faith without works can't save. The form of the Greek question expects a negative answer. Yet there is a question about the nature of the salvation under consideration.
About half of the NT uses of the words save and salvation refer to salvation from physical death, from disease, and from various temporal difficulties. That means that you are just as likely to find a given occurrence refer to deliverance from some problem in this life as to eternal salvation.
The word save occurs five times in James (1.21; 2:14; 4:12; 5:15, 20). In none of the four uses outside of our passage is eternal salvation in view. In his epistle James uses the word save to refer to deliverance from the death-dealing consequences of sin (cf. 1:15,21). A believer whose faith is not accompanied by works will not be saved from the consequences of his sinful behavior. He or she will experience difficulties which God sends. The purpose of these difficulties is to turn the believer back to the Lord.
Our verse is part of a paragraph that ends with v 17. After v 14 James gives an illustration about the importance of meeting the needs of our fellow Christians as we are able. Then v 17 summarizes the paragraph with the words: "Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead."
Verse 17 is seen by some to support Lordship Salvation. After all, James unequivocally states that faith without works is dead. If it is dead, they conclude, it must not be real (see, for example, MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 218).
This argument sounds plausible until it is examined. If this argument holds, then what James is saying is that faith without works is not faith at all since it is dead. That doesn't make sense. Are things which are dead unreal? Certainly not. The fact that something is dead indicates that the animating power is gone from it. So when faith is divorced from works, its power is gone. Faith comes alive as we do good works. Faith dies when we fail to do good works. James was not questioning the faith of his readers. He was questioning the usefulness of their faith ("What use is it, my brethren…" NASV; "What does it profit, my brethren ..." NKJV; "What good is it, my brothers…" NIV).
There is nothing in James 2:14 that supports Lordship Salvation. James is warning believers to put their faith to work so that they don't experience the painful consequences of sin.
Can faith without works save? Of course not. Sin never pays. Faith without works can't save you from the consequences here and now of your spiritual slothfulness. Proverbs 22:8 echoes the same basic sentiment, "He who sows iniquity will reap sorrow." Take care, believer, what you sow. While your faith in Christ guarantees you salvation from eternal judgment (John 3:18), it does not promise you salvation from the consequences of sin here and now.