When I was in elementary school, Chuck Taylor’s Converse All-Stars were the shoes to wear. So I begged my mom for some, and to my surprise, she agreed.
I couldn’t wait to get my own pair of the canvas high tops with the coveted star on the ankle. I would finally fit in!
When Mom came home with the shoebox, I was excited. And then I opened it. Inside were shoes that resembled Converse All-Stars, but were actually Chinese knock-offs.
It was close, but not quite.
The rubber tips were just a little too bulbous and clown-like. The soles lacked the black line running along the side. And instead of the Converse star on the ankle, there was a big letter “R.”
Far from helping me blend in, those shoes were going to doom me to ridicule. But despite telling mom that my future life and happiness were on the line, she said I was stuck with them. She bought what she bought and I should be thankful for what I have.
Well, I did get ridiculed. And I survived. But if I remember right, even though my shoes were obviously fake, no one ever called them “dead.” Death is not a metaphor for “fake” or “not genuine,” is it? Have you ever heard it used that way?
I also got to thinking about Mom, who went home to be with the Lord in December 2012. When I think about her, I definitely never think “she doesn’t really exist.” That’s not a synonym for “death” either, is it? If you have parents or grandparents who have died, you don’t say, “They don’t exist,” do you?
What does that have to do with James 2:17?
Recently, I was told (yet again!) that salvation can’t be by faith alone because James 2:17 teaches that faith without works is fake and that faith without works doesn’t really exist. But is that what James said? No. What he said was:
Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:17).
James said that [the] faith without works is dead. What does “dead” mean? Despite claims to the contrary, “fake,” or “not genuine,” or “doesn’t exist” are not within the meaning of “dead” (nekros). Here are some definitions of the Greek:
3498 nekrós (an adjective, derived from nekys, “a corpse, a dead body”)–dead; literally, “what lacks life”; dead; (figuratively) not able to respond to impulses, or perform functions (“unable, ineffective, dead, powerless,” L & N, 1, 74.28); unresponsive to life-giving influences (opportunities); inoperative to the things of God.
Here is Strong’s definition:
STRONGS NT 3498: νεκρός.
a. one that has breathed his last, lifeless:
b. deceased, departed, one whose soul is in Hades
c. destitute of life, without life, inanimate (equivalent to ἄψυχος):
a. (spiritually dead, i. e.) “destitute of a life that recognizes and is devoted to God, because given up to trespasses and sins; inactive as respects doing right”:
b. universally, destitute of force or power, inactive, inoperative
Notice that “fake” or “not genuine” or “doesn’t exist” are not part of the meanings of the word. Therefore they are not part of the meaning of James 2:17. That’s not James’ point. His point is not that, if you lack works, then you don’t have faith. Rather, what he means is something like this:
Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is lifeless (James 2:17).
Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is inactive (James 2:17).
Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is inoperative (James 2:17).
Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is without power (James 2:17).
I believe those translations make better sense of James.
After all, James is wisdom literature. The epistle is about going through life’s trials and coming out the better for it (see James 1:2-3). And for that to happen, you must put “the faith” into practice. You can’t just be a hearer of the Word, but must be a doer of the Word (James 1:22), otherwise your faith will lack power, will be inoperative, or will be useless to you during your time of trial.
The coronavirus is spreading and causing alarm throughout the world. It’s proving to be a major life trial. Do you want to get through this and be closer to “perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:4)? If so, then put your faith into practice.