By Kathryn Wright
Of all the passages in the NT, James 2:14-26 is the one we most frequently encounter in an adversarial way when we proclaim the message of grace. Sadly, many have fallen prey to works-based salvation due to popular misapplications of these verses. Because of these misunderstandings, if you teach that eternal life is a free gift and not by works (Eph 2:8-9), you will likely get asked about James 2.
This causes a conundrum for the evangelist. There’s a lot to cover when explaining James 2:14-26. For example, the words dead and justified need to be defined. The context of the book needs attention, as well as the use of the Greek diatribe––and those are just a few issues. Explaining James 2 can be daunting if we are seeking to evangelize someone who is struggling to understand the free gift of eternal life by faith alone in Jesus. Because it is a passage that deals with a mature Christian faith, when used in evangelism it has caused many unbelievers to stumble in coming to understand the simple teaching of eternal life by faith alone.
Last month, I was faced with this situation when two Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door. I attempted to share the message of eternal life by faith rather than by works (John 3:16; 5:24; 6:40, 47). Their response was to refute the grace message by quoting James 2. I explained the passage to the best of my ability. However, my response was confusing to the ladies on my front porch. I explained too much, and their eyes got glossy. They ended the conversation quickly and left.
As I considered this exchange, I was reminded of the importance of simplifying things. When it comes to James 2, how can Free Grace evangelists streamline the conversation in a meaningful way that clarifies the message and does not confuse the unbeliever?
As the old saying goes, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat!” I would therefore like to offer three options, each based on how much time you might have with a person.
OPTION 1 : THE TWENTY MINUTE CONVERSATION
In a situation, such as a Bible study, where the evangelist has the opportunity for a long discussion, a simplified approach would be to define the word save. Begin with a question:
“What does the word save mean in the book of James?”
This is an important question for any passage, but especially for James. The word save can mean different things in different books. Since the word occurs five times in the Book of James (1:21; 2:14; 4:12; 5:15, 20), the evangelist can walk the person through these examples. This does two things: First, it’s a simple concept and brings the conversation down to a single word. Second, walking them through each passage allows the evangelist to use a repetitive message, then just connect the dots. When trying to explain a difficult passage, repetition is a valuable tool. In the Book of James, all five uses of save refer to temporal deliverance from physical death, not to eternal salvation.
For example, 5:19-20 says:
Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a life from death and cover a multitude of sins. (emphasis added)
Here, James gives a scenario in which one believer saves another believer by turning him back from a lifestyle of sin. James, it should be noted, understands that true Christians can wander from the truth. This alone refutes popular misapplications of James 2. In addition, it’s clear that James doesn’t have eternal salvation in mind. The salvation described in v 20 is by means of another Christian. Since only Jesus can save a person from the lake of fire, James is obviously writing about a different kind of salvation. James tells us what kind of salvation it is when he says that it will save a person from death. In other words, in the Book of James save is dealing with temporal deliverance from physical death, not with eternal salvation from the lake of fire. When we live a righteous life, we can be saved from premature death.
OPTION 2: THE TEN MINUTE CONVERSATION
While defining the word save in James is simple, it does take time. What if you only have 5-10 minutes? In this scenario, I suggest going to verse 26, the conclusion of the passage. This narrows down the conversation to one verse and naturally summarizes James’s point, thus avoiding the evangelist’s having to exegete the entire passage.
In verse 26, James writes:
For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
James gives the reader an illustration of the role of works in the believer’s life. Unfortunately, many Bible teachers mix up the illustration. For example, proponents of Calvinism argue that James is saying that saving faith will automatically produce works. However, that is not what James teaches in this verse. Notice that James equates the body to faith and the spirit to works. In this illustration, the spirit (works) animates the body (faith). The spirit is what makes the body move. Therefore, works make faith move. Again, it’s important to notice that in this illustration James says that faith is the body. So, he is not saying that our faith produces works. He’s saying that our works animate our faith. The Calvinist has flipped the illustration. Verse 26 is the conclusion to the section on the role of works in the Christian life and is therefore essential to understanding the entire section. The point James is trying to make has nothing to do with saving faith. It’s about maturing in your faith as you exercise it with good works.
OPTION 3: THE ONE MINUTE SUMMARY
There’s a lot you can cover in twenty minutes or even in ten. However, what if you only have one minute on your front porch, as I did with the Jehovah’s Witnesses? What if you don’t have time to explain any of the specific details of James 2, but you want to give the person you are talking to something to ponder and something easy to remember? After my experience with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I came across a summary statement that I think would be helpful in this situation.
James isn’t teaching that works PROVE our faith.
He’s teaching that works IMPROVE our faith.
The evangelist can say that in less than 10 seconds and still get the point across. It’s short, it draws a contrast to what is typically taught, it’s a play on words, and it is also easy to remember.
Sadly, many think that works are necessary for salvation, or that works prove that you are saved. James 2 is often used to support this claim. However, that’s not the point James is trying to make.
In James 2, we are given the example of Abraham’s offering Isaac as a sacrifice. This event is known by most people who ask about James 2 and is therefore a great example to draw upon. Furthermore, it took place decades after the Lord declared the patriarch righteous by faith (Gen 15:6). Abraham’s obedience to the Lord is not given as proof of his salvation, but to show his maturity. Before this event, Abraham made a lot of immature decisions. He lied about the identity of his wife (twice!) to save his own skin. He was fearful and attempted to circumvent God’s plan by sleeping with Hagar. However, after decades of walking with the Lord, he faithfully obeyed when asked to sacrifice his beloved child. His faith had IMPROVED. In this passage, we see a man whose faith had grown. This was a unique moment in the life of Abraham. His works had matured to the point that he was willing to sacrifice the thing he loved most. This kind of maturity is not true of all believers. This is an example of spiritual growth, not proof of spiritual birth. His works didn’t PROVE his faith; his works IMPROVED his faith. Even the example of Abraham can be explained in less than 60 seconds.
Lordship proponents have a famous expression. They often attempt to explain James 2 by saying, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” In other words, if you are saved, you will have works. This expression has become so popularized and so ingrained in church culture that it is now commonly accepted by many as fact. This shows the power of a catchy phrase.
However, this runs counter to the teachings of the NT, including the Book of James. Works are not automatic, and maturity is a process and is not guaranteed. Abraham is the perfect example of this fact.
Lordship teachers have done a good job of simplifying their unbiblical position with this catch phrase. It’s short and gets to the point of their message without overwhelming the hearer. In the same way, Free Grace teachers might consider having a simplified summary that expresses, in a Biblical way, what James 2 is saying: Works don’t PROVE faith; they IMPROVE faith. GES has written several articles and blogs addressing James 2. For further study on this topic, check out our website at faithalone.org.
Kathryn Wright and her husband, Dewey, live in Columbia, SC. She is the GES missions coordinator, women’s conference speaker, writer, and Zoom teacher.